Story last updated at 1/28/2009 - 11:05 am
JUNEAU - In light of Juneau's power crises, most attention is focused on immediate issues like rate changes, repair timelines and ways to conserve energy.
Meanwhile, avalanche experts like Bill Glude do much of their work far from the public eye. Glude is with Alaska Avalanche Specialists and is one of several avalanche whisperers hired by Alaska Electric Light & Power last April for avalanche forecasting and control at Snettisham. The teams rotate in and out of the site in shifts, but there is always at least one person monitoring conditions 24 hours a day.
Glude said it is very difficult to find qualified people in this line of work, so in September they went through the professional network and hired their staff for this winter.
"There are only a handful of us around the country and most of them are lined up for work quite a ways in advance," Glude said.
The team is often awake before daybreak and their daily tasks depend totally on the weather. If there is new accumulation of snow that will require bombing, they will often be up at 3 or 4 a.m. assembling charges to be delivered at first light. However, after a clear night with below freezing temperatures, they carefully monitor the weather to see what is coming next. The avalanche team's main concern is protecting existing lines and stabilizing the repair area so that the crews can continue to work safely.
During off time, workers have access to satellite Internet, a library of novels, a pool table, television and a fully stocked kitchen. However, Glude said there isn't a whole lot of leisure time.
"Our crew tends to go skiing if we have some time off," Glude said. "We have to stay in shape to do our job and if we stay around camp on slow days eating, that doesn't accomplish that. Last night we were out snow-kiting, using a couple of kites to pull us up and down the runway."
The avalanche team consists of a handful of other members from outside of Alaska, one from the Tetons and one from Telluride, Co.
"People like to come to Alaska," Glude said. "They want to see the weather show here. Southeast Alaska is probably one of the best places to learn about snow because we get everything in terms of weather. It's a good area for training people."
Glude is very active in the worldwide avalanche community. He is the treasurer of the American Avalanche Association, which works closely with the Canadian Avalanche Association. Every other year, there is an international conference where specialists can present papers and research on their observations.
Although Glude has tasted snow from all corners of the world, he said that snow is pretty much the same no matter where you go.
"I go to different places worldwide and it seems really exotic until I stick my nose in the snow and feel totally at home," Glude said.
So what does it take to be an avalanche expert? With such extreme, remote and risky conditions, the work environment naturally produces creative and self-sufficient people. Glude said most folks he has encountered in the field are forced by the nature of their work to think rationally but also act intuitively at the same time.
"It's common to find people who are total computer geeks ... and yet at the same time those people are artists," Glude said. "Whereas most people tend to be one or the other, avalanche people are often both, because you have to develop both sides of your brain. You have to be able to trust, but also back it up with science."
Though he spends his days scaling cliffs and dropping explosives out of helicopters, Glude wouldn't call himself a thrill seeker. He said he likes the activity but not too much thrill.
"My job is about avoiding thrill," Glude said.