The Alaska Range. Jeremy Allyn photo

AAS— Who we are. Where we are going. Blaine Smith interview

2016 marks the 40th anniversary — in all its different iterations — of the Alaska Avalanche School. We are among the oldest avalanche and snow safety schools in the U.S.

In celebration of our upcoming anniversary, we’ve decided to profile a number of staff over the coming season. These folks are the current core, a few beacons from our past, and those that represent our shining future. Sharing with you who we are serves the dual purpose of showing you where we have come from and where we are going.

We also want to use “Medium” as a platform to discuss current snow safety research, decision making while traveling in avalanche terrain, and the overall state of avalanche education.

Engage with us by using the space at the bottom of our posts to write a response. Or maybe you have a question you want answered, or stories you want to hear? Jump in and make your voice heard. Share these posts. And stay tuned throughout the winter for exciting news from the Alaska Avalanche School!

Blaine Smith: Board President, former ED, Instructor, Guide, Mentor, Trail Builder

Blaine Smith photo

Born and raised in Alaska, Blaine started guiding hiking trips in the Talkeetna Mountains and glacier hikes in the Chugach Mountains in 1987. He has worked as a mountain guide for over 20 years, guiding primarily in the Alaska Range and the Andes; as well as taught mountaineering for the University of Alaska and avalanche safety for Alaska Pacific University. Blaine started with AAS under the tutelage of Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston in 1989. After teaching thousands of students about avalanches and decision making in the backcountry, Blaine is more enthusiastic than ever to empower people to safely enjoy the backcountry. Blaine has been published in Accidents in North America, The Canadian Mountain Guides Journal, “Lessons Learned II: A Guide to Using Case Studies in Outdoor Education” and the International Technical Rescue Symposium Proceedings.

Blaine lives with his wife Deb in the mountains outside Eagle River and has worked for Alaska State Parks as a trail planner for the last decade.

This interiew was held at our Anchorage office on 11/24/15 by Jeremy Allyn, AAS Executive Director and staff members Nick D’Alessio and Marne Lastufka.

JA:

You and Nancy Pfeiffer are AAS’s longest standing members. What’s it been like to have been present through all of the major transitions of the school?

BS:

To see the way staffing has changed, the way the business has changed, the way technology has changed, the way our students have changed over the years is pretty remarkable. Things are way different now, in all those respects than the way they were when we first got started. The school is much more mature now, more of a business now than it ever was. Before it was just a bunch of friends concerned about education and getting together to put on a good show. Now I think we are a lot more introspective and we try and stay on the cutting edge. I’ve got to ski with some really talented avalanche people and it’s been a lot of fun.

JA:

Your term as President of the school’s Board of Directors ends this coming January. How are you feeling about that?

BS:

Good. I’m psyched to have it take the next step. I always had this vision that it would pass beyond me, to the next generation. I feel like I’m kind of the second generation of the school. It’s just Nancy and I [left]. And I’m the only one now involved with the management…once I’m gone there will be a pretty clean break and it will pass on to the next folks. One of my goals when I became Executive Director was to make sure that it was a community organization, as opposed to a personality driven thing. When we were first working, it was like: “O, you work for Doug and Jill.” And then it was, “O, you work for Nancy.” Or, “ you work for Blaine.” I wanted it to become “O, you are working for the Alaska Avalanche School.” I wanted the name recognition to change to the “school.” The “school” obviously has more life, more longevity, than any individual could have.

JA:

You’re known for your colorful and animated language, as well as your gift for storytelling. What’s the role of storytelling and personal experience for an avalanche educator?

Blaine Smith employing the “Head Penetrometer” snowpack test. Kip Melling photo

BS:

I often say — weather, terrain, snowpack — you can teach a monkey those things. What it really takes to be safe in the backcountry is to be a human being. To be humble…not only that the avalanche doesn’t know you are an expert, but to be humble with everybody. Truth comes from all sorts of different people. I think that to be able to listen, to communicate well, to do all those sorts of human kinds of things are the nub of outdoor safety — whether you are talking about general safety or avalanche safety.

JA:

What’s been your favorite topic to teach in avalanche courses?

BS:

I like terrain management or decision making. Those are my two.

JA:

Your wife, Deb Ajango, is a leader in the field of risk management. I’m sure you’ve gleaned a tremendous amount from her that has helped make AAS what it is today. Where do you two differ on risk?

BS:

That’s pretty tough. We don’t differ very much, really. In our personal lives I’m certainly much more of a risk taker than she is. But how we feel about managing risk, program wise, I think we are pretty similar. We went through similar circumstances…with the deal with her at the University…she was right in the middle of it and she felt it very personally and profoundly, but I was hip to what she was going through. I see risk management much more wholistically than I did before. At first it was much more of a “you hire good people and then trust them” kind of a thing. But now the analogy I like to use is that a good program supports their instructors just like a good plan supports a good carpenter. If you want to be a good carpenter, it really helps you to have a good plan, good ground to build on, good people to help you. If you’re a sub, you have to have a good general. Or if you’re the general you have to have good subs. So, nobody exsists all by themselves. It has to be, ya know, the whole package? I’m much more into the pre-planning process. I know that I think much more effectively in an emergency if I’ve thought about it ahead of time…That doesn’t tell you how Deb and I differ [….laughing]. She’s smarter than I am… […laughing] and much better lookin’ too!

JA:

What kind of mentors have you had in your life?

Lower flanks of Mt. Foraker, Alaska Range. Jeremy Allyn photo

BS:

One guy that I’ve really admired a lot and who has mentored me is, Brian Okonek. That guy has forgotten more about the Alaskan Range than I’ll ever know. I always enjoyed his company because even though I don’t have near the experience or depth of knowlege that he does, if I had a question, or if I was a little doubtful, he would always entertain my thoughts. He would always be open to suggestions and we could talk it over. He was never the type of guy who would stand on his superior experience or knowledge and say, “no, this is what we’re gonna do.” I think it did make him safer. Nice people do get into trouble. But ya know…somebody who is going to be substituting certainty for being right, or volume for knowledge, or one of those other cliches I like to use…I think [he] is going to have a harder time in the backcountry than someone who is open to talking about it.

JA:

When someone uses the term “community” what does the word conjure up for you?

BS:

Now, I’m pretty deeply involved with [building] trails. The idea of community has a lot of different levels to it. It varies not only in the ever widening circles of people that you deal with, but also it also transcends time as well. For the Avalanche School…it’s the immediate community, my friends, the people that I recreate with, the people that are in the same kind of ski circles that I inhabit. But then beyond that, there’s all the people that are starting to get into it, they’re starting to explore the outdoors and establish a lifestyle that I think has great value. There’s lots of great things that come from being active in the outdoors, especially in a state like Alaska where it’s dark, it’s cold…you’ve got to be outside if you are going to have the mental health that’s requisite to a healthy life. There’s all those people that are coming up and looking to the school, to our instructors, to get the skills that will empower them to be able to get out into the outdoors, to get good exercise, to make good friends, develop their character, and care about the environment — all those things are really important. But then there’s another part of it…and I feel pretty strongly about this…there’s this temporal thing…there’s generations of people yet to come that are going to be influenced by not only what we are teaching today, but what we are enabling to be taught tomorrow. By keeping something going today, and passing it on to another generation, and supporting that generation so that it can continue on in perpetuity, [that] enables these communities of people that we don’t even know right now to be empowered to do the things that we enjoy so much. I think that something like a “school” can transcend time.

JA:

Is the Alaska snow and avalanche community healthy?

BS:

On an interpersonal basis I think we are doing well. I think where we need to work is once we get a little more into the program or organizational level there are some dysfunctions in the avalanche community statewide. But I can tell you that when I see those people that we have dysfunctions with…I think we are all after the same thing. We have different paths to get there and sometimes those paths might collide a little bit. But I don’t doubt the sincerity of anybody that’s involved with avalanche edcuation or avalanche safety. I think that there’s probably a lot of bridges to be built, just on all the commonalities we all have. I wish I had more energy, more time…that’s one thing I do feel acutely…that I just don’t have enough time…to do everything that I’d like to do. Ya, it’s impossible to do everything.

Blaine Smith photo

JA:

Years ago you skied “Todd’s Run” (a line at Turnagain Pass named after Todd Frankiewicz who was killed while skiing it in 1988) with a group of Level 1 students. It was on the last day of the course and I remember the snowpack being quite variable and the hazards not particularly recognizable. As an instructor, what was that experience like?

BS:

We skied down it…it was great. It was one of the highlights. I had a good group. They were highly skilled in their skiing abilities. We had a few different ideas of what we were gonna be up to, but I didn’t really know if we were going to be able to ski Todd’s Run. Part of the thing with the Avalanche School…I’ve always felt like if the conditions are OK, and it’s within your ability level, then go ahead and ski it. If it’s good to ski, then it’s good to ski! That’s the idea of experiential education…you don’t fake it. It’s the real thing, ya know? We were going up the ridge, stomping on rolls, just doing exactly like we teach ’em. Everything we did…it was showing that on that particular aspect, that particular slope angle…everything was a go. So you end up with all this “go, go, go” and then what do I tell them? “I know you guys could ski this…but we’re not going to ski this because…” Because, why? Are we here to do what you would normally do in life, or are we faking it?

JA:

In 10 years, what will the Alaska Avalanche School look? What do you hope to be doing?

BS:

I think it’s going to be even better, it’s gonna improve. I think all the challenges that we’ve gone through in the past…we’ve surmounted those, and we’re going to surmount the current ones. All of those have made us stronger. The challenges that Nancy, Kip and I and Marne…when we were first getting away from Doug and Jill…we managed to get through those. And the school was stronger at the end of it. We’ve come a long ways. But, if you’re a builder you’re prone to see what you haven’t done, as opposed to what you have done. There’s always something else to be done.

. . . .

Alaska Avalanche School, 2015

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