Monday avalanche buries highway near Summit Lake

An avalanche over a road as seen from a windshield
Avalanches on state highways are relatively rare. The Department of Transportation blasts sites to set off controlled avalanches and prevent larger, uncontrolled avalanches from hitting the highway. (Courtesy Hannah Etengoff)

For four and a half hours Monday night, the only road to the Kenai Peninsula was blocked in both directions by an avalanche near Summit Lake.

The avalanche hit around 4:20. Hannah Etengoff was driving back home to Kenai with her husband and dogs.

“Maybe about a mile ahead of me I see what at first I thought were clouds moving down the mountain,” she said. “And then I thought, ‘Well, actually that kind of looks like an avalanche.’ Then I was like, ‘No, it’s clouds.’”

It was an avalanche, between 4 and 6 feet deep and 200 feet wide. Etengoff and the cars ahead stopped. A truck ahead was swept up.

“I saw the driver get out and he was giving everyone thumbs up,” she said.

No one was hurt. Etengoff and her family had just been to Anchorage for a trip to Costco, so they had plenty of snacks while they waited for help to arrive. A person in one of the parked cars brought around pizza for others who were waiting.

Avalanches on Southcentral highways aren’t very common. Department of Transportation Spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said this incident was one of just a few that’s led DOT to close the road in recent years.

She said it’s partly because DOT’s avalanche team, based in Girdwood, sets off controlled avalanches with a howitzer cannon to prevent larger, uncontrolled avalanches from hitting the highway.

“There’s a reason why we have a team of avalanche specialists, because avalanches used to hit the roads frequently, and it would really be disruptive,” McCarthy said.

The Summit Lake area is a less common avalanche area and isn’t blasted as frequently as others, McCarthy said. 

The Seward Highway incident was one of several high-profile avalanches in Southcentral this week. On Friday, a small avalanche blocked the road to Hatcher Pass, near the Gold Mint trailhead. Separately, a Fairbanks skier died in an avalanche while heli-skiing near Matanuska Glacier this weekend.

Forecaster Andrew Schauer from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center said it’s a coincidence.

“That was something that I was thinking about immediately but really the snowpack between what’s going on at Summit Lake and where the avalanche fatality was, it’s two completely different things,” he said.

He said the information on this avalanche is limited since the center hasn’t been down to investigate the area yet.

“It was a little bit surprising that that happened yesterday,” Schauer said. “What we do know is for the past few months, we’ve had these weak layers, persistent weak layers, we call them, buried in the snowpack that have been sort of alternating between being reactive and dormant, off and on.”

As the weather is getting warmer, those weak layers can become reactive again.

Another potential factor is there were strong winds Saturday near Summit Lake.

“That may have played a role, too,” he said.

Schauer said he thinks people can expect more avalanches as the temperature warms and the snowpack continues to change.

Before DOT opened the highway again Monday night, it blasted the area to bring loose material down. McCarthy said the team from the Silvertip Maintenance Station, which was brought back online last month, cleared the roads.

“They’re the ones that did all the cleanup,” she said.

Around 9 p.m. Monday, the cars waiting were waved through. Etengoff and her family got home around 11:30. 

“All in all, everyone was safe,” she said. “Everyone got to go home safe. We got to experience an avalanche, which is now something I guess I can tell stories about.”

They were tired, but OK.

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