Fluctuating Juneau weather set the stage for an avalanche at Eaglecrest

an avalanche at Eaglecrest Ski Area
Eaglecrest ski patrol surveyed the East Bowl Chutes following a large avalanche on Jan. 26th, 2023. (Photo courtesy Dave Scanlan)

The upper-mountain at Eaglecrest Ski Area in Juneau was closed on Friday following a large avalanche Thursday morning. No one was hurt, but the area above the Hooter lift will remain closed as the ski patrol works to address potential hazards.

The slide dropped about 6 to 7 feet of snow over a 100 yard swath in the East Bowl Chutes.

“It’s very rare, actually, that we have this size of an avalanche occur within our boundaries,” said Eaglecrest General Manager Dave Scanlan.

At the time of the slide, the area was closed, along with many of the mountain’s steeper, avalanche-prone slopes. The slide wasn’t human-caused, but Scanlan says there are some die-hard backcountry skiers who still venture out into closed areas.

Alaska SEADOGS, Juneau Mountain Rescue and the Alaska State Troopers were called to assess the scene, and confirmed that there wasn’t anyone in the debris. Poor conditions have kept many skiers off the mountain this week.

“We didn’t see any evidence of skiers coming in and out,” said Scanlan. “But it’s a great training opportunity and kind of a standard protocol within the ski industry.”

He added that ski patrol would be out on the mountain again Friday to mitigate ongoing slide hazards. They’ll examine the snow layers and deploy avalanche explosives to create smaller slides that will stabilize the snowpack.

Avalanche conditions change rapidly depending on changing temperature, moisture or winds. A week of active weather set the stage for the slide.

Heavy snow last week was followed by a tropical front that brought several days of warmer weather and heavy rains. That added significant weight to the existing snowpack, and weakened the bond between snow layers. Eaglecrest closed altogether this past Wednesday due to rainy conditions, and the upper mountain terrain remained closed to allow that extra moisture to drain.

But Scanlan says it’s not just this week. Frequent fluctuations between warm, rainy weather and colder, snowy weather this winter have created a relatively weak snowpack at Eaglecrest, and across the urban slide zones too.

Each storm creates a different layer in the snowpack, and the frequent freeze-melt cycles this year have created thinner, weaker, less defined layers, especially lower in the snowpack. This makes them more unstable and prone to slides.

Scanlan says it’s raised concerns for slides of all kinds this winter.

“All the avalanche professionals are talking about this,” he said. “It’s a little more uncommon. Typically our region has a much more cohesive total snowpack with less layering in it.”

He says that colder temperatures heading into the weekend will help to stabilize the snowpack and lower avalanche risk.

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