Two people were caught in Southcentral Alaska avalanches on Saturday, but suffered only minor injuries. The slides, in the Hatcher and Turnagain Pass areas, come near the end of an avalanche season experts say is notable both for its heightened danger and lack of deaths.
The latest forecasts from the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center and the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, issued Saturday and Tuesday respectively, call for moderate danger of slab avalanches at all elevations.
The highest fall in Saturday’s slides occurred shortly after noon in the Captain’s Chair formation of Turnagain Pass. Four people snowmachined up the 4,300-foot ridge to ski down the chair’s northwest face one at a time, according to the Chugach information center.
The second skier triggered a roughly 200-foot-wide slab avalanche, and tried to ski right to escape it – coming within 10 feet of its edge before being struck.
“They tumbled (about 2,000 feet) down the face, through and over rocks and over one large cliff band lower on the slope,” center staff wrote. “Both skis ejected at some point along with one glove. During the fall, the skier was sucked under the moving debris at times and snow was being forced into their mouth, which they had to clear with a hand multiple times. The skier’s GPS recorded a speed near or just over 40 mph.”
The skier deployed an avalanche airbag – designed to keep the wearer’s head above the snow – and wasn’t buried in the slide. Photos the skier shared with the center show a helmet damaged in the sudden descent.
Wendy Wagner, the Chugach center’s director, spoke with members of the group after the avalanche. She said Monday that their preparations, beyond carrying avalanche beacons, snow probes and shovels, were a key factor in the skier’s survival.
“They had taken great precaution to assess the snow they were on and to go expose one person at a time, so if an avalanche is triggered, there’s only one person involved – and not more than one, which was great,” Wagner said. “And then having all the rescue gear was another piece that they all had. They had radios, so they could all communicate.”
Slide caught on video near Hatcher Pass
Just three hours later, an avalanche at the April Bowl near Hatcher Pass was triggered by a skier making a jump. The slide was recorded on video and shared with the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center.
“The skier-triggered avalanche sympathetically triggered a separate avalanche (to the left of the video view) at 3:23 p.m.,” center staff wrote. “The camera man was sitting on his snowmachine and got carried and fully buried by the first avalanche. The victim was dug out promptly within minutes and sustained minor injuries as far as we know.”
The avalanche carried the man roughly 50 yards in the snow.
In a “near miss” the same day, the third of a trio of skiers on the south face of Hatcher Pass triggered a 300-foot-wide slab avalanche but “was miraculously able to ski off the slab” according to center staff. Debris from the slide filled a gully, then ran about 50 feet up its other side.
Allie Barker, the Hatcher Pass center’s avalanche specialist, said the skiers limited their exposure in that slide by making their descent one at a time and heading to a safe area on the slope’s right. She said more people were in danger during the April Bowl avalanche.
“Unfortunately, two people were exposing themselves at the same time and so therefore, one was able to ski out while the other one was caught, carried and buried,” Barker said.
Unusual weather, heavy snow changed Southcentral slides this year
Wagner said the Chugach backcountry saw major snow dumps around Thanksgiving and in March that buried potential avalanche layers. Those hidden layers of snow could cause slab avalanches weeks or even months later with even minor disturbances.
“(It was) to where humans – just the weight of a human – was able to trigger very large avalanches,” Wagner said.
Barker said Hatcher Pass saw an early-season 4-foot snow dump, followed by two months of relatively light snowfall then a 30-inch storm. Combined with a relatively warm season, the pass hasn’t seen massive slab avalanches typical for the area.
“In fact, it was quite the opposite and more representative of a maritime snowpack this year, which is very unusual for Hatcher Pass,” Barker said. “And that’s why with this last big cycle, you saw a lot of avalanches, but not running nearly as far and as large as we’ve seen in the past.”
According to Barker, the season’s weather left the two avalanche centers largely facing each other’s traditional concerns this year.
“It was a little flip-flopped,” she said.
Southcentral sees more danger but no deaths this year
Wagner estimated that the Chugach National Forest has seen about 50 human-triggered avalanches this season. Some, including a February slide in Turnagain Pass which left a skier with broken ribs, have been more serious.
“I would say on the order of 10 that were quite scary and on the order of five where people were caught and carried and either partially buried or ended up on top,” she said.
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Despite the differences in snowpack, Wagner said nobody has been killed by avalanches in the region this year. The highest-profile recent slide happened on Jan. 17, when an avalanche buried Alaska Railroad tracks near Girdwood and derailed a freight train. There were no injuries.
“Being in that terrain is risky behavior from the beginning,” Wagner said. “And so anytime you go into steep mountainous terrain, climbing or snowmachining in any number of ways, we just know things can happen, and that’s just the inherent dangers of being in the mountains.”
At Hatcher Pass, Barker said the number of human-triggered avalanches was down this season. She credited the lack of deaths there to more educated users making more educated decisions as well as the safer snowpack, based on her feedback from talking to visitors.
“It seems like the work that we’re doing is making a difference in saving lives,” she said.
What to expect as the season winds down
Both the Chugach and Hatcher Pass avalanche centers are scaling back their forecasts, as are local officials in Juneau as the traditional avalanche season comes to an end. Barker said the Hatcher Pass center, which relies on donations to fund its operations, is planning to make another avalanche forecast this weekend.
Wagner and Barker said visitors can expect more slab avalanches into spring, as melting snow becomes heavier and wetter.
According to Wagner the winter’s heavy Chugach snow load may persist into the summer, posing a potential threat to hikers in areas like Crow Pass, Powerline Pass and the Byron Glacier Trail.
“Those summer hiking trails can really be threatened and sometimes people don’t understand the risks they’re taking by going on the trail,” she said. “Because it might seem nice and warm in the parking lot, but it can be quite dangerous.”