Three people were caught in separate avalanches in the Chugach Mountains last week according to Alaska State Troopers and forecasters, including a heli-skier who died after snow pushed him into rocks and a snowboarder who recorded a slide on video.
Avalanche forecasters are warning of continuing dangerous conditions. The danger level in Turnagain Pass is expected to reach “high” on Friday following 1 to 2 feet of additional snow. That means human-triggered avalanches are very likely, according to the Chugach National Forecast Avalanche Information Center.
Friday’s deadly avalanche happened in a more remote area northeast of Anchorage, in the Lake George area near Knik Glacier, according to the company operating the heli-ski excursion, Silverton Mountain Guides. The company said in a statement that the skier killed was from Europe.
“The skier initiated a slide on his first turn similar to a typical Alaska sluff that entrained additional snow on the way down the run and grew in size,” company staff said. “The skier was pushed into a rock band where he sustained serious injuries.”
Troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel said in an email that the heli-skier was with a group of skiers when he was caught by the small avalanche.
“The guide reported that the male was responsive and conscious at the scene but injured,” he said. “None of the other people in the group were buried in the avalanche or injured.”
The man was flown by helicopter to an Anchorage hospital, McDaniel said, but died there soon afterward. His family has been notified, but his name has not yet been released.
Silverton said Friday’s death is the first fatality the company has experienced. The company began operating in 2008, according to its website. It has suspended operations this week and next week.
Another slide was reported Friday in the Tincan Library area southwest of Portage. A snowboard stuck in the slide recorded it. Observers who reported the incident said the snowboarder who triggered the slide was unhurt, although his avalanche airbag didn’t deploy.
“The snowboarder was caught and carried roughly 800 vertical feet but was uninjured and able to ride away,” center staff wrote. “The avalanche occurred on a slope that had been loaded by winds the previous day.”
In the third slide, which took place on Saturday near Girdwood’s Raggedtop Mountain, one of three skiers in a group triggered a wind-slab avalanche. The skier was caught and carried 30 to 40 feet, but was able to safely escape, according to observers.
John Sykes, a forecaster with the avalanche center, said that although the slides that struck the skier and snowboarder were both reportedly a foot deep or less, they can still pose a major threat to people.
“When you’re in really steep terrain, like where that video was taken, a small avalanche can have really high consequences,” Sykes said. “You can see if you’re just getting knocked over and you’re in a really steep area, you can get carried down the slope quite a ways and have more potential to hit something like a tree or a rock band where you could get injured.”
According to Sykes, avalanche danger has been considerable throughout the center’s forecast area due to layers of weak snow buried in this season’s dense snowpack. Combined with high winds, that means staff have been receiving reports of avalanches in relatively uncommon areas.
“Higher-elevation areas are tending to be more dangerous because of the recent winds,” he said. “But that weak layer that we’re talking about, that’s buried about one to two feet in the snowpack right now, is actually a problem at all elevations.”
The heli-skiing death occurred outside the center’s forecast area, Sykes said, and he couldn’t comment on exact conditions in the area. However, he said, people traveling in Southcentral Alaska’s backcountry should be aware that they can readily reach areas just as dangerous.
“We’re unique in that way in Alaska, where you can just walk two miles from Turnagain Pass and be in this really extreme terrain,” he said.
Sykes said people should follow standard avalanche safety tips such as checking snow conditions at a destination and leaving a trip plan with someone before going, as well as bringing avalanche airbags, beacons and search probes.
He said the weak snowpack means people should also watch for surface cracks from glide avalanches – where an entire snowpack has moved down a surface – as well as avalanches potentially starting from treeline openings and lesser inclines down to 30 degrees.
“We have seen some avalanches in that kind of terrain recently, so kind of good to be on your guard a little more than normal,” he said.