At a time when few people are worrying about the danger of avalanche in the nearby wilderness that surrounds the 49th state’s urban core, the Chugach National Forest is worrying about the dangers of avalanche.
Officials warn that an unusually mild winter at lower elevations coupled with a near normal winter at higher elevations has set up a situation that could allow access to avalanche dangers usually beyond the reach of all but hardy hikers on snowshoes.
Just because trails are free and ice of snow doesn’t mean they are safe, rangers says. It pays to look high, high above.
“We get these awfully big (avalanche) paths,” said Graham Predeger, an avalanche forecaster with Glacier Ranger District. It is not unusual for avalanches to run for thousands of feet in the Chugach and Kenai mountains and leave piles of rubble tens of feet deep in deposition zones sometimes near sea level.
Anyone caught beneath an avalanche of that magnitude has little chance of survival even if they happen to be with friends with a shovel.
“Have you been through Turnagain Pass lately?” Predeger asked. “It looks like a bomb went off up there.”
A lot of snow has come down from the slopes above the popular ski and snowmachine area along the Seward Highway about 60 miles south of Anchorage, but a lot remains, he said. The same goes for areas in Portage Valley, about 45 miles east of Alaska’s largest city.
Predeger pointed to the Byron Glacier Trail as among the most dangerous attractions. The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center has posted a video of a massive avalanche running like a waterfall from several thousand feet above the valley floor a couple of weeks ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsfDSpKnzBA
“It’s super easy to hit the end of the trail (at Byron) and keep on going on,” Predeger said. “People are lured by the ice cave. The potential (for a bad accident) is definitely there.”
The Byron Glacier ice cave is the most popular and most visited in the state, but this is a dangerous time to approach or enter it, too. The cave is safest when temperatures are below zero. Warm weather was blamed for an ice-cave collapse that killed a women and injured five other people in the Big Four Ice Caves of Washington state’s Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest only about a year ago.
Irene Lindquist, a recreation technician for the Chugach Forest, warned that avalanche dangers are also lingering in Crow Pass near Girdwood as well as along other trails at higher elevations. There are also back country avalanche dangers in Chugach State Park immediately adjacent to Anchorage.
Lindquist noted more than a half-dozen Kenai Peninsula trails that could prove dangerous once you get more than a mile or three away from the largely snow-free road corridor at elevations below about 1,100 feet south of Anchorage. Among them are popular trails like Johnson Creek, Devil’s Pass, Resurrection Pass, Crescent Creek, Cresent Lake, Ptarmigan Creek, and Victor Creek.
“Many avalanches have slid but there’s still many that haven’t,” Lindquist warned in an e-mail. “Keep a heads up and don’t dawdle in avalanche paths or below cornices.”
And though it might already look like June in much of the region, it’s not. The popular Resurrection Pass Trail from Cooper Landing to Swan Lake is already free of snow, which is rather amazing, but it’s too muddy for mountain biking even for those on fat tires, Lindquist said. .
Meanwhile, anyone hoping to hike to above 1,200 feet on the Carter, Crescent, Johnson, Lost Lake, Primrose, Resurrection Pass, or Upper Russian River trails is advised to pack snowshoes.
“It can be a long trudge if you’re back packing and post holing,” Lindquist warned, and there is no possibility of catching a ride anymore. The forest closed to snowmachines on Sunday.