With darkness fast closing in, the rescue of an injured skier was underway in Turnagain Pass southeast of Anchorage late Wednesday afternoon, but it was unclear whether the injuries had occurred in an accident or avalanche.
The snow-short mountain pass about 70 road miles from Alaska’s largest city has been the scene of dozens of skier triggered avalanches in recent weeks.
Despite a snow drought that has left the area with only about a third the normal amount of snow, Wendy Wagner of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center noted there is still enough snow to be dangerous, even deadly.
In the snow-short early winter of 1997, 33-year-old Angela Paez, a University of Washington medical-school student interning in Alaska, went hiking at Crow Pass just north of Turnagain Pass with a new Alaska friend in similar circumstances and died.
She was caught in a small avalanche that swept her into a ravine. She landed in a sitting position along a cliff, and there was just enough snow to bury her there. Her hiking companion had a shovel, but no probe.
He ran to the site of the avalanche and started digging trenches across the rubble patch hoping to find Paez. He dug until he was exhausted, then stuck a ski pole in the rubble to mark the spot and went for help.
There was by then almost no hope for Paez. When searchers finally found her, they learned she had been buried only two feet deep, and her companion’s search had missed her by only feet.
“It sounds to me like somebody, maybe my daughter, made a bad mistake,” her father, Louisiana Dr. Manuel Paez, would say later. ”They were a little bit imprudent.”
Wagner and other avalanche forecasters at the Chugach avalanche center spend their winters worrying about people getting a little bit imprudent, especially in the road-accessible Turnagain Pass area bordering the Seward Highway. It is the scene of the deadliest recreational avalanche accident in Alaska history.
Six snowmachiners died in a massive avalanche there in March 1999. Several others barely escaped with their lives.
Wagner did not know if the skier was injured in an avalanche tied to a dangerous layer of surface hoar now buried beneath a foot to two feet of new snow or some other sort of accident. With the snow thin, there are boulders and trees to hit that would normally be buried.
The layer of hoar – rotten snow that it is more air than snowflakes – “exists on all aspects and has been the culprit in dozens of human triggered avalanches over the last two weeks including the most recent on Sunday Nov.27 in Seattle Creek area,” the Wednesday CNFAIC report said.
Alaska State Trooper spokesman Megan Peters said she had no information on an avalanche, but troopers were responding to assist an injured skier. So, too, EMTs with the Girdwood Fire Department and volunteers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, and the Anchorage Nordic Ski Patrol.
“It sounds like we know where the person is, it is just a matter of getting the resources in the field to retrieve them,” she emailed.
Because of the short days – the sun set at 3:50 p.m. at Turnagain on Wednesday – cold weather, and unstable snow, wilderness safety experts said it is a good idea for backcountry adventurers to educate themselves on avalanche dangers, travel with a companion or two, and carry avalanche probes and shovels. Avalanche beacons are also a good idea.