Mother Nature delivered a classic, Bing Crosby-like “White Christmas” to winter sports fans living in Alaska’s urban core, but it came with a decidedly dark underbelly.
About a month behind what has come to be considered the winter norm, the Chugach National Forest on Monday announced a December 25 storm had finally delivered enough snow to allow the opening of Turnagain Pass to snowmachines on the day after Christmas, and then added an ominous warning to riders.
“This opening happens to coincide with HIGH AVALANCHE DANGER! It is recommended to AVOID AVALANCHE TERRAIN until this storm settles. Plenty of fun riding to be had in the flats away from avalanche terrain and runout zones,” it said.
Turnagain Pass is the site of the worst recreational avalanche accident in Alaska history. Ten snowmachine riders were caught in a massive, nearly mile-wide slide that ripped of Seattle Ridge to the west of the Pass in March of 1999. Dozens of other riders in the area barely escaped being caught as the snow thundered 1,800 feet down the mountainside.
Of those caught, only one escaped injury. Three were injured. Six died.
It was not the first deadly avalanche in the Pass, and it would not be the last. Both cross-country skiers, backcountry alpine skiers, and snowmachiner riders have been killed by avalanches in the area about a two-hour drive southeast of Alaska’s largest city via the Seward Highway.
All of them were today being warned that no matter how attractive all the new snow that ended the snow drought in at least one corner of the state, the avalanche danger is extreme.
The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center posted a red-flag warning of high danger for all terrain above 1,000 feet and warned that even in open terrain below 1,000 feet the risk is “considerable.”
More than 30 inches of snow has fallen since a storm began last last week, the center reported, with 16- t0 20- inches coming on Christmas Day. It was still snowing Monday.
“All of this new snow is forming thick slabs, especially in the alpine where consistent easterly winds have been blowing into the 40’s (mph). The weak surface snow and weak snowpack have been rapidly loaded. Expect natural avalanches today and that triggering an avalanche is very likely on any slopes over 30 degrees. Avalanches have the potential to be long running and could be remotely triggered. Avoid travel underneath avalanche terrain as well.”
And for anyone who thought the treed parts of the Pass might anchor snow and provide protection, the report added a highlight warning:
“Storm snow slab avalanches 2- to 3-feet thick are likely to be triggered in the trees. The new snow is denser than the underlying old snow – creating an upside down and unstable snowpack….Due to the weak faceted snow below the new snow the snowpack is ‘bottomless.’Movement through the snow was challenging yesterday and will only be more of a struggle today.
“Travel in avalanche terrain is NOT recommended. Deep, dangerous avalanches are likely. BE PATIENT.”
Avalanche experts were worried because of a snow-short winter that has left many in Anchorage anxious to get out and snowmachine or ski. The problem is only compounded by local schools on Christmas break, which might encourage teenage backcountry skiers and snowboarders to go adventuring.
The city itself got almost nothing out of the storm that pushed in off the Gulf of Alaska but stalled over the community of Girdwood about 30 miles to the east.
That was a blessing for the Alyeska Ski Resort which had been enduring a rocky start to the winter ski season. The ski resort reported it got 15 inches of new snow out of the Christmas storm, adding to about 12 inches on Christmas Eve.
Anchorage got only a dusting. North of Anchorage the story was much the same all the way north to Talkeetna near the south slope of the Alaska Range. The snow drought there was continuing.
And away from the Turnagain Pass -Portage Lake – Girdwood area, snow remained thin on much of the Kenai. Most of the Chugach Forest remains closed to snowmachines because of a shortage of snow. It is the same for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The two federal reserves cover a good part of the Kenai Peninsula.
It is the second straight snow short winter in the area. The website of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club did, however, note that despite the similarities in lack of snow, the two winters are shaping up starkly different.
The winter of 2015-16 was wet and windy. The winter of 2016 is starting off a lot calmer and whole lot colder.
“Ester Island in Prince William Sound has 16 inches of snow which usually is warmer and precipitation usually falls as rain in the winter, indicating how far south the cold air has penetrated this season,” the report noted. “The storm systems have generally been weak through 12/15, especially compared to last winters monster rain makers, and the PWS and Gulf Coast mountains are getting precipitation in the form of snow this year, but water equivalent is still below average thus far.”
Arctic cold settled over the Interior of the state in mid-November and has hung on. Since Nov. 17, the day’s low temperature for Fairbanks, the state’s second largest city, has remained at zero or below. Overnight lows have dipped to 37 degrees below zero, but the city was expected to greet the New Year with a warming trend.
The forecast high for New Year’s Eve calls for the temperature to hit the freezing mark. The last time Fairbanks saw that temperature was Oct. 16.
Snow in the Interior, meanwhile, remains so thin that the White Mountains Sled Dog Race scheduled for Jan. 9 has been cancelled.