The season of the snow looks to finally have been beaten back in Alaska.
After a cold and wet Memorial Day weekend that left the Chugach Mountains above the state’s largest city dusted with a coating of fresh white and buried the slopes of Mount Denali beneath up to six feet, May ended sunny and clear, and June stormed in with the year’s first temperature above 70 degrees in the Anchorage metropolitan area.
It hit 74 in Anchorage on Thursday after falling to 38 in the early morning hours Wednesday. The highest temperature over the Memorial Day weekend was 50 degrees, and the average for the three-day holiday was a chilly 46.
But at least the 49th state’s urban core avoided the snow storm that dumped on Denali before Alaska finally shifted seasons. For those unfamiliar with the 49th state, there are really only two seasons here – snow season and no-snow season.
And the snow, not to mention the cold, just didn’t seem to want to let go of 20,310-foot Denali this year. The National Park Service reported conditions were so wintery that only 10 percent of the climbers who came to try for the summit of north America’s tallest peak in May made it to the top.
“Though we don’t have official snow accumulation data from the mid-mountain, an estimated six feet of new snow has fallen between 8,000 and 12,000 feet in the past four or five days,” Maureen Gualtieri noted in her end of month field report. The snow made it difficult to make any progress up the mountian and created its own dangers.
“While the new snow on the lower mountain has helped strengthen some snow bridges, other wider crevasses that were formerly visible are now hidden under new snow,” Gualtieri wrote. “All in all, adequate crevasse precautions (roped travel, flotation) are critical, and as always, solo travel is not advised.”
Forty-five-year-old Korean Jung Kuk Kang found one of the hidden crevasses when he was making his way unroped up the West Buttress toward the 11,000-foot camp on Friday afternoon. Luckily for Kang, an Alpine Ascent International guided team of climbers saw him disappear through the ice near 8,300 feet, just below the top of what climbers call Ski Hill.
When they went to investigate, they found Kang wedged about 30 feet down in a glacier. Guides Stuart Robertson and Michael Hutchins were able to get a rope on Kang and pull him out of the hole, the park service reported, but he was in significant pain. The guides got him in a tent and into a sleeping bag and started warming him up while rangers descended from the 11,000-foot camp.
Ranger paramedic David Weber found Kang hypothermic and suffering from a back injury. Kang was forced to spend the night on the mountain because of bad weather before the park service’s Talkeetna-based helicopter could get to him and return him to that small community to meet an ambulance for a ride to Matanuska-Susitna Regional Medical Center in Palmer.
Kang was not the only one rescued over the Memorial Day weekend.
While guides were pulling Kang out of a crevasse, Finnish soloist Toivo Pelkonen, 53, was battling through bad weather to get from the 14,000-foot camp to high camp at 17,200-feet. He arrived there to find his hands no longer working because of the cold and tried to make it back to 14,200.
He failed, the park service reported, and ended up spending the night in a bivouac bag near 16,800 feet. Another team of climbers found him there and reported his predicament to rangers who organized another rescue.
Climbers and guides from the Alaska Mountaineering School and Mountain Trip teamed to help lower Pelkonen down the headwall to camp where rangers determined he’d suffered severe frostbite to all of his fingers. The NPS helicopter arrived as soon as the weather broke to fly him straight to Mat-Su regional where doctors hoped to be able to save his digits.
Meanwhile, the good news for those still on the mountain was that June finally smiled on them with sunshine as it did most of the rest of the state. Thursday temperatures at the Kahiltna Base Camp at 7,200 feet were climbing into the 30s, and 30-degrees at base camp feels like 60 thanks to the intensity of the sunlight and the radiant heat reflecting of the snowy landscape.
Higher above, Thursday’s temperature remained near zero, but it was sunny and calm and climbers who had been stalled on the mountain for days or weeks were making a dash for the summit in the window of good weather.
The National Weather Service was expecting clouds, snow and more wind on top by Monday, but conditions appeared to be largely headed by back to seasonal normals for the 49th state.
Since a shocking run of 14-straight months above normal ended back in November 2016, Alaska seems to have returned to its old self, although that has attracted little attention. The big thaw attracted national attention with some thinking it might represent the new normal in a climate-change world.
December, January, February and March, all posted temperatures significantly below normal with March ending a frigid 7.9 degrees below the long-term mean for that month. April looked to offer a return to the global warming that more than a few residents of the frozen north have been known to quietly confess they like. It was 3.6 degrees above the norm, about the same as January was below.
Then May arrived warm and sunny only to turn much the opposite and end only a tenth of a degrees above normal. Some were blaming, or crediting, “The Blob” in the North Pacific Ocean for the return to normal. Or more accurately, they were citing the death of the warm-water blob as the reason for dropping temperatures.