In Alaska, when it rains, it snows almost always somewhere.
If you love snow, all you need to do is go north far enough, climb high enough, get close enough to a glacier or maybe all three. The head of Turnagain Arm just east of Alaska’s largest city offers two out of three, and the microclimatic differences that result were on clear display over the weekend.
On Facebook Monday, the Alyeska Resort was touting all the snow up high around the aptly named Seven Glaciers Restaurant:
For skiers, there was nothing but good news above 1,500 feet. Down low, however, it was nothing but bad news.
“The rain/snow line is just above 1,000 foot currently and forecast to lower to around 800 feet with slightly cooling temperatures (overnight), the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center reported Monday.
From bottom to top, the mountains that rise on steeply oin either side of the Arm went from rain to slush to snow.
Two to three feet of the white stuff was reported to have fallen on the peaks around Turnagain Pass. The same precipitation came as almost two inches of rain down low. The story was much the same in the Girdwood Valley leading to the base of Alyeska, which was a convenient place to build a ski resort in 1960 in the bad old days of cold Alaska.
But along about 1976, Mother Nature flipped a switch in the Gulf of Alaska; the water warmed up significantly; and what had been a convenient base area for a ski area became too regularly a base area in a rain forest.
After decades of hit-and-miss snow for what had been a traditional Thanksgiving Holiday opening weekend, the resort this year finally surrendered to Mother Nature and moved back its opening date only to get greeted by the same old Thanksgiving problem:
Little snow down low.
Thankfully for skiers, technology has helped out greatly. A tramway now runs to near the top of the mountain. If the weather is bad down low, skiers can take the tram up, ski the mountains upper lift and take the tram back down into the rain forest.
Boom, boom, boom
In preparation for the weekend arrival of those skiers, the Girdwood valley was Monday rocking with the booms of the recoilless rifles the resort uses to knock down loose snow. The avalanche control makes the resort the safest place to downhill ski in the greater Anchorage area, which has already seen one avalanche death this winter.
Fully cognizant of the avalanche dangers, the Girdwood-based avalanche center was hammering home the risks of the moment.
“Continued snowfall, rain and wind will keep the avalanche danger at HIGH again today,” the Monday report said. “A warm, wet and windy storm has overloaded the snowpack in the Girdwood, Portage, Turnagain Pass and Kenai Mountain regions. Natural avalanches are expected again today and human triggered avalanches are very likely.”
The report noted the danger wasn’t just to those venturing into the high mountains, either. Snow has piled up deep enough that avalanches up high could create dangers for people crossing avalanche run-out areas down low even if there doesn’t look to be much snow.
Alaska has witnessed some tragic avalanche deaths involving people who did not recognize they were in danger zones. Two snowshoers died near Eagle River, a suburb just north of Anchorage, in 2002 when a huge load of snow let go above them and thundered down into the valley in which they were hiking.
They were among eight people to die in what was a bad winter for snowslides.
The avalanche center warned that the avalanche assessment is now complicated in the Kenai Mountains, as well as in the Chugach and Talkeenta ranges, because of the howling winds that came in off the Gulf of Alaska with the last storm.
Drifting snow left ridges wind loaded with “weak snow under the new snow, which makes them more susceptible to human triggers, and they will also produce larger avalanches,” the center warned. “Telling the difference from slopes that have slid and ones that haven’t can be difficult to impossible. Also, just because a slope slid doesn’t mean it won’t again, especially the first couple days after this cycle. Keep these thoughts in the back of your head as you look forward to enjoy the new snow.”
Avalanche conditions in the Turnagain area, one of the most popular destinations for Anchorage backcountry skiers, are only looking to get more complicated through the week.
Heavy snow was in the forecast for Tuesday with heavy rain expected to follow on Wednesday. Both add a lot of weight to the snowpack and gravity then does its thing. Sometimes the snow can hang in such a tenacious balance that all it takes is the cut of one ski track across it to make it all thunder down.
Conditions will stabilize at some point, but they look grim through the week. The forecast into next weekend calls for warm weather and mixes of rain and snow.