Sunny weather brought snowmachine riders out to play in Alaska’s Turnagain Pass over the weekend.
Thankfully no one died in the tumble of human-triggered avalanches that followed.
The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC) confirmed nine snowslides along Seattle Ridge on the north side of the Pass on Saturday, but there were no reports of anyone caught by the cascading snow.
And the near misses did appear to have something of a healthy, activity chilling effect.
“It seems people paid attention on Sunday to the special avalanche bulletin we issued, social media postings and the forecast,” the Chugach National Forest’s Graham Predeger said Monday. He reported an almost empty parking lot Sunday on the moto-side of the 900-foot Pass long ago split into a ski area to the south of the Seward Highway and a snowmobile area to the north.
Both the CNFAIC website and the National Weather Service posted avalanche warnings over the weekend for the area, which is the site of the deadliest recreation related avalanche in state history.
The weather service cautioned on Saturday morning that “two- to five-plus-feet of snow…has fallen on an unstable base. Despite improving weather, human-triggered large avalanches will remain likely on slopes steeper than 30 degrees at elevations about 1,500 feet.”
Despite that warning, the fresh, new snow was too much for some to resist, which led avalanche forecaster Wendy Wagner to lead CNFAIC’s Sunday report with an even stronger warning.
“…Nine avalanches were triggered yesterday,” the written text warned. These slabs can be triggered from the bottom, side or on top of a slope while traveling along a ridge. They have the potential to be large, dangerous and unsurviveable. Additionally, cornices may break farther back than expected and could trigger an avalanche below.”
The warnings do appear to be working. There has not been a fatality in the Pass for more than a decade. There were eight deaths in the prior decade, including six deaths in a massive slide in March of 1999. It was the state’s deadliest avalanche accident in modern times.
Statewide, Alaska has averaged about four avalanche deaths a winter over the past decade. Three people died last year. Two of those deaths were in the general Anchorage area, one of them just east of Turnagain Pass on the Blackstone Glacier.
Two snowmachines were caught in the Blackstone avalanche, but one of the riders, wearing an avalanche airbag, survived. A 2014 study concluded airbags double the chances of survival of someone caught in an avalanche, but also warned that “they do not guarantee survival.
“Non-deployment remains the most considerable limitation to effectiveness. While our results show that avalanche airbags can reduce mortality in serious avalanche involvements,” the risks of death for anyone caught in a big slide remain high.
Where once Alaska avalanche deaths involved backcountry skiers, they now lean toward snowmobilers. Eight of the 15 people to die in the past five years were riding snowmachines. Two others were snowboarding, and one was a four-year-old killed by a roof avalanche. The remainder were skiers.
Avalanche authorities agree the best way to survive avalanches is to learn what causes them, and then use that knowledge to avoid avalanche terrain and/or avalanche conditions.
Alaska, sadly, has a bad history of people learning about avalanches only to make themselves more comfortable pushing toward the edge of safety. Some of those people have become avalanche victims.
Avalanche conditions remain high at elevation in the Kenai Mountains surrounding the Pass. That isn’t expected to change until later in the week when temperatures start to cool.
Early Monday evening, it was 40 degrees and raining in Portage near the base of Turnagain Pass. The unusually warm weather is forecast to continue through at least Wednesday.