Avalanche forecasters help prepare Alaskans for safety in the backcountry

Published: Nov. 11, 2021 at 7:30 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - More than a foot of snow fell in parts of Southcentral Alaska on Thursday, and avalanches have already begun occurring on mountain slopes frequented by backcountry enthusiasts. The forecast posted to the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center website for Nov. 11 included a moderate risk level for elevations above 2,500 feet.

“One of the reasons why Hatcher Pass is so good early season is because we get snow early season. It tends to be a place that gets these early season dumps,” said Director and Avalanche Specialist Jed Workman. “We’ve gone from a glide avalanche problem to now a lesser problem which is just loose snow, and there’s a significant amount. I mean we got about 8 inches or 9 inches of snow at this point in the snow storm. It’s still snowing and that low density snow is sitting on the surface and it’s landed on an old surface which is weak.”

Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center Director Wendy Wagner said they had an avalanche after experiencing a winter weather storm just over a week ago.

“We’ve actually had a very large avalanche cycle when we had the historic snowfall and rainfall event over Halloween,” Wagner said. “We had upwards of 20 feet of snow fall in the higher mountains around Girdwood and Portage, which is a significant amount of snow.”

Workman leads a team of three forecasters who produce two forecasts a week for the slopes in Hatcher Pass. The information and warnings provided in each forecast expires after 24 hours. Currently, the accumulated snow in Hatcher Pass from the recent storm means that human-triggered avalanches are possible on terrain 40 degrees or steeper, according to Assistant Avalanche Specialist Jake Kayes.

“These avalanches will be able to entrain old and new snow, increasing their size,” Kayes wrote in a post on the avalanche center’s website.

Forecasts for Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains began on Oct. 10 and are posted to their website every Thursday and Saturday. The Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center is one of just eight non-agency centers in the U.S. that provides avalanche forecasts. Staff began posting avalanche forecasts twice a week in 2018, and are mainly funded by grants, fundraising events, and donations.

The center has also garnered a significant following on social media, where they post observations from the backcountry and videos of test pits that have been dug out. Extended Column Tests are often filmed from inside the test pits and published for public consumption, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of snow layers on specific slopes that may become hazardous.

“It’s been proven that if you can forecast and therefore provide warnings ahead of time, that it allows a large majority of the people to see what that hazard is and stay away from it,” Workman said. “What we notice with social media and videos is we get a lot of interactivity with our community, a lot of hits, a lot of following, a lot of reach. And that equates to information that’s critical being shared to our community and what we’ve seen over time with the avalanche center growing is more and more people becoming a part of it, more and more people supporting it and I think that translates to higher safety for our community in the backcountry.”

Workman warned that many of the most sought after zones in Hatcher Pass may contain a relatively thin snowpack, and still pose a danger to skiers and snowboarders. Though “loose dry” slough-type avalanches are not as significant as large slab avalanches that are more likely to occur later in the winter with the accumulation of more snow, Workman said that the moniker of “smasher’s pass” comes from hidden rocks and exposed creeks below the early season snowpack that riders may encounter.

Several human-triggered avalanches have occurred in Hatcher Pass already this season. Workman was proud that the avalanche center was able to issue warnings ahead of the major avalanche events that occurred around the Easter holiday in the spring, which crossed and closed Hatcher Pass Road on two separate occasions.

“By providing that critical information, not only are we informing our community but we’re also informing the Department of Transportation and the agencies that deal with a lot of the safety, and giving them added information, which helps them make decisions like closing roads or mitigating avalanche problems,” Workman said. “You can see how this organization has a massive effect on the public, how it can save lives and really it all comes back to needing support to be able to maintain that and grow it.”

The center’s website also hosts a space for any backcountry enthusiast to post their own observations. Observations often include pictures and dated locations of recent avalanches that have occurred. So far this winter, professional forecasters with the avalanche center have posted four of their own observations, along with four detailed forecasts that issued an alert level for different elevations.

Workman and fellow Avalanche Specialist Allie Barker were named the Alaska’s Farm Family of the Year in August, and provide much of the avalanche expertise for Hatcher Pass backcountry enthusiasts through their forecasts. The forecasters dug hundreds of test pits last year, and have been the mainstays of avalanche forecasting in Hatcher Pass since the beginning of the avalanche center itself. On Friday, Barker will be a lead presenter at the Southcentral Avalanche Workshop, where she will discuss the last winter’s major Easter avalanches.

Workman says that it’s important for the younger generation of backcountry enthusiasts like Kayes to take the mantle from the veteran forecasters and help provide information on snow safety into the future.

“With climate change, we’re just seeing warmer temperatures, rain on snow, crusts forming in the snowpack, multiple crusts and more complexity and more variability,” he said. “That just means we need more forecasting. We need to study the snow even more to know what’s going on. We’re just watching this process really blossom and there’s something beautiful about that, because it does relate to our safety and so you see the work you’ve put in have an affect on people’s lives, and that brings a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction.”

If you are heading out into the backcountry, Wagner recommends you look out for prior avalanches, shooting cracks, or a collapsed snow pack. She also wants everyone to be prepared and bring a shovel, avalanche beacon, and a probe when headed out.

“Have avalanches in your mind when you go out in the mountains and know if you’re going out in the winter backcountry that you could easily be walking into avalanche terrain,” Wagner said.

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