Avalanche clearing begins but no target date for road opening

zhollander@adn.comJanuary 28, 2014 

There's still no date for the Richardson Highway to reopen to Valdez after several massive avalanches thundered onto the road in Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon, though state officials hope to clear one section of the road to a stranded subdivision.

As a light rain fell from Valdez and up into the canyon Tuesday, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials planned their attack on the biggest block: a monster avalanche and snow-dammed lake that buried the one road into town.

A 2,000-foot section of road is still submerged under at least 10 feet of water in Keystone Canyon.

But with the weather expected to dry out this week, crews did start clearing another big avalanche and several smaller ones at Mile 39 to open the road as far as a subdivision at Mile 19 where a number of residents are trapped.

Crews using bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks on Tuesday began digging out the avalanche that measured 30 to 40 feet high and several hundred feet long, according to Jeremy Woodrow, a state Department of Transportation spokesman.

Once the road is cleared, a state avalanche technician will fly over the area in a helicopter to see if the mountain snowpack looks stable, Woodrow said. That's planned for Wednesday, since the weather is supposed to clear though stay fairly warm. It's possible crews will drop explosive charges to see if they trigger more snow slides.

If avalanche tech Pete Carter gives the all-clear, the highway will open from Mile 42 to Mile 19, he said.

The rest of the road into Valdez, however, remains blocked with no immediate relief.

Warm, wet weather late last week triggered numerous small avalanches and three major ones that left snow on the road from 20 to 40 feet deep for a distance of 1,000 to 1,500 feet in the Thompson Pass area.

The biggest snow slide, in the narrow canyon at Mile 16 of the mountain highway, is actually two avalanches: a huge natural slide that thundered to the canyon floor around 6 a.m. Friday, topped by an another, even bigger slide triggered Saturday afternoon by state crews trying to reduce avalanche risk with explosives.

The giant plug of snow backed up the Lowe River, a summer whitewater destination that winds through the narrow canyon. Unusually warm weather meant the river wasn't frozen like it usually is this time of year.

Until the water recedes off the highway, authorities say it's too dangerous for crews to start clearing the mountain of snow covering it.

It will likely take several more days before the water level drops enough, state Department of Transportation regional maintenance engineer Jason Sakalaskas told the Valdez City Council at a special meeting Monday night. About 25 people attended, many of them from a subdivision of 80 or 100 homes at Mile 10 of the highway, city clerk Sheri Pierce said.

Once transportation crews start moving snow and debris, they could have the road cleared in three or four days, Sakalaskas told the council. Even then, he added, repairs might be necessary if the road is damaged.

The water is receding as much as five inches an hour, streaming through an old railway tunnel as well as below the snowpack. Officials are watching levels closely to gauge current conditions but also to spot any sudden releases quickly, though that's not expected to happen.

Working with Copper Valley Telephone and state transportation officials, the City of Valdez established a cellular-based remote camera at the western end of the canyon to watch the water flow patterns. The Valdez Police Department is monitoring the video feed.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System that ferries North Slope crude 800 miles to Valdez runs through the pass, though it goes underground about a mile upstream of the big avalanche at Mile 16, a spokeswoman for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. said.

The buried pipe crosses the Lowe River about 1200 feet upstream of the Lowe River Bridge, which had marked the upper end of the snow-impounded floodwaters, Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said.

Valdez residents are making do with plenty of groceries at their one store, Safeway, and the resumption of regular mail service promised for Wednesday with help from Era Alaska, Pierce said. Residents had been asked not to mail packages.

The Alaska Marine Highway system has added more ferry runs in and out of Valdez. Era Alaska is also adding flights as needed.

Still, stories are popping up on national media websites portraying a snowy Alaska town cut off from civilization.

Pierce took calls from CNN, CBS and Fox News, though the latter apparently didn't reach anyone in town before running a broadcast implying that the entire 4,000-person community was preparing to evacuate. Several subdivisions are under voluntary evacuation orders but nobody has sought shelter with the city.

Even actor-economist Ben Stein reached out on Sunday.

"He just started emailing back and forth with me it," Pierce said. "It was awesome. He said he heard it through the news. He wanted to know if we had pictures. So I sent him some video."

Some people in town are starting to wonder what the warm temperatures and avalanching will mean for the spring heli-skiing season in the Chugach Mountains that frame Valdez.

Carter, an avalanche forecaster with the Valdez Avalanche Center, said there's still a ton of snow in the mountains. The rainy conditions of Tuesday -- a forecaster's nightmare because of the resulting slope instability -- will give way to colder temperatures by the time the heli-ski season begins, he predicted.

"It will freeze by then," he said. "People will be able to ski 90-degree stuff like they do."

Meanwhile, people in town are keeping busy.

When the road will reopen has become anyone's guess -- literally.

The Valdez Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department on Tuesday announced a "Guess the Road Opener" contest. It runs through Monday. Winner gets a parks package worth more than $100. People stranded at Mile 19 can call in their vote.

And the Salmonberry Ski Hill, the little groomed skiing and snowboarding area five miles up the highway with a single rope tow, opened over the weekend.

"There's a lot of winter left," said Darryl Verfaillie, the city's parks director. "Now we just join the ranks of Juneau and Cordova, Nome. We've got barge service a little closer."

For more information on ferries, go to ferryalaska.com. To contact Era, call (907) 835-2636.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


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