Winter recreationists welcome new snow

Mike Campbell

Snowmobilers were among the winter recreationists rejoicing Friday as a holiday blast of powder turned a snow-scant landscape into a winter playground.

With snow accumulation being measured in feet -- not inches-- at places like Turnagain Pass and Mount Alyeska, Chugach National Forest officials opened one of Southcentral's main snowmobiling playgrounds to drivers. Snowpack measured 36 inches at the Turnagain Pass parking lot used by snowmachiners.

But Carl Skustad, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, was quick to point out that the opening didn't mean avalanche danger at Turnagain Pass had vanished.

Quite the opposite.

"Heavy snow ranging to 30-plus inches is hammering our snowpack with stress," Skustad said. "Lots of new snow and lots of weight added to our snowpack in the last 24 hours. Very dangerous avalanche conditions exist."

Despite the warning, the west side of the Seward Highway from the Bertha Creek Campground north to national forest boundary near Turnagain Arm opened to snowmobilers. Skustad noted that opening an area only means there's sufficient snow cover to prevent snowmobile tracks from tearing up vegetation.

"An open sign does not mean that it is safe," Skustad said. "Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center provides pertinent information to assist you in making your own decisions for traveling in these backcountry areas."

And on Friday, Skustad was preaching patience and caution. "We know we have weak snow under our current snowpack. I would play it safe today and give the snowpack time to adjust. Stay away from steep slopes.

"Every year, people get caught off guard in November and December because they are trying to use Turnagain Pass like they do in the middle of winter (even though) the snowpack is not ready for aggressive skiing, snowboarding, or snowmachining."

A few miles closer to town, groomers at Alyeska Resort were working overtime shaping more than 4 feet of snow on the mountain's upper flanks as temperatures flirted with freezing. By 10 a.m. Friday, it was 29 degrees F at the summit -- but 35 at the base.

In the last 24 hours, more than 41 inches of snow had battered portions of the mountain, according to Alyeska's Web site.

By Friday afternoon, the storm had moved out of the Anchorage area, said Neil Murakami, a National Weather Service forecaster. But others were lining up behind it.

"There are some significant storms on the way, but they're not all going to bring snow into the Anchorage area," Murakami said. "The next one looks like it will bring more wind than snow."

In town, Hilltop Ski Area got about 8 inches of fresh snow, estimated manager Steve Remme. That was enough for him on Friday afternoon to open the area's Brown Bear run for the first time this season.

Southcentral nordic trail groomers also appreciated the snowfall, even if it led to some unrealistic expectations. Once groomers on snowmachines had passed, said John Hemeter of the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage, the packed snow in some areas was no deeper than an inch.

"We're not even calling what we're doing grooming yet," said Ben Powell, director of operations for the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage.

Still, the new snow was an improvement. Skiers filing reports on the Web site on Friday described "plenty of snow cover" at Hillside, "10 of new snow" at the Upper O'Malley trailhead, and "lots of new snow" at Kincaid.

But perhaps the best prospects are on the Beach Lake Trails in Chugiak and the Bartlett trails behind the East Anchorage high school.

Noted recreational skier and biker Sheryl Loan toured the Beach Lake Trails Thursday night to work off some turkey and found them "really, really nice."

And Powell said the often-overlooked Bartlett trails might well be local skiers' best prospect.

Area snowmachiners headed south faced far sharper risks.

Turnagain Pass has a bad avalanche history. In March of 1999, a half-mile-long wall of snow let go along the pass's northern edge and dozens of snowmachiners out riding that day were swept up in it. Six died.

Avalanche experts advise people to use care and avoid risky terrain until the snow sets up better -- particularly areas where natural avalanches are likely, where cracks in the snow pack are opening or where snow is audibly whomping. Steer clear of slopes greater than 25 degrees.

Twenty-five degrees is, generally, the steepest slope you will see on a beginner's hill at a maintained ski area. Avalanche run-outs are usually well marked by broken vegetation and torn-down trees where past avalanches have ripped through the forest.

Until things have settled down, skiers can stick to groomed areas with avalanche control. Alyeska Resort, for instance, does lots of blasting to keep the mountain safe. It long ago learned how dangerous avalanches can be. A 1973 slide took out the resort's main chairlift and came close to taking out the hotel, as well.

Photos: November snowstorm
Reader-submitted: Snow gallery