Chugach avalanche danger said to be considerable

Mike Dunham

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center issued an advisory for skiers and snowmachiners entering the backcountry on Wednesday.

"Sunny skies today after two solid weeks of stormy weather will make today the most likely day for someone to die in an avalanche," said the Center's director, Kevin Wright, in his alert.

"Large natural and human triggered avalanches have been reported over the last week. Last night we got reports of an avalanche on Repeat Offender."

That's the site of a large slide that claimed the lives of six snowmachiners descending from Seattle Ridge in 1999. Wright referred to that incident as a "deep slab" avalanche and said that such slides are difficult to predict since they don't show signs of instability until they start to go. While the possibility of such a slide is decreasing at this time, "if one is triggered it will be large, deep and deadly."

Wright said more than 10 feet of new snow has fallen in the mountains over the past two weeks and has already caused large avalanches at Tincan Mountain, Seattle Ridge, Johnson Pass, Portage and elsewhere.

"This is the most dangerous and persistent deep slab problem we've had in our region in a number of years," he said. The danger level was given as "considerable," a 3 on the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale of five rankings. (At the "extreme" level of 5 people are advised to avoid the terrain altogether.)

The warning does not include developed ski areas or highways.

Wright, who was in the field with a team investigating conditions on Wednesday, advised backcountry travelers to choose conservative, low angle terrain.

Sarah Carter at the Alaska Avalanche Information Center in Valdez said that on their side of the Chugach they had "moderate" avalanche danger, mostly stemming from wind slabs. "It's similar to what they're experiencing in Turnagain, but not as deep. We've had a fairly low snow year," she said.

Snowmachiners and skiers thinking of going to the Valdez area can check for current conditions at or by calling 907-255-2241. Updates on conditions in the vicinity of Turnagain Arm are available at or by calling 754-2369.

In addition to understanding what causes avalanches and educating oneself about how to read the terrain to avoid them, backcountry travelers can also carry locator beacons. Another device is the so-called inflation backpack or flotation backpack. When caught in a slide, the wearer pulls a cord that inflates one or more airbags that help keep their heads above the snow. Last February, former Alaskan Elsye Saugstad's life was saved by such a backpack when she was caught in an avalanche in Washington along with three other skiers. Saugstad, who was carried a half-mile down the slope, was the only one who survived.

This is a developing story. More information will be published when it becomes available.


Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.