Fresh snow beckons snowmachiners, skiers but hikes avalanche danger

Michelle Theriault Boots

People recreating in the backcountry of the Chugach Mountains triggered three major avalanches this weekend -- but no one was hurt, avalanche analysts said.

All of the snow slides documented were "deep, large and dangerous" and could have killed, said Kevin Wright, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

This time, everyone got out safe.

"We got lucky again," Wright said. "It's actually amazing that we've gone through a number of cycles this winter and we've gotten lucky every single time."

In a separate incident in Southeast Alaska on Saturday, a guide with a Haines helicopter skiing operation was caught and buried in an avalanche at Kicking Horse Valley, southwest of the town, Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said.

Rescuers dug Aaron Karitis, 31, out about 20 minutes later. Karitis was flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center and remained in the critical care unit as of Sunday night.

In the Chugach Mountains, conditions were primed for trouble going into the weekend, Wright said.

Back in February, rain helped create a crust on existing snow that set the stage for instability.

Then last week, two distinct storms dropped "in the neighborhood of four feet or more" snow in the Turnagain Pass region, Wright said.

Saturday brought a sunny post-storm weekend day at the end of Spring Break -- guaranteeing that many people would venture into the backcountry by snowboard, skis or snowmachine.

On Friday, the Avalanche Information Center put out a "special avalanche bulletin" cautioning people about the dangerous conditions.

"Basically, it means 'it's going to look good to backcountry cowboys but we still have a problems," Wright said.

All three avalanches happened Saturday, two in the Turnagain Pass area.

One, at a Tincan Mountain area known as "Hippie Bowl," was triggered by skiers or snowboarders, Wright said. The mountain is one of the most heavily traveled backcountry ski areas in Southcentral Alaska and is visible looking east from the Seward Highway at the peak of Turnagain Pass, he said. Analysts think the slides were activated remotely, by people on an adjacent sub-ridge.

Another slide happened in an area known as the "Widow Maker," in the Seattle Ridge area west of the Seward Highway but not visible from the road.

The same slope is believed to have been the site of a deadly 2008 avalanche, Wright said.

"It sounds like it was probably triggered remotely from snowmachiners traveling on the ridge above it."

Details are sketchy about a third avalanche in the Palmer Creek area south of Hope, but the Avalanche Information Center believes it too was caused by snowmachiners.

Slab avalanches are most likely to occur on slopes between 30-45 degrees in angle. Avalanche safety experts advise people to stay away from such areas during times when conditions make travel risky.

It's not clear whether the recreationalists who triggered Saturday's slides were taking risks -- such as skiing steep slopes or high marking in snowmachines -- experts warn against, Wright said.

Avalanche danger is decreasing in the wake of the snowstorms but is expected to remain considerable on Monday, according to the Avalanche Information Center.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.