HATCHER PASS — Emergency crews responding to an injured snowmachiner in the Talkeetna Mountains Thursday encountered a steep, switch-backed and unplowed road under more than a foot of snow.
The Alaska Department of Transportation stopped plowing the road to Hatcher Pass on Feb. 11 due to the avalanche danger, spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said.
A series of storms that brought wind, a warmup and then heavy snow set up high potential for snow slides, McCarthy said.
Skiers reported at least daily observations of avalanches on the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center website between Tuesday and Thursday.
But DOT officials approved an emergency operation to clear the road from the Gold Mint trailhead parking lot to Hatcher Pass Lodge Thursday after dispatchers in Wasilla called at 2:30 p.m. and asked for help with the rescue, McCarthy said.
Medic and rescue crews from the Mat-Su Borough and Palmer headed up into the pass after getting a report of an injured snowmachiner, according to Ken Barkley, the borough's deputy emergency services director for fire.
A group of snowmachiners with the injured man were bringing him down to the Archangel Road parking area, Barkley said.
But responders couldn't get up the road that far.
"We weren't going to be able to get there without them helping us," he said, of DOT and the plows. "They were real hesitant too, because that's entering an avalanche area."
A state avalanche specialist happened to be checking conditions in the pass before the incident Thursday, McCarthy said. Avalanche danger was rated 4 to 5 out of 5 but the specialist cleared crews to go ahead to help with the rescue.
Two plows drove into the pass from Palmer-Fishhook Road, each equipped with an avalanche beacon, she said. There was roughly 18 inches of snow on the road. A foreman blocked sections of the road as they worked.
Avalanche danger shuts down plowing about once a winter in Hatcher Pass, McCarthy said.
Emergency operations like this one are rare, she said. "If we can help it, we want the avalanche danger to subside first."
An ambulance took the snowmachiner to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center with injuries that weren't life-threatening, Barkley said.