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Avalanches ‘almost certain’ in Turnagain Pass area, forecasters warn

Forecasters are warning people not to venture into parts of Chugach National Forest while avalanche danger is high.

Peaks near Turnagain Pass catch the last bit of afternoon sunlight as a car heads southbound on the Seward Highway on Thursday, December 22, 2016. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

A winter storm that brought hurricane-force winds and 3 feet of new snow to the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula has made avalanche danger “high” on alpine slopes and “considerable” at and below the treeline, experts said Tuesday.

The danger is also “considerable” north of Anchorage in Hatcher Pass, which updates its forecast weekly.

Forecasters are particularly concerned with the possibility of “storm slab" avalanches, which happen when a layer of new snow breaks away after a storm. The chances of this kind of avalanche happening in Turnagain Pass today are “almost certain,” with potential avalanches measuring in the "large” to “very large” range, forecasters said. Avalanches of this size can easily bury a person, according to experts.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center advises people to take great care when evaluating snowpacks and choosing routes in and below the treeline.

Wendy Wagner, director of the Avalanche Information Center, said the worst of the storm has passed but the hazards won’t end once it’s over. People usually don’t venture out into the backcountry during storms, but when the storm tapers off, as it is expected to on Wednesday, there is a higher risk of human-triggered avalanches, she said.

Wagner encourages people to wait 24 to 48 hours for the snow to settle first.

Although there is no regular avalanche forecast for the Chugach front range west of the Anchorage Bowl, Wagner said that as a rule, anyplace with new snow and high winds is potentially dangerous.

Avalanche risk is usually elevated to dangerous levels about 15 to 20 days out of the season, she said.

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