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Avalanche danger in Hatcher Pass too high for road-clearing; skier remains missing

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 25, 2015

An avalanche that blocked Hatcher Pass Road Tuesday will not be cleared this week due to conditions being too dangerous for road crews and the general public -- as well as ground searchers seeking a skier in the area reported overdue Monday night.

Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said that work on assessing the slide near Mile 14 has been postponed after assessment teams encountered what state parks officials described as "extreme avalanche danger" Wednesday morning.

"Park rangers are recommending the public stay out of Hatcher Pass," McCarthy said. "We're leaving the road blockage in place until conditions improve."

Given the threat level in the pass, early projections are for work on clearing snow to wait through at least the Thanksgiving weekend.

"At this point it's too dangerous to assess it," McCarthy said. "It's going to be several days before they can assess, and it'll be early next week before they can even get in there with equipment."

A note on the state's road-closures website, posted shortly before 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, said travel in the area is still not advised.

"Road is closed due to avalanche until further notice," state officials wrote.

McCarthy said responders on Tuesday also found additional avalanches in the area, beyond the main one first reported blocking the road.

"It was 100 feet wide and 14 feet deep," McCarthy said.

Conditions in the area, which also was under a backcountry avalanche warning last weekend, have also hampered the search for 33-year-old Wasilla resident Liam Walsh, who was supposed to return from a skiing trip in the area Sunday night. He was reported overdue Monday; responding troopers found his car in a parking lot near Mile 13.5 of Hatcher Pass Road but found no sign of him.

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said avalanche conditions had kept troopers from launching a ground search for Walsh, who was last heard from at about midday Sunday, since Tuesday morning.

"We had to check ground conditions -- they were supposed to start yesterday, and then there was that avalanche," Peters said. "They are going to attempt an aerial search today depending on weather. Ground searchers will not be put in the area unless it is deemed safe to do so."

Peters said Walsh's friends reported that he was skiing solo and likely carrying an avalanche beacon but no other survival gear. She emphasized that safety was a primary concern in efforts to find him Wednesday.

"If those are the conditions, chances are we're not going to be doing ground searches today," Peters said. "We're not going to put people in harm's way."

The Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center issued a new warning for the area of the pass Tuesday afternoon, effective until 9 a.m. Thursday.

"The avalanche danger for the warning area will continue to remain high today and may rise to extreme Thursday," forecasters wrote. "Recent heavy snow combined with wind has created widespread areas of unstable snow. Both human-triggered and natural avalanches are likely on slopes steeper than about 30 degrees."

The avalanche center recommended that anyone in the area avoid traveling on or under slopes of 30 degrees or greater, and that they "choose conservative terrain."

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