With danger rising, Alaska's avalanche forecasters try to head off another disaster

A deadly mix was brewing in the fast-moving clouds as Wendy Wagner parked her pickup in Turnagain Pass on Saturday morning.

Meteorologists were predicting a foot or more of new snow by the end of the weekend. And Wagner, a professional avalanche forecaster with the U.S. Forest Service, knew that the weak, crumbly snow already on the ground would be unlikely to hold the new snow in place.

Wagner clipped into her backcountry skis and started trudging up the hill to check it out.

As Alaskans get ready to test out their Christmas gear, Wagner, 43, is one of three full-time government avalanche forecasters whom people rely on when they try to decide whether it's safe to go play in the mountains on the Kenai Peninsula.

She and her colleagues at the 15-year-old Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center awaken in the wee hours of the morning to churn out daily forecasts and travel advisories geared toward the scores of skiers and snowmachiners who venture into the pass. Their work is aimed at heading off disasters like the massive 1999 slide that killed six snowmachiners and helped spur the center's creation.

On Saturday, Wagner, the center's director, was headed to the very same run, an avalanche-prone slope called "Repeat Offender." It sits on the northwest side of the highway, where the Forest Service allows snowmachiners to ride but only when there's enough snow to not trample the ground below.

Last year's opening was Dec. 13. But the area remained closed as of Saturday, nearly two weeks deeper into the season.

Wagner knew that could change if the Christmas storm dropped a foot of snow — though if the forecast was right, it was also likely to produce dangerous avalanche conditions to greet dozens of eager snowmachiners.

The combination was making the whole forecasting staff nervous. And that was before Monday, when the Forest Service did, in fact, open the area to motorized use — on the same day that forecasters warned of high avalanche danger.

"People are just chomping at the bit," Aleph Johnston-Bloom, one of Wagner's colleagues, said in a phone interview.

The center's core territory hasn't had a deadly avalanche since 2008. But say that near a forecaster and you'll hear a quick knock on wood.

The Forest Service doesn't have current estimates of the amount of traffic in Turnagain Pass. But many backcountry veterans will tell you that outdoor recreation is booming there, with hundreds of users on busy days.

"On the weekend, you can't even find a parking spot," said Heather Thamm, the center's third forecaster.

The forecasters have made outreach to both skiers and snowmachiners a priority in the wake of the 1999 avalanche.

That slide was 7 feet thick where it released from Seattle Ridge above the highway. It piled up so much snow at the bottom that volunteers used 14-foot-long poles to probe for victims, instead of standard 10-foot ones.

Afterward, as Outside and in-state experts pointed to a lack of avalanche information and education, then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens found federal money to help get the forecasting center off the ground. It's an official Forest Service program, with slightly more than half of its budget raised by a nonprofit, Friends of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

"We've come a long way in Alaska in the last 10, 15 years," said David Ilse, who supervises the avalanche forecasters for the Forest Service.

The three employees, who have an office in the basement of the Forest Service's building in Girdwood, work full-time during the winter, and two live in town, Thamm and Johnston-Bloom. They take turns writing the morning forecast — which, with its 7 a.m. deadline, requires coffee and a painfully early wakeup.

Johnston-Bloom sets an alarm to remind her to go to bed the night before; Thamm has used as many as seven alarms in the morning.

"I have my 3:45, my 3:47," she said.

The center's forecasters are all women in what's otherwise a male-dominated profession, though they don't dwell much on gender politics. All have spent much of their lives on skis and in snow, and go skiing on their days off.

Thamm, 37, a wedding photographer in the summer, came to the job from the ski patrol at Alyeska Resort. Johnston-Bloom, who turns 40 on Tuesday, grew up cross-country skiing in Vermont, took an avalanche course at Prescott College in Arizona and at one point worked as a forecaster for Colorado's transportation department.

Wagner, 43, is a former Olympic cross-country skier who got hooked on backcountry skiing during her racing career. She was also fascinated by weather, studied snow science and got a master's degree in atmospheric sciences after retiring from racing.

The three women have extensive training and trade insights with other avalanche experts across the country and in Alaska — they have peers at the Alaska Railroad, the state transportation department and at Alyeska and other skiing operations.

But more than anything, the forecasters say their work is informed by the time they've spent on Turnagain Pass' snowpack — watching it, skiing on it, poking it and digging into it.

As the storm blew in Saturday, that's how Wagner was investigating Repeat Offender. She'd been hearing from people who hoped the weak, top layer of snow had been compacted by skiers, which could cut down on the risk that the new layer of snow could slide.

But as she used climbing skins on her skis to make her way toward the ridge, Wagner was skeptical of that theory.

"It's a great layer for making avalanches," she said, punching into the snow with the top of her ski pole.

As a stiff wind whipped snow over the ridge, Wagner ripped off her skins and slid a little way down, onto the middle of the face, where she started digging into more than 3 feet of snow. In 24 hours, the same spot would be a likely start zone for an avalanche, but the slope was stable until it was covered by fresh snow.

Wagner's exploration revealed as much as 2 feet of crumbly snow that could collapse under the weight of a new layer, potentially causing an avalanche. She would warn against any skiing across avalanche terrain in the following morning's report, which was illustrated with a skull-and-crossbones superimposed on a mountain peak. Her recommendation: that readers spend the day unwrapping Christmas presents or skiing at Alyeska.

The daily forecast is indispensable for backcountry skiers and snowmachiners of all levels.

"I read it religiously," said Joe Stock, an Anchorage-based mountain guide.

Stock, in a phone interview, said the forecasts provide ample information, though they aren't a replacement for experience and judgment.

"They can't make an advisory for every single bit of terrain," he said. "There's inherent uncertainty with it — it's realizing that you don't 100 percent know what's going on in the snowpack and then backing off accordingly."

The forecasters also know the limitations of the work they do, which can make writing their reports a nerve-wracking process. It takes a unanimous decision before they issue a "green-light forecast," which refers to low avalanche risk at all elevations.

"I definitely worry sometimes that maybe my advice isn't being heeded," said Thamm. But she added that they have enough work to do without dwelling on how people are digesting the forecast once it's been written. She said, "If you constantly worry about it, then you're in the wrong job."

Forecasting might be a dream job. But it's still a job. Forecasters make no more than $25 an hour, and even on their off days, they're still checking reports and weather conditions and sticking their heads into the snow.

"It's a meager lifestyle, for sure," said Wagner, biting into her lunch — a Snickers bar — back in her Forest Service pickup. "It's very much a labor of love."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.