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Outdoors/Adventure

Avalanche danger closes road to Hatcher Pass, stranding 10

An avalanche closed the road to Hatcher Pass between the Gold Mint trailhead and Archangel Road, Monday, March 19, 2018. (Photo provided by AK DOT)

PALMER — An avalanche — and the danger of further slides — closed the road to Hatcher Pass Monday morning, leaving 10 people stranded.

Officials say they expect the road to the popular Talkeetna Mountains recreation destination to remain closed at least until Wednesday.

Heavy mountain snow also prompted avalanche warnings as authorities warned the public to avoid Hatcher Pass until conditions improve.

The avalanche at 8:30 a.m. Monday closed the road on the Palmer side of the pass at Mile 15.5, according to Shannon McCarthy, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. The slide covered the road above the turnoff for the Gold Mint Trailhead parking lot and near Archangel Road.

An avalanche specialist from Girdwood assessed the danger of further slides using a drone, McCarthy said. Two slides crossed the road, including one estimated at 100 feet wide and 4 to 6 feet deep.

"It sounds like we will keep the road closed until Wednesday," she said. Crews are waiting to see if avalanches naturally occur so it's safer to come in and clear the road.

The road, which starts as Palmer-Fishhook Road, is closed at a gate at Mile 8.5 just past the bridge over the Little Susitna River.

Ten people were initially stuck on the wrong side of the closure, most of them at Hatcher Pass Lodge, according to Wayne Biessel, Mat-Su superintendent for state parks.

Seven of the stranded are guests at the lodge, a rustic but well-provisioned set of cabins at 3,000 feet with a bar and restaurant.

Two men who operate a private mine on an inholding above Independence Mine are also trapped, Biessel said. There are cabins at the mine.

The Hatcher Pass state parks ranger, Mario Pagni, had just driven past the slide area in white-out conditions when the avalanche occurred.

Pagni snowmachined out later Monday, Biessel said. The status of the others was not immediately available Tuesday morning.

The ranger told the parks superintendent that the mountains are just "coming down all around" as avalanches let go, Biessel said Monday afternoon. "The drifts are enormous."

The naturally occurring avalanche came off Marmot Mountain, according to an observation posted by the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center.

Snow had been falling at 2 inches an hour for four hours, the center posted Monday morning. Eleven inches fell rapidly overnight. The snow ended by Monday afternoon.

Forecasters warned Monday of high hazard and very dangerous conditions including "very likely" human-triggered avalanches.

They also urged people to stay away from the road and a popular "road run" ski trail that starts above the closed section and ends below it.

"The road will be CLOSED. Please let DOT and Avalanche Forecasters do their work. Do not attempt to drive up the road or ski up the road run. The road run is in the RUNOUT of avalanche danger."

The National Weather Service on Sunday predicted a storm total of up to 14 inches of snow at Hatcher Pass.

This storm, coming from the southwest, left some places without much snow while others got "hammered," said Michael Kutz, a weather service meteorologist in Anchorage.

But in Anchorage, where temperatures were slightly warmer, nearly two-tenths of an inch of rain had fallen since midnight to diminish some snow cover, he said Monday morning.

It's not breakup yet: Kutz said a cooling trend and clear night skies this week could mean single digits on the city's west side and below zero on the east side by Wednesday.

The cooler temperatures "could turn things into an ice rink, basically," he said.

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect an updated mile marker for the closure from the Department of Transportation.

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