The east end of the Denali Highway has always been known for lots of snow and lots of wind. The past few seasons have been a little light on both, but last week the Old North Wind reminded me that he is still in charge.
A couple of us decided to make an overnight dog run to Maclaren River from Paxson. Our intent was to spend the night and travel back to Paxson the following day.
There were four or five inches of new snow on a hard-pack base. At 13-Mile Hill, notorious for wind, there was a breeze that was moving snow, but not enough to hamper visibility. Fifty years on the Denali has instilled caution, and for a moment I contemplated turning back. Naw, I decided. It was a beautiful afternoon and the dogs were flying.
On our arrival, Maclaren was calm and we settled in for the evening. The following morning dawned clear and cold — ideal for our return run. A couple hours later, pinned in by 50 mph winds at Mile 17, we reconsidered.
The front of the team was invisible in drifting snow. Side gusts took the dogs off the road into a moonscape of drifts. It took some work to get them turned around and back on the highway, where we headed to the safety of a shelter cabin.
The next four days were spent attempting to get back over 13-Mile Hill. The wind finally abated and we were able to follow a friend’s snowmobile and the Maclaren Lodge groomer back to Paxson.
We were fortunate because of our knowledge of the Denali and where to retreat to shelter. Others might not be so lucky. There is more snow along the highway than has been the case for many years. The snow depth is such that the brush is covered, leaving the north wind free range in this open country.
All of this snow is great for snowmobiling, but brings with it the need for extreme caution. More snow and wind mean a greater than usual avalanche hazard. Already there have been extensive slides in areas that rarely have enough snow to slide.
No Water Creek has an avalanche that reaches across the highway near Mile 64. I trapped that area for 30 years and it rarely had enough snow on the ground for decent riding.
The Summit Lake area normally is dangerous in the spring but relatively safe in the cold winter weather. However, it has been sliding this winter. Drifting snow on a soft base of dry snow has created a wind-slab avalanche danger. The weight of the compacted snow slabs causes them to break from the base and skid downslope, picking up reinforcements as they go.
Four of the 16 Alaska avalanche fatalities in the past five years have occurred near Summit Lake or close to the Denali Highway. Snowmobilers, snowboarders and skiers are obviously those most at risk. The solution for safety? Stay off steep slopes. Be aware that sunny southern-facing mountainsides pose extreme risks, especially in the afternoon.
Avalanches are only part of the potential danger. Exposure, though not as sudden or dramatic as an avalanche, may be an even greater risk. Frostbite and hypothermia are common winter occurrences, and the solution is not to underdress. Come prepared with plenty of gear. Ride with friends to minimize getting stranded by breakdown. Know the safe havens, whether they are shelter cabins or lodges.
Maclaren Lodge at Mile 42 is open and there is a groomed snowmachine trail in from Paxson. The Denali is groomed from Maclaren to Alpine Creek Lodge (907-398-9673), which is also open with full services. From Feb. 24-27, Maclaren will host an avalanche school (call the lodge at 907-388-6361 for availability and reservations).
Along the Richardson Highway, Meiers Lake (907-822-3151) will open with a phone call. On the other end of Isabel Pass, Black Rapids Roadhouse (907-388-8391) is also open.
Weather reports are not always reliable near mountain ranges, so it is best to call ahead for local information. Prepare yourself well in advance and use common sense in the mountains and your trip will be nothing more than enjoyable.
Remember: “Adventures” stem from thoughtlessness and mistakes, and very rarely go according to plan.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.