At first, Elizabeth Kronz felt the snow slipping out from under her feet as she and her partner hiked back to their car from the popular Crow Pass public-use cabin near Girdwood on a recent afternoon. Then she realized that larger forces were shuttling her down the slope.
Within seconds, she felt the weight of the snow as it compacted on all sides of her.
“From my perspective, when I stopped, I was completely covered,” she said. “I had to be 100% buried.”
From just about 10 paces ahead of her, Wade Watkins watched as she was swept away by an avalanche last Wednesday afternoon, stopping just a short distance away from a drop down a large, rocky cliffside.
The couple, both 27, had set out the previous afternoon for the cabin and planned to use the getaway as a final celebration of the season, Watkins said. They knew there was some snow in the area and solicited advice on social media about the conditions, but decided the hike sounded doable.
The Crow Pass Trail is a popular backpacking trail out of Girdwood that follows part of the historic Iditarod supply route. The scenic A-frame cabin is about 3 miles and 2,080 feet of elevation gain into the hike. The structure sits in front of a lake and is just a short walk from Raven Glacier.
Neither Kronz nor Watkins had any winter hiking experience or avalanche training, but they didn’t think it was necessary since it was only early October.
Avalanche season arrived earlier than it has in recent years, an official from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center said.
For the first mile, the hike was fine and the trail was clear, Watkins said.
Soon the trail became more challenging, with snow that was thigh-deep and at times came up to their waist, they said. There was still a clear path visible from another set of hikers, and Watkins said they saw skiers in the distance, so they decided to trudge on.
They reached the cabin without any real issues, but snow began to fall steadily that evening, Watkins said. Conditions intensified around midnight, and the wind whipped the sides of the cabin through the night, Kronz said.
By morning, the trails they’d walked in on were completely blown over. Visibility was low, so they decided to wait a bit to see if things would improve, according to Watkins.
But a few hours later, conditions were nearly whiteout.
With no cell service and only enough kerosene and supplies for the planned one-night stay, Watkins and Kronz decided to head out. They feared that if they stayed, they would be stranded until they could be rescued.
“The only real check-in we had was at the beginning of the trail. We wrote that we are going to be back in the morning,” Watkins said. “We also didn’t want to stay because we didn’t really tell enough people where we were going to be.”
As they started hiking out Wednesday afternoon, the snow was about waist deep. The couple found a hiking pole by the outhouse at the top of the trail and Watkins used it to poke the ground in front of him as they walked near where they remembered the trail had been.
They believe they got above the trail at some point. Watkins, who was in front, said he looked back and saw Kronz rolling down the slope, triggering the avalanche that buried her. He saw what he thought was a foot or a hand sticking out from the pile of debris.
“Pretty immediately, I could clear my face. I had one arm that could move,” Kronz said. “I was pretty close to the top, which was really lucky that my face was even close to the top at all. The position I ended up in was extremely lucky, especially considering that I rolled. But I was able to clear my face and kind of get a tiny bit of visibility and call out for help.”
Watkins was panicked. About 50 feet away from Kronz was a steep cliff, and he questioned if she was going to be OK after the slide. He said he quickly headed toward her and started digging.
“I absolutely questioned if that was the last time I was ever going to see her,” he said. “I got down there really quickly, and thank goodness I used that ski pole to help dig her out because I didn’t even have gloves.”
Kronz gave him a heat pack she had in her pocket to help warm his fingers, and they both tried without luck to call 911 after she was safely unburied.
They continued on, trying to figure out the safest routes.
“We finally saw a piece of mining equipment that’s on the mining equipment trail, and that’s pretty much when we felt like we were actually going to make it,” Watkins said. “I don’t know what we would have done without that land marker.”
Eventually they made it back to the trailhead and into the car, where they removed their soaked layers and heated something to eat.
Kronz and Watkins posted about the misadventure on social media to warn others about how dangerous conditions are.
“That cabin gets booked up immediately, so every day thereafter it’s probably booked up, and that’s just another group of people contemplating if they should go up there. We could have used the warning,” Watkins said.
They said they plan to take avalanche safety courses in the near future but are not planning to hike in winter conditions again. Kronz and Watkins said they feel lucky to have made it off the trail safely.
“We’re really lucky that it didn’t go the other way,” Watkins said. “... When I looked back and saw her slide and also watched how wide it got, I would say that it was about 25 feet across, and it cracked off just two steps behind me. So really thinking that if I would have got caught up in that avalanche and no one was there to dig us out, then that was maybe the difference.”
Changing weather conditions, like fresh snowfall or heavy winds, can significantly increase the likelihood of an avalanche, according to Wendy Wagner, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. The avalanche was likely a slough or loose snow avalanche, she said: Those types of slides can happen often during storms because the snow is unconsolidated.
On Thursday, a soft slab avalanche was reported near the Crow Pass Trail at Jewel Glacier. There was about a foot of wet, heavy snow in elevations less than 3,500 feet, the report said.
Wagner said it’s important to check weather conditions before recreating in the backcountry, and she advised people without avalanche knowledge to avoid the backcountry if weather patterns are unsettled and to avoid slopes greater than 30 degrees along with the areas directly beneath them.
With snow so early in the season, Wagner said it’s especially important for hikers and hunters to recognize that avalanche danger exists.
“So many of the summer trails that we love and that are easily accessible are in avalanche terrain,” she said. “And now we need to know that that’s an issue because there’s snow.”
Three sheep hunters were caught in an avalanche in the Chugach Mountains last week. The men were rescued by helicopter and two sustained injuries.