Crews resume clearing Hatcher Pass Road two months after historic avalanches

hatcher pass, skiing, snow, winter

More than two months after a series of natural avalanches buried Hatcher Pass Road, crews plan to resume clearing debris from the area and hope to reopen the road near the end of next week, state transportation officials say.

The monthslong closure is the longest to occur in recent decades on Hatcher Pass Road, which provides access to popular backcountry recreating areas. Five avalanches released last April on the road and closed it for several weeks. At the time, officials said avalanches of that magnitude had not released in the area since the 1980s.

“This year was bigger and longer than last year,” said Jill Reese, a public information officer with the Department of Transportation.

Crews initially estimated it’d take several weeks to remove up to roughly 25 feet of snow from the winding road, but additional avalanches elsewhere in Southcentral Alaska stretched resources thin and delayed the work.

The road initially closed in mid-February at Mile 11, just after the Skeetawk ski area. About 6 feet of heavy, wet snow dropped onto the area in the following weeks.

Four large avalanches crossed the road, Reese said. Two of those avalanches crossed the upper and lower portion of the road. Multiple smaller avalanches were also reported in the area, she said.

There is only one transportation-department qualified avalanche specialist for all of Southcentral Alaska right now and he needs to be on scene during any debris removal for safety, Reese said. There are generally two specialists for the Southcentral region, she said, and the department has been working to fill the open position.

After the initial avalanches, the transportation department triggered any additional avalanches and began clearing the debris. The road was able to reopen to Mile 14, near the Gold Mint Trailhead.

But avalanche mitigation was needed in other portions of Southcentral Alaska, and Reese said the avalanche specialist was pulled away from Hatcher Pass Road.

“They even had more snow in Girdwood and around that area, so he’s been really needing to concentrate on the Seward Highway,” she said. “And especially then planning for construction jobs coming up and that sort of thing. We’ve got to evaluate where you stack up cars to make sure you’re not putting anybody in a zone, or if you are, that there’s no issue.”

For the first time since mid-March, Reese said the specialist will return to Hatcher Pass Road next week and work will resume.

On Monday the road will close again at Mile 11 and crews will evaluate the area to see if more mitigation is needed.

“If they need to do more mitigation, they’ll bring in a helicopter and drop some charges,” or explosives, Reese said. “And then after everything settles down, they’ll start on Tuesday instead of Monday.”

It will likely take crews about a week to clear the road, Reese said.

Access to backcountry recreating has been drastically affected by the road closure. Independence Mine and Archangel Road, both popular places for Nordic skiing, are not easily accessible, said Ed Strabel, a board member of the Mat-Su Ski Club.

“With the road being closed right at Gold Mint, it’s really made it difficult, especially for beginning skiers, because they used to be able to go on up there and ski back in on Archangel Road, which is very tame, there’s a few little elevations and dips, but nothing significant.”

The ski club is grooming Archangel Road, Strabel said, but skiers have to traverse a more challenging area in order to make it to the path.

This year has seen a lot of snow, Strabel said, and this is by far the longest he’s ever seen the road closed. Reese said the year was an anomaly — some seasons see more snow and avalanches while others are mild.

But for Strabel, he said he wonders, “Is this the new normal?”

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.