Outdoor enthusiasts, beware: Alaska's serving up a slew of early-season avalanches, even without a large amount of snow accumulation.
On Wednesday, more than a dozen avalanches were observed at Hatcher Pass, north of Palmer. According to Hatcher Pass Avalanche Information Center avalanche specialist Jed Workman, it was the most active avalanche day this season and most were human-triggered.
"It was a large number of remotely triggered avalanches," Workman said. "It means the snowpack is very sensitive."
A remotely triggered avalanche is one that doesn't occur beneath your feet. A slight movement can cause an avalanche hundreds of feet away.
"If you're 300 feet away, you might not even be aware that you triggered something," Workman explained.
That's especially dangerous in a highly used area like Hatcher Pass. On Wednesday, Workman said, they counted 61 cars in the parking lot, which can mean more than 100 people participating in a wide variety of activities from sledding to skiing.
Workman said a man remotely triggered four avalanches when he set his pack down to rearrange his gear.
"Just the force of stopping and setting his pack down triggered avalanches 600 feet away," Workman said. He added three were small, but the last one could have hurt someone.
Witnesses told Workman another person got caught in an avalanche but was able to deploy an air bag, which is meant to help skiers and snowboarders stay on or near the surface.
Workman said that although many people were practicing avalanche safety techniques on Wednesday, the most common mistake he saw was groups riding all together instead of one at a time.
"Send one person down the slope at a time. ... If someone's hurt, your partner can help you. The idea that a helicopter is going to fly and save you is a bad thing. If you don't have air for four minutes, you can die. A helicopter isn't going to make it in time."
Conditions at Hatcher Pass are expected to worsen Thursday, with high winds predicted.
The recent spate of avalanches isn't the first of the season, Workman said.
Snowboarder Andrew Sorensen experienced his first avalanche in late October near April Bowl at Hatcher Pass.
"It was hard-packed and icy," Sorensen said. "People were just scraping the way down. It looked like a light dusting on a hard crust, so we decided to ride down from where we were and head out."
Sorensen was with another friend, who rode down first and triggered the avalanche.
"When I saw it, I stopped and yelled at him like four or five times, and he was about down to the road and he came to a stop, but it came out right behind him and pushed up five or ten feet," Sorensen said. "Kind of knocked him off his feet."
The avalanche left behind "mattress-thick" slabs of snow and debris, Sorensen said.
"After, we just kind of sat there for a second. We both just thought ... 'that was close.'"
Last week, another skier at Hatcher Pass was buried up to his chest when he tried to ride the windblown north face of Hatch Peak's East Ridgeline, near April Bowl. Workman described the avalanche as "significant."
But the early-season slides aren't limited to Hatcher Pass. On Saturday, an ice climber triggered an avalanche on O'Malley Peak in Anchorage.
Although the slide wasn't huge, it was high-risk, according to Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center director and forecaster Wendy Wagner.
"It was a slab of snow above a cliff and so it would have been high-consequence terrain. If you're dragged over the cliff, it's clearly a bad ordeal," Wagner said.
'If you can ski it, it can slide'
Contrary to popular belief, early-season avalanches can carry high risks. A thin snowpack doesn't mean reduced avalanche risk.
"If you can ski it, it can slide," Wagner said.
"It's likely the snow bed is near the surface, you're much more likely to get pulled over that rough terrain and get cut up and hurt," Wagner said. "You clearly have rocks and alders to get hung up on. Lots of old-timers forgo the early season because if they hit a rock they can hurt a knee."
Workman and Wagner both stressed the importance of avalanche education and practice. Both recommended checking gear to make sure it works and functions properly before heading into the backcountry and taking avalanche safety courses.
The Hatcher Pass Avalanche Information Center posts avalanche conditions online every Saturday and the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center posts them daily.