Forecasters warn of dangerous avalanche conditions in Turnagain backcountry

Anchorage is heading into what looks to be a spectacular April weekend, leaving avalanche authorities worrying about the possibility some skier might not make it through alive.

Sunny weather is expected to lure dozens, possibly hundreds, of skiers to fresh snow in Turnagain Pass about 50 miles southeast of the state's largest city, but dangerous avalanche conditions have developed there.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center on Friday issued an avalanche warning for the pass, Portage Valley, Girdwood and surrounding areas.

A foot to 2 feet of snow fell on the area this week. Skiers who hit it early have already encountered danger. One was caught in an avalanche Wednesday on a peak called Magnum near the southwest end of the pass.

"The slab depth was 2 to 3 feet deep and it ran a total distance of 1,300 feet to the valley floor,'' the center reported. "The skier went for a 1,000-foot ride but was not buried or injured.''

On Thursday, a group of skiers climbing Seattle Ridge on the south side of the pass "felt a collapse and found a large avalanche in Main Bowl in a similar area they had just skinned through,'' the center reported. "It is possible that they triggered it remotely from the ridge, but it was unwitnessed.''

Since then, conditions have only deteriorated, said the center's Wendy Wagner.

Large, human-triggered avalanches are a good possibility on steep, north-facing slopes, she said, and both natural and human-triggered avalanches are possible, probably likely, on south-facing slopes as the snow warms in the expected daytime sunshine.

"We're definitely concerned,'' she said, especially with those north-facing slopes that still have good winter snow for skiing but are hard to predict.

"It's been a very interesting year avalanche-wise,'' Wagner said. "People are finding and skiing some really great lines,'' but one ridge over, a similar-appearing slope can be very dangerous.

"There are big pockets of instability,'' she said. "It's a little tricky (to predict) out there.''

The Friday morning avalanche warning especially noted that "cornices have grown very large over the last few weeks and with today's warm temperatures natural cornice fall is possible. If traveling along a ridge, give cornices a lot of space. They can break farther back than you think."

A noted Colorado ski guide died Wednesday when a cornice atop which he was standing broke off in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve near the Canadian border. He fell to his death.