The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Watching out for avalanches

 


Along the Seward Highway, the avalanche season got an early start and deviant weather conditions have remained instrumental in maintaining unstable conditions on slopes all over Southcentral Alaska. In contrast to last year when snow fell early and often, this year the ground froze hard and frosted over, creating a layer which merely served to facilitate avalanches any time there was sufficient snow fall to provide the raw material.

So Alaskans, who are used to getting out and enjoying at least a moderate snow pack, have had slow and dangerous going this winter recreation season. However, the scanty snow fall this season has benefited travellers by keeping the reach of avalanche activity away from most sections of the Seward Highway. More snowfall given the inconsistent conditions this winter could have likely resulted in more traffic delays as in past years.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC) offers frequently updated status and advisory regarding the two primary recreational areas between Portage and Seward, Turnagain Pass and Summit Lake. Alex McLain of the Crown Point Chugash National Forest office is the avalanche specialist for the Summit Lake area. His counterpart for highway avalanche monitoring is Matt Murphy of the Alaska Department of Transportation.

Along the Seward Highway between Resurrection Bay and Anchorage, there is seldom a winter that passes when avalanches do not close the road or at least cross the neighboring railroad tracks. The zone that typically provides the most roadside avalanche activity and impacts Seward the most is along Kenai Lake. However, there are many other slide areas between Mile 19 and Mile 107. And, as recent events have shown, winter rock slides pose a danger between Anchorage and Mile 107.

For activity along the Seward Highway, Murphy is presently overseeing the first installation of a computerized avalanche monitor. Although the Alaska Railroad uses similar equipment to watch its tracks, this apparatus will be the first of its kind along the road. Although new to Alaska, the technology has been in use by Wyoming and Utah DOT for some time.

There are several critical areas along the highway including the stretch between Girdwood and Bird as well as Summit Lake and the Tern Lake Wye. However, because of the difficulty in monitoring the road along Kenai Lake, DOT has selected Mile 21 to set up the inaugural avalanche station. Clouds frequently obstruct slopes along the lake and the slide prone stretch is quite a distance away from Murphy’s base of operations in Girdwood.

Beyond providing alerts for major events, the new gear will provide data for managing the slide path. Many avalanche events fall short of the highway and incoming data can provide an estimate for how the snow pack above the highway is stacking up. It gives us a better tool for scheduling avalanche mitigation, said Murphy.

According to Alex McLain, while he and Murphy will consult together on conditions, the Forest Service depends more on actual field surveys of conditions. They don’t have similar remote sensing equipment and its applicability is more limited. Instead they spend quite a bit of time up on the slopes checking out the layering of the snow pack manually and analyzing hazards. That gives them the information to make decisions about avalanche mitigation and develop advisories for the numerous recreational users frequenting the slopes of the Chugach.

Avalanche Awareness

At a recent avalanche awareness seminar at Seward High School presented by Dorothy Adler of the North America Outdoor Institute, she noted that for the large number of Alaskans who spent their time in virtual wilderness, the amount of avalanche awareness and education is startlingly low. Just a three-hour introductory seminar such as hers can mean the difference between have some knowledge about how to recover a missing companion from an avalanche or being a helpless observer, Or the difference between knowing how to maximize your chances for avoiding or surviving an avalanche and being seriously injured. Or dead.

The common thread between the recent avalanche awareness presentations in the Seward area was making the choice not to proceed when conditions warrant caution. One of the first steps to making plans for an outing or road trip is researching those conditions. Even a routine side trip to Anchorage bears a glance at the web.

For weather along the highway, the DOT Road Weather Information System (RWIS) is used as a source for many weather sites and provides detailed information about conditions along with visual monitoring of area highways via cameras. Access the information directly at tinyurl.com/akrwis or in context at 511.alaska.gov. 511 provides additional information about driving conditions and events such as road construction.

Alaska Railroad weather conditions are available at http://www.akrr.com/wthr. For off road avalanche conditions along the Seward Highway and in the surrounding backcountry visit http://www.cnfaic.org.

Alex McLain is giving the final Seward Ranger District avalanche awareness class of the season at the Seward Community Library Museum, Feb. 9 at 10 a.m. The course will include a field trip demonstrating rescue skills with hands on radio beacon tracking. For information call 288-7710.

 

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