TURNAGAIN ARM - With three to four feet of snow falling in the Turnagain Arm area over the last two days, the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center issued a high avalanche advisory for the backcountry.
Dangerous conditions above and below the tree line meant chances of an avalanche in the backcountry were strong Wednesday.
The silence of a typical day near Turnagain Pass was broken by Department of Transportation crews as they used a borrowed Howitzer canon — and fired 105mm shells — into the hillside. Their goal: to trigger avalanches before they come down on their own.
Matt Murphy is the Seward Highway Avalanche Specialist with DOT. He said the “cold, dry, faceted” snow that made up the October-to-December snowpack is now blanketed by “a lot of warm, dense, slushy snow.“
“When avalanche conditions are such, we need to make lots of small avalanches so that we don’t get any large, unexpected ones.”
“We’re just trying to stay ahead of the game,” Murphy said. And that game can quickly turn deadly, according to Chugach National Forest avalanche forecasters.
“Bottom line: Dangerous avalanche conditions remain in the backcountry,” Wendy Wagner said on the forest service’s automated avalanche hotline. With the high avalanche danger, “travel in the backcountry is not recommended.”
That was disappointing news to many waiting to get out and enjoy the new snow. With the backcountry off limits, the slopes at the Alyeska Ski Resort proved a good playground. Good, but not ideal.
“It would have cool to go to the upper bowl today,” Anchorage skier Theresa Feighery said, “but it’s closed.”
With Alyeska reporting more than 50 inches of snow since Monday, the resort had to close some slopes.
“There is an absolute avalanche danger with this new snow that has accumulated,” Mountain Services Manager Brian Burnett said. “We will be hopefully mitigating that hazard as the snowpack starts to heal up from the stress.”
Those mitigation measures include ski-cutting the trails and even explosives to break down instabilities.
With more snow expected in the next 24 hours, the avalanche advisory is expected to remain high. Which means it's going to be a while before there’s a typical day along Turnagain Arm.