'Happy to be alive:' Hikers outrun Byron Glacier avalanche
A group of hikers' close call with an avalanche in the Portage area last weekend is prompting safety reminders from Southcentral Alaska avalanche forecasters.
"Today was the day we outran an avalanche," wrote Shiloh Powell, starting off a dramatic Facebook post about her experience Saturday afternoon on the Byron Glacier Trail.
A wall of snow, captured on video by KTVA viewer Callie Ashcraft, came down at about 3 p.m. Saturday. Powell, from Anchorage, was hiking with a friend when they heard something.
"The hair on the back of my neck stood up and it stopped me in my tracks. I stopped Amber and shouted "Shhh.. listen," Powell writes in her post.
"Then I heard it..and in a second realized what it was. It sounded like a freight train," said Powell.
Powell says the avalanche was coming right at them.
"A V A L A N C H E!! RUN, AMBER!!," Powell says in her post.
Powell says they covered several hundred yards when the slide stopped. The snow did not reach the two friends.
"My knees were absolutely shaking and I doubled over in relief.. just happy to be alive with my incredible friend there at my side," Powell said in the post.
The two left the area and warned others who were heading in to see popular ice caves in the area.
"Several people heeded our warnings and joined us on our path of travel back to the parking area," said Powell.
At the end of her Facebook post-Powell warns about the danger of avalanches.
"Oh- and those warning signs that the US Forest Service posts about avalanche danger? Please don't be like us and walk right past them. Please read them and follow the directives as outlined. Avalanche danger is VERY real. Now is not the time for backcountry exploring without proper training, exit plans and survival gear," said Powell in her post.
Officials with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center commend Powell for telling her story, saying it will draw attention to the dangers of avalanches. Officials say Powell and her friend also did the right thing by being observant, by looking around and spotting the slide. The center also has a warning for all hikers.
"The message for folks going in the backcountry, it is not a time to venture into the mountains. And this hazard is for the eastern Turnagain Arm area so this would be Girdwood Valley, Portage Valley, areas on the Kenai. Anywhere that is seeing this stormy weather, " said Wendy Wagner, the center's director.
Wagner said avalanche hazards in much of Southcentral Alaska have risen from considerable to high since last weekend, due to windstorms both over the weekend and Tuesday.
“Both of these storms, last weekend and this week, have been and will be initiating natural avalanches,” Wagner said. “That’s what happened last week on the Byron Glacier Trail: an avalanche releasing on its own due to rain and wind.”
The ice caves to which Powell was hiking, Wagner said, are symbolic of both the beauty and danger associated with avalanche areas.
“Interestingly enough, these caves are made from the Byron Creek which goes through avalanche debris, so the caves are made from debris from previous avalanches as well as this season,” Wagner said. “The (U.S.) Forest Service does not recommend going into an ice cave ever, as they could collapse at any time.”
Wagner says Saturday's avalanche was caused by snow and wind loading an avalanche path, where the snow can't stick to the ground any more and falls. She says one of the big concerns right now for hikers at the Byron Glacier is that avalanches can happen on both sides of the valley. She says it's possible that snow could bury everything in the middle, where many hikers go. She says there were a handful of avalanches in that area Saturday. No injuries are reported.
Hikers are urged to check conditions before they venture out. You can call the Chugach National Forest Information Center hotline for more information. The number is 754-2369.
Chris Klint contributed information to this story.
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