Danger in Anchorage’s backyard: Forecasting avalanches in the Chugach State Park
Sixteen people have died in avalanches at Chugach State Park since the 1970s. Three of those deaths happened on Alaska’s most climbed mountain, Flattop. Others have happened on well-used trails, like Powerline Pass and Little O’Malley Peak.
Paul and Cindy Vanderweide were planning to climb Little O’Malley Thursday afternoon. They said they feel safe and are not concerned about avalanches.
“For the most part, up here, we’re on established trails and if we can tell a bunch of people have been hiking on an established trail then we’re not too worried about it,” said Paul Vanderweide.
Despite feeling safe, they’re still cautious.
“We’re always listening and looking, you know listening for that ‘womph’ kind of sound as we walk,” said Cindy Vanderweide.
Packed trails, like those found in the mountains on the outskirts of Anchorage, can be misleading, according to avalanche forecaster Mathew Brunton.
“Both with beginners and more experienced users there’s often a false sense of security,” he said.
Brunton is one of a small group of volunteers with the Anchorage Avalanche Center forecasting conditions for the area. He says more needs to be done to alert people of danger and to educate them about how to avoid possible loss of life, like the previous accidents.
“A lot of those could have been prevented just by people having a super basic level of awareness, just to be able to recognize and identify avalanche terrain,” said Brunton.
He’d like to see avalanche forecasting for Chugach State Park get funding in order to become a full-time, paid effort, rather than the grassroots, volunteer effort he’s currently taking part in. Brunton says it would take support from the municipality and the state, but that it’s worth it due to the high number of people who use the area.
In the meantime, he recommends checking conditions and to act with caution, which is advice the Vanderweides keep in mind.
“It’s important for people to check on those things and respect the mountains,” said Cindy Vanderweide.
The Anchorage Avalanche Center has information about current conditions on their website. You can also find information about classes they offer there.
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