Snowmachiner tells story of Hatcher Pass avalanche
Bluebird days in Southcentral Alaska are few and far between, or at least they have been this winter. So when some residents of the Mat-Su Borough woke up to more than a foot of fresh snow Tuesday morning, many were looking to take advantage of the perfection out the back door.
Unfortunately, the snowpack was less than ideal. A buried weak layer and inverted pack led the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center (HPAC) to issue an avalanche warning for Hatcher Pass.
An avalanche warning means there is high danger of large avalanches in the area. This includes both naturally occurring and human-triggered slides.
Most avalanches are classified as human-triggered, meaning the rush of snow down the side of a mountain is set off by a person in the area.
Tuesday’s warning included naturally occurring slides, putting people at the bottom of steep slopes in harm’s way, without directly impacting the stability of the snowpack.
One snowmachiner’s video from that day shows just how harrowing a naturally occurring avalanche can be.
(Viewer warning: Explicit language)
Justin Pleier started his day just as he had so many others before: packing up the sled and gear and taking the truck up Hatcher Pass to experience the snowy bounty Monday left in the mountains.
He met his friends at Turner’s Corner to gas up and plan out the day. They planned to head up to the upper parking lot and venture out to Dogsled Lake.
Each person had a shovel, probe, beacon and float backpack and knew how to use them, but on the way up the pass, Pleier's way was blocked and he had to turn back and park in the lower lot.
Having ridden snowmachines since he could manage the throttle and steer on his own, Pleier has some 28 years of experience and felt confident in the solo ride from the lower lot to meet his friends for a day in the fresh snow.
As he entered Craigit Valley, however, a frightening scenario unfolded.
As he was cruising along near the base of the valley, Pleier caught the glimpse of a cloud of snow to his left. He turned to watch the entire hillside shed the snow it held.
In the video, you can see the cloud of snow growing as he races away from the slab crashing down the hillside. With seeming ease, he navigates boulders and creek beds quickly finding his way across the valley to safety.
Once out of harm’s way, Pleier looks back to take in the sheer magnitude of the slide.
HPAC reviewed the event and found it to span 2,600 feet across. That is a half-mile wide slab of snow crashing down a mountainside at speeds even the best skier, snowboarder or snowmachiner cannot outrun.
It didn’t stop there. You can see that, as the snow came to a rest, it buried the tracks that Pleier had traced in a few different locations.
Looking back on that close call, Pleier figures it was probably the sound of his snow machine that triggered the slide.
He wasn’t high-lining or side-cutting or making any sort of risky maneuvers as he cruised to find his friends. The avalanche just started without warning.
Pleier was thankful he was able to keep his head during the whole ordeal.
Looking back, he says he will now be vigilantly aware of his surroundings. Had he not caught a glimpse of the cloud of snow out of his left eye, the day might have ended differently.
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