By Tony Gorman
For the Star 

Avalanche Center in Valdez quietly brings data and information year round

From safety to sanitation, the group works year-round to keep information current

 

April 18, 2018

Photo courtesy Ryan Van Luit/VAC

During a class taught earlier this year by Alex Rogers at VAC Basecamp on Thompson Pass.

Winter activities are a fixture on Thompson Pass – which many consider the premier area to recreate outside of Valdez – and so are avalanches.

This winter, more enthusiasts skied, snowmachined, ice climbed, and hiked this season due to a favorable weather conditions. According to the Alaska Avalanche Information Center and the Valdez Avalanche Center, Thompson Pass had an average season when it came to avalanches.

"As far as the avalanches go, generally here we get two types of avalanches," said Pete Carter, Alaska Avalanche Information Center founder and Valdez Avalanche Center volunteer. "We get direct action avalanches when snow falls, meaning it falls off the mountain or we get a wind event. It piles up the loose snow it takes it to the steep side of the mountain and falls off."

In the Valdez-Thompson Pass area, the winter period is from October through May. There were a couple of big wind events throughout that time with minimal wind speeds of 40 miles per hour. The biggest event this season for avalanches was on December 6 of last year. A snowstorm dumped 40 inches of snow overnight in Thompson Pass. The event triggered an avalanche that was 20 feet deep and 200 feet long. The avalanche shutdown Richardson Highway from Mile 12 to 42 for five hours.


Bill Johnson for Alaska House

December's event was nothing compared to the 2014 Damalanche. That was when avalanches occurred at Mile 24 and Mile 16 near Keystone Canyon around January of that year. The Richardson Highway was closed. The Alaska Department of Transportation triggered more slides in an effort to prevent more avalanches throughout the season. But, it ended damming the Lowe River and spilling into the highway. The ordeal lasted a little over a month.

Since the December avalanches, 2018 has been very windy. According to Weather Underground, winds for January averaged 4 mph with gusts of 27 mph with the strongest winds at 38 mph with gusts with 56 mph. In February, winds averaged 5 mph with gusts to 26 mph with the strongest winds at 48 mph with gusts of 78 mph. Winds in March averaged 5 mph with gusts to 27 mph. The strongest was 50 mph with gust of 72 mph.

"We had a couple of big wind events now," Carter said. "It's kind of like the snow packs what the people outside are looking at are seeing. Wind sculpted snow which can be fairly hard."

Despite the windy conditions, winter enthusiasts have been able to find springtime snow for activities.

"From what I can see, they have been able to get out there and find some pretty good snow. Some of them are starting to find some springtime snow," Carter said. "I didn't think we had the warm temperatures but they find and use those slopes and getting that soft snow. There's definitely people finding powder."

The Alaska Avalanche Information Center and the Valdez Avalanche Center will be posting daily weather and avalanche forecast information throughout the rest of the winter. They have hosted mountain safety classes this month.

The Valdez Avalanche Center receives funding from the City of Valdez to aid in the group's mission to bring avalanche awareness to Valdez through its website and through educational classes and its basecamp on Thompson Pass.

Carter said the group's efforts has encouraged more responsible behavior on Thompson Pass, and cited his group's placement of port-a-potties at the basecamp leading to other user groups to add their own – which helps cut down on the amount of human waste that accumulates outdoors during the winter months.

The group also monitors and records snow and rainfall in Valdez and reports directly to the National Weather Service and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For more information visit http://www.alaskasnow.org, email info@alaskasnow.org, or call (907) 831-0493.

 

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