Avalanche danger soars

Back-country users will need to be concerned for the next couple of weeks

Posted: Wednesday, May 05, 2004

With spring warmth in the air, Southeast Alaskans need to take precautions to keep from being buried under snow, according to the director of the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

"Spring snow is like wet cement," Bill Glude said. "If it catches you, it's going to take you where it's going, and you may not like where you're going."

For the next couple of weeks, hikers, skiers and snowboarders should be concerned with the potential for avalanches, he said.

The avalanche center is a nonprofit organization in Juneau devoted to avalanche education, Glude said. He finds the education particularly important this year.

Friday, an avalanche left a pile of debris in Gold Creek about half a mile wide, he said. About 90 percent of the debris was snow. The rest was "dirt and alders and such" that the heavy snow picked up in its path.

Thane Road and the urban areas appear to be safe, Glude said. But people need to be concerned that some of their favorite places to walk may not be as safe as they appear.

The flume between Evergreen Avenue and Basin road "is a wonderful walk this time of year," he said. "Probably stay off the flume for a couple of weeks." He said people definitely shouldn't be picnicking there, because of the avalanche potential.

People hiking to ski in the Eaglecrest Ski Area, which has closed for the season, can bring snow down toward them. Such avalanches normally aren't fast, but with the conditions this spring, they are faster than usual. Glude said it would take an experienced skier to avoid them.

Eaglecrest's Paul Swanson said the slopes aren't as safe when the area is closed. In season, maintenance crews control the avalanche danger by triggering vulnerable places, sometimes with explosives.

Out of bounds areas near Eaglecrest have the potential to hold an even greater avalanche risk because the ski area staff doesn't take care of them during the season, he added.

"The potential is there, especially out of bounds," Swanson said. He said cornices - snow masses projecting horizontally from peaks - "have the potential to calve off."

The big problem this year has been with the weather, Glude said. "Snow doesn't like rapid change."

For hills and mountains that accumulated snow in the winter, the spring has been unusually hot, he said. When he was in the mountains Friday, the temperature was in the 50s, but felt warmer in the sun.

Juneau warmed rapidly from conditions of winter, he said. The warmth during the day without the snow refreezing at night breaks down the bonds between the individual grains of snow, making it like "a snow foam."

The snow remaining at the higher elevations has the potential of coming down in an avalanche in four ways, he said.

Cornice breaks are a problem on their own, but when they break, they can trigger slab avalanches, as happened with Friday's Gold Creek slide. Slab avalanches, he said, "can be really big. There are a variety of slabs available (for avalanches) areawide."

In addition to skiers and snowboarders bringing down "sluff" or slough avalanches behind them, there also is a danger of glide-crack avalanches. The cracks appear like crevasses in a glacier, and slide away, he explained. He has seen a number of cracks forming.

"We've had a little bit of everything," Glude said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached

at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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