Skier dead, 2 injured in Kenai Peninsula avalanche off Seward Highway

Feb. 15—An avalanche south of Summit Lake on the Kenai Peninsula killed a 28-year-old backcountry skier from Anchorage on Tuesday afternoon and injured two others as high winds earlier in the week led to dangerous conditions in the mountains.

The avalanche near the Seward Highway was reported at about 4:30 p.m. about 4 miles north of the Sterling Highway junction. The three skiers were ascending the slope of a mountain east of the Seward Highway when they triggered the avalanche at treeline, authorities say.

The avalanche caught all three and pushed them into a harrowing descent hundreds of feet down the mountain, according to responders with Cooper Landing Emergency Services.

"It broke loose above them and carried them 800 to 1,000 feet down," Cooper Landing EMS deputy chief Clay Adam said Wednesday. "Two of them were able to stay pretty much above the surface or close to it."

Alaska State Troopers on Wednesday identified the person killed as Anchorage resident Joseph Allen.

The two survivors were able to self-rescue but Allen was buried, troopers said. One of the survivors began searching, found Allen and dug him out of the avalanche and started CPR but could not resuscitate him, Adam said.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center on Wednesday posted a preliminary report describing the site of the avalanche as John Mountain, at 2,600 feet elevation. The slide, measuring about 150 feet wide and running for 700 vertical feet, had propagated 100 to 200 feet above the skiers at the time it was triggered, according to the preliminary report.

The survivors were taken to a Kenai Peninsula hospital for treatment of injuries described by authorities as serious but not critical. Medics managed to back an ambulance about a mile up a U.S. Forest Service road, Adam said. Alaska Wildlife Troopers brought out the patients via snowmachine. Moose Pass responders and the Forest Service also assisted.

The trio carried avalanche rescue gear including beacons, according to Wendy Wagner, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

It's likely that the "very significant wind event" that hammered Southcentral through Tuesday contributed to the instability of the slope that gave way, Wagner said. Forecasters reported gusts of more than 70 mph on the Anchorage Hillside on Monday night.

"That's been hitting most areas in the Kenai Mountains, the western Chugach Mountains," Wagner said Wednesday. "Those winds have been gusting over 80 mph for a couple of days. Yesterday was the second day."

The center's preliminary report said that the slide had failed on a weak layer of snow about 2 feet down in the snowpack at the crown, or top, of the avalanche, and that recent winds had likely loaded snow on the slope in that area — adding stress to that weak layer. The avalanche occurred on a slope with an angle measuring between 30 and 36 degrees.

Wind tends to lead to unstable snow conditions by adding a new layer of snow that's not bonded to the existing layers below or by adding extra weight on top of snowpack that could trigger avalanches in existing weak layers below.

The avalanche center said it planned to issue a full report on Tuesday's avalanche by the end of next week.

Eight people, including Allen, have died in avalanches this season around the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. A German man on a heli-ski trip died after triggering an avalanche on a run near Lake George in the Knik Glacier area earlier this month.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center was reporting "considerable" avalanche danger Wednesday at all elevations in the popular Turnagain Pass recreation area more than 20 miles north of the avalanche scene. Forecasters recommended staying "well away" from steeper slopes.

The center also warned of dangerous conditions due to continued high winds and higher temperatures around Chugach State Park.

An observer in the Moose Pass area described natural avalanches on wind-loaded slopes.

In Seward, local officials reported numerous avalanches across Lowell Point Road just south of the city. Public works crews were working to clear snow flowing across the road in places Wednesday afternoon, according to a public notice that urged anyone driving the road to travel before 11 p.m.