Following Kodiak’s recent snowfall and warmer temperatures, experts urge people traveling in the island’s backcountry to be careful of avalanches when crossing steep terrain.
Residents reported a small avalanche Sunday night near Mile 3.5 on Pasagshak Road. Officials warn Kodiak residents to avoid stopping their cars and hiking in the area.
Police sent out a Nixle alert warning residents of a road closure Sunday evening due to avalanche danger and snow on the road. By Sunday night, one lane was open. The department said it expects the closed lane to reopen Tuesday morning.
“The potential still exists for possible avalanches in the area mainly due to large amounts of dry snow being covered up with rain and wet snow,” said Phil Smith, the Alaska Department of Transportation supervisor for Kodiak.
According to Smith, 30 feet of the road was covered by 6 feet of snow that fell during the avalanche.
The road services a number of residents in Pasagshak, two ranches and the Pacific Spaceport Complex.
Sunday’s avalanche is the second one that affected roads this winter. Another small avalanche occurred a week earlier on Old Womens Mountain, causing snow to block one lane before the department cleared the road, Smith said.
Steve Wielebski, the co-owner of Orion’s Mountain Sports and the president of the non-profit Kodiak Island Search and Rescue, an organization that trains volunteers to conduct search and rescue operations, is no stranger to avalanches and avalanche safety.
He has heard of several avalanches that occured on Pyramid Mountain last week, and said other steep slopes are also potential avalanche areas.
“Travel with at least two people, carry your avalanche safety gear, try to stay off of avalanche slopes steeper than 25 degrees,” he said.
Wiebeleski advises backcountry travelers on snowy slopes to stay on flatter terrain and avoid low-lying areas including lakes, creek beds, gulleys and gorges.
Avalanche safety gear that people should carry includes a shovel; a probe, or pole used to poke the snow to look for someone who was buried by an avalanche; and a transceiver. Transceivers are devices that send out a radio signal to people with the same device. People nearby with transceivers can track the signal to where the person was buried in the snow.
Following a weather event like snowfall, heavy wind or sunshine after recent snowfall, people should wait between 24 and 48 hours to climb steep slopes, Wiebeleski said.
Avalanches usually occur on mountains with inclines of at least 25 degrees. Any mountain with inclines of at least 35 degrees “is the perfect avalanche slope,” he said.
If travelers need to cross avalanche terrain, only one person at a time should traverse the dangerous area.
According to Wiebeleski, skiers and snowboarders tend to get in trouble when they see an inviting slope of freshly fallen snow and “make bad judgement calls because they are having a good time.”
This occurred to Wiebeleski 15 years ago when he triggered an avalanche on Pyramid Mountain. The slope had freshly fallen snow and the sun was out. His wife waited in the safety zone while he skied down the slope. All of a sudden he heard her yell. The snow broke loose by her feet and he heard a big, radiating “crack.”
Wiebeleski saw a cloud of white powdery snow barreling toward him. Although he tried to get out of it, it knocked him down. It felt like a rug had been pulled from under him, he said.
Remembering his avalanche training, he rolled back and forth as best he could to try to stay on top of the snow. After the avalanche, Wiebeleski found himself stuck knee deep and had to dig himself out.
“Roll and fight for your life. If you think you’re getting buried, you want to stick your arm out because maybe your hand will be above the snow pack,” he said.
Avalanche safety will be available for Kodiak residents in April by the Kodiak Island Search and Rescue, which will invite a teacher from the Anchorage Alaska Avalanche School.