Snow-covered mountains are one of the many reasons why we choose to live in Alaska. Their soaring peaks and majestic valleys are beacons to those whose hearts soar at the idea of spending time in the great outdoors, drawing adventurous souls of all kinds into their powerful embrace.
The mountains can be a magical place, full of snowy wonder and opportunities for recreation at seemingly every turn. And for thousands of Alaskans each year, the mountains are an almost-limitless playground teeming with possibilities for experiencing many of the wonders Mother Nature has to offer.
But there’s also danger lurking in the mountains, danger that has become all too familiar in recent weeks with the deaths of two more people in Hatcher Pass. The loss of snowmachiner Dashiell Erickson and snowboarder Warren Carlyle this month in separate avalanches brings the total number of recreation-related deaths in the pass this winter to three, a grim statistic for a winter that’s only half over. Earlier this year, a skier from Wasilla named Dr. Liam Walsh also disappeared in the area after likely getting caught in an avalanche.
The slopes of Hatcher Pass can be deceptively serene. On any given weekend, many of the slopes near the road leading into the pass can be seen covered in kids and weekend warriors, many of whom are far from hard-core backcountry adventurers. The area is one of the best places in Southcentral for family recreation, with its kilometers of groomed Nordic ski trails and sledding hills that beckon young and old alike.
The fact that the area is so heavily used may help contribute to a false sense of security for people visiting the pass, which is much more dangerous than many might realize. Once one gets into the mountains, there are plenty of places to get into trouble that are seemingly safe because they’re so well used.
That’s why it’s so important for people to exercise avalanche safety practices — even when the slopes might seem safe. Safety experts advise anyone traveling into the backcountry (which includes pretty much all of the pass) to carry basic gear including a shovel, avalanche beacon and probes. It’s also strongly advised that folks who plan to play in the snow take an avalanche safety course, several of which are offered by local experts. It’s also imperative that people “buddy up” while in the mountains by traveling with one or more other people at all times. Mountain travelers should be aware of recent snowfall conditions and stay away from steep slopes. A common rule of thumb is to stay away from slopes of greater than 30 degrees unless you’re trained in avalanche safety and aware of the increased risk posed by steeper terrain.
One death in the mountains is a tragedy; three are a major cause for concern. Please exercise extreme caution when traveling into Hatcher Pass (or any other mountainous area) this winter. We don’t need another death in the mountains.
— Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman,