ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Thanksgiving holiday weekend is a big one for snowmachiners: with their appetite for turkey taken care of, there's that craving to get out into the backcountry -- despite the avalanche risks they may face.
Local weather is entering a cold spell, preceded by a warm spell -- and that should always send up red flags for the possibility of an unstable snow pack. Avalanche danger at Turnagain Pass, one of the popular areas for snowmachining in Southcentral Alaska, is rated moderate.
The fresh snow cover was a pleasant surprise for snowmachiners -- especially with the rain leading up to Thanksgiving. Looking at the homebound traffic back to Anchorage, a lot of people hit the trails Friday.
"Trails were nice," said Turnagain Pass snowmachiner Kurtis Bronson. "kinda cold. all the snow is all hard and crusty."
An alternating pattern of warm and cold weather can spell trouble, and snowmachiners saw signs of recent avalanches.
"There's a trail you go up and over, and there's two avalanches over the trail where people ride all the time," said Turnagain Pass snowmachiner Victor Demoski. "There's slides all down the mountain."
The U.S. Forest Service says snowmachiners should be watchful for changes in the weather, especially if winds pick up and move snow on top of icy ledges.
"We're just going to be watching for a lot of wind," said the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center's Jon Gellings. "As soon as the winds start increasing, that could blow into slab avalanches."
Gellings says in his field work, he's seen something else that's troubling.
"Usually, what we see in Turnagain Pass is there's a lot of people grouped out on the mountain slopes -- and whenever you get a bunch of people closer, that creates a bigger stress on the snowpack in that area," Gellings said. "Just spacing out when you get into the steeper terrain is generally the best protocol to follow."
The Forest Service believes that the combined weight of several riders might have triggered last winter's Feb. 13 avalanche that took the lives of ConocoPhillips Alaska President Jim Bowles and his friend, Alan Gage.
The weather pattern leading up to the avalanche was similar to recent conditions. A mixture of warm storms brought rain that formed heavy crusts of ice, followed by heavy snow -- a recipe for avalanches.
"We both have (avalanche) beacons," Bronson said. "The beacons are set for when somebody's buried. you can turn your beacon on and find another guy."
Along with beacons, before tackling these mountains, the Forest Service also says a probe pole and a shovel should be mandatory equipment -- because searchers say the first 15 minutes are critical in a search-and-rescue operation.
The Chugach avalanche center has a hotline at 907-754-2369, so visitors can get the latest on trail conditions. Right now, only two areas are open for snowmachining in the Glacier District: Turnagain Pass and Johnson Pass.
Other areas will open when there's more snow cover.
Contact Rhonda McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org