Chasing Snow on Hatcher Pass


 
 

Contributed by Debra McGhan

Thanks to support from the City of Palmer, BP Employees Foundation, Mat-Su Parks and Trails, Fishhook Community Council and dozens of individual donors, the Hatcher Pass Regional Avalanche Center, part of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, is now producing one forecast per week along with mid-week updates and observations for Hatcher Pass.

Forecasters Jed Workman and Allie Barker live in Chickaloon, and often make the drive to Hatcher Pass to look for avalanche activity, dig pits to determine the stability of the snow and carefully check snow crystals for fracturing or cohesive bonding.

On other days, Jessie Haffener and Sam Galoob, caretakers at the Independence Mine State Historical Park, spend their time recording their observations or teaching school children the basics of avalanche and backcountry travel safety.

All of this work is done in an effort to keep the Hatcher Pass visiting public aware, informed and ultimately out of fatal avalanches.

The goal is to provide current, relevant information that will help visitors to Hatcher Pass better know and prepare for snow conditions. Some days forecasters may describe stable conditions, but on other days have been known to recommend visitors pause on the sidelines and wait for conditions to improve.

Since 1997, there have been nine people lost in avalanches in Hatcher Pass.

Workman and Barker, recognizing the void and need for avalanche safety information for Hatcher, Pass, spent numerous years managing and providing a weekly forecast as unpaid volunteers. With years of training and experience, the two avalanche specialists set out to establish a nationally recognized forecast center but lacked the resources needed to make it happen.

Joining forces with the statewide, Alaska Avalanche Information Center in 2010, and working in collaboration with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center, Workman and Barker formed the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center advisory committee with local residents. In 2016, the group began fundraising efforts in earnest.

Thanks to growing support from the City of Palmer, the Fishhook Community Council the Mat-Su Parks and Trails Foundation, and dozens of individual donors, the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center now produces a weekly funded forecast along with paid observations. These efforts are helping to sustain the forecast center and bring critical information on a regular basis to Mat-Su Valley residents who regularly visit Hatcher Pass.

For Janet Talley, the mother of Dr. Liam Walsh, this comes as good news. She lost her son to an avalanche in Hatcher Pass in November 2016.

“Our family was shocked when we discovered how popular this area is to the public, yet there was no official forecasting or information available,” said Talley. “Not even any obvious signs to warn people about the danger.”

Talley and a host of friends joined together after Walsh’s death and contributed funding to support the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center’s ‘Are You Beeping’ sign project.

Today, there are three of these interactive signs located at Hatcher Pass State Park kiosks. The signs warn visitors to the area about the potential danger, provide critical safety tips, and ensure visitors are transmitting a signal from operating avalanche transceivers.

Skeetawk, a non-profit group dedicated to building a controlled ski area in the lower area of the pass, is moving forward with their plans to construct the first mechanized ski lift. This ski area is expected to bring even more visitors to the pass and further increase the need for avalanche information for this region.

“As the number of visitors to Hatcher Pass continues to grow,” said AAIC President Sean Wisner, “we want very much to see the Hatcher Pass avalanche center continue to grow and become a solid fixture and information resource for this region of Alaska. And more importantly, we want to see the number of fatalities in Hatcher Pass stop happening.”

In addition to forecasting and observations, the Alaska Avalanche Information Center Hatcher Pass team provides educational opportunities and outreach across the Mat Su Valley. Thanks to funding from the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Mat-Su Health Foundation and First National Bank Alaska, the education team is visiting schools and communities across the Mat-Su Valley, providing free or low-cost workshops.

Don’t head out to Hatcher Pass without taking the time to get educated. Your family will thank you. Learn more and see all the training opportunities available at https://Alaskasnow.org.