Just add snow: Overnight dump leaves group in danger

by • October 30, 2015 • UncategorizedComments (0)195

Courtesy Graham Predegar The day before the snow.

Courtesy Graham Predegar
The day before the snow.

Story by Graham Predegar

We just picked up a six-pack of DuraFlame logs from the store on our way to one of my favorite local trailheads in Chugach State Park on the outskirts of Alaska’s largest city. The objective was Rabbit Lake, a mellow 4-mile hike to spend one more night in a tent before the inevitable transition of gear from summer to winter sport. The DuraFlame logs, though heavy, would be a sure bet to get a quick fire started at our alpine destination. It was the first week of October, and as we left the south Anchorage trailhead in mid-afternoon, fall was in the air with just the slightest dusting of snow on the high peaks of the Chugach.

Light rain accompanied our hike into the alpine lake along with a couple of warnings of an approaching storm mumbled from hikers heading toward the trailhead. With six adults and two dogs in tow, we were committed as we marched up the soggy trail in tennis shoes and light hiking boots toward Rabbit Lake and the Suicide peaks; the city lights of Anchorage to our back.  Little did I know that we were a mere eight hours away from one of the fastest moving, heaviest-producing winter storms I’ve ever experienced in my 25 winters living in Alaska.

Courtesy Graham Predegar The next morning, after the snow.

Courtesy Graham Predegar
The next morning, after the snow.

We arrived at our destination around 6 p.m. to fading light and rain that turned to the very first snowflakes of the season, falling on the talus and alpine tundra. As devotees of winter sport, seeing those first few snowflakes was as exciting as a stack of presents under your Christmas tree as a young child. We used the remaining light of the day to leisurely set up our three tents and add a few rocks to an existing windbreak on a flat spot at the base of Ptarmigan peak, overlooking Rabbit Lake. With some freeze-dried food in our bellies, tents set up and a fire blazing, life was good. The sipping whiskey came out and we spent the next couple of hours swapping stories of the past summers adventures, which appeared to be vanishing before our eyes one snowflake at a time.

With our faux-firewood spent, and perhaps an inch of wind-driven snow blanketing the tundra, each couple bolted for the shelter of their respective colorful nylon tents. I briefly considered moving our tent into the constructed windbreak for some added protection, but simplicity prevailed and I opted to just crawl into the warm, dry nest next to my wife, Hannah, as the storm began to pick up.

I remember this being a rather sleepless night as the wind howled against the thin shelter and heavy snow continuously shed from the roof, slowly pushing the walls of the tent in inch by inch.

Friends Don and Stephanie Clack were the only ones who probably slept lousier than us as they were sharing a two-person tent with two anxious dogs. At first light, I heard Rusty, a large and adventurous chocolate lab, let off a couple of yelps as he exited the tent. I poked my head out to assess our surroundings and saw Rusty swimming for all he was worth in three feet of fresh, heavy snow. An instant later, I looked to my right where the third tent in our party was pitched and could make out my friend Tom just exiting his tent with a big stretch. I had time to yell “TOM!  AVALANCHE!” over the wind-driven snow still pounding through the Rabbit valley. Tom swung to look uphill just as a slow-moving, wet, Class 2 avalanche (could bury, injure or kill a person) packed 4 to 6 feet of avalanche debris into our windbreak from the night before and continued advancing directly toward him. By the grace of God, the leading edge of the debris stopped not two feet from the open tent door and his partner Beth, still wrapped in her sleeping bag.

As the ‘avalanche professional’ in the group, I quickly sounded the alarm to hastily pack our gear and hightail it out of there. We had zero avalanche or snow travel gear and scenarios began playing through my head of using tent poles to feebly probe for my buried friends. We were ill-prepared and still had at least 2 miles of breaking trail through 36 inches of dense Chugach powder underneath notorious avalanche paths before I’d feel safe from the overhead hazard.

The slow slog out allowed us ample time to debrief and discuss the events of the past 18 hours. Avalanches as a hazard were not on our radar. After all, you need snow to have an avalanche and there was none of that when we left the trailhead. However, with wind and snow rapidly loading the slopes above our tents overnight, it proved enough of a load to overcome the friction of the talus slopes that acted as the weak layer. A seemingly simple overnight such as this was a good reminder that Alaska in all its glory and harshness truly is only 30 minutes from Anchorage in any direction.

Fortunately the only injury suffered during our brief outing was a case of Limber Tail Syndrome, or “Cold Tail.” Lucky for Rusty the dog, once thawed out, his tail was able to wag again.

Graham Predeger works as an avalanche forecaster for the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Info Center (CNFAIC.org) and enjoys dragging his friends and family along on mini-adventures in the Chugach Mountains and beyond.

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