More than two months after a series of natural avalanches buried Hatcher Pass Road, crews plan to resume clearing debris from the area and hope to reopen the road by the end of next week, transportation officials said of State.
The months-long closure is the longest to occur in decades on Hatcher Pass Road, which provides access to popular backcountry recreation areas. Five avalanches triggered on the road last April and closed it for several weeks. At the time, officials said avalanches of this magnitude had not triggered in the area since the 1980s.
“This year has been bigger and longer than last year,” said Jill Reese, public information officer at the Department of Transportation.
Crews initially estimated it would take several weeks to remove up to about 25 feet of snow from the winding road, but additional avalanches elsewhere in south-central Alaska depleted resources and delayed work.
The road first closed in mid-February at Mile 11, just past Skeetawk Ski Area. About 6 feet of heavy, wet snow fell in the area over the following weeks.
Four large avalanches crossed the road, Reese said. Two of these avalanches crossed the upper and lower part of the road. Several small avalanches have also been reported in the area, she said.
There is currently only one Department of Transportation-qualified avalanche specialist for all of south-central Alaska and he must be on the scene during any debris removal for safety reasons, said Reese. There are usually two specialists for the south-central region, she said, and the department has been working to fill the vacancy.
After the first avalanches, the transportation department triggered more avalanches and began clearing the debris. The road was able to reopen at Mile 14, near the Gold Mint Trailhead.
But avalanche mitigation was needed in other parts of south-central Alaska, and Reese said the avalanche specialist was moved away from Hatcher Pass Road.
“They even had more snow in Girdwood and around that area so he really needed to focus on the Seward Highway,” she said. “And especially planning for upcoming construction work and that sort of thing. We need to assess where you stack the cars to make sure you’re not putting anyone in an area, or if you are, there’s no problem.
For the first time since mid-March, Reese said the specialist would return to Hatcher Pass Road next week and work would resume.
On Monday, the road will close again at Mile 11 and crews will assess the area to see if further mitigation measures are needed.
“If they need to do more mitigation, they’ll bring in a helicopter and drop charges,” or explosives, Reese said. “And then once everything is settled, they will start on Tuesday instead of Monday.”
It will likely take crews about a week to clear the road, Reese said.
Access to backcountry recreation has been significantly impacted by the road closure. Independence Mine and Archangel Road, two popular locations for Nordic skiing, are not easily accessible, said Mat-Su Ski Club board member Ed Strabel.
“With the road being closed right at Gold Mint it really made it difficult especially for beginner skiers as they used to be able to get up there and ski back down Archangel Road which is very docile there has some small rises and dips, but nothing significant.
The ski club is preparing Archangel Road, Strabel said, but skiers have to cross a more difficult area to get to the path.
This year has seen a lot of snow, Strabel said, and it’s by far the longest he’s ever seen the road closed. Reese said the year was an anomaly – some seasons see more snow and avalanches while others are mild.
But for Strabel, he said he wondered, “Is this the new normal?”