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Two Rangers Have a Narrow Escape with an Avalanche in Alaska

Avalanche blocking road in Washington State.

This avalanche blocked the Mount Baker Highway east of Glacier, Washington on January 8, 2009. Photo by Washington State Dept. of Transportation via Flickr.

Your last trip home from a business meeting may have been a bit wearing, but it was probably lacked the drama of a recent drive by two rangers returning home to Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Alaska.

Chief ranger Tim Steidel and ranger Steve Edwards were en route back to Skagway, Alaska last Saturday night from a training session in Anchorage. Skagway is located at the northernmost point of the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska.

While descending White Pass approximately six miles outside of Skagway, Steidel, who was driving, noticed in the periphery of the vehicle's headlights that a wave of snow was falling from the adjacent mountainside toward the passenger side of the windshield. A NPS report summarized their narrow escape:

In an effort to evade the bulk of the snow mass, Steidel veered into the empty oncoming lane and braced in expectation of the vehicle being pushed from the roadway. At that instant, "everything went black" as the snow completely covered the vehicle’s windshield and piled into the passenger side with an audible “whomp,” nudging the vehicle sideways.

Seconds later, the rangers found themselves clear of the snow and debris and accelerated back onto open roadway, not taking the time to stop and look back in fear of a second or larger avalanche completely overcoming them. The rangers reported the slide to U.S. Customs a mile below the avalanche site and the highway was closed by the Alaska Department of Transportation until it could be cleared of snow and debris.

Colder temperatures have resulted in drier powdery snow and smaller point release avalanches, which spared the vehicle and occupants further damage and injury. Had temperatures been warmer, larger and heavier snow debris could have knocked the vehicle off the road and buried it.

This incident serves as a reminder of the hazards of traveling in winter in Alaska (and other areas) and of the importance of preparedness for cold temperature travel. The ranger's vehicle was equipped with studded tires, a new battery and with a survival kit, including sleeping bags, emergency food and water, a shovel, snowshoes, and similar items.

On this particular trip, the rangers were also transporting a satellite phone and a SPOT messenger satellite tracker, which might have come in handy in the event they had been trapped overnight by the slide.

Avalanches can be a serious hazard in areas with the combination of steep terrain and snowfall. In 2007-2008, such incidents resulted in 52 fatalities occurred in the U.S. and Canada. Almost all of those cases involved skiers and off-road activity.

This was ranger Edward's first winter trip on an Alaskan Highway. When asked how he felt about the experience, he replied “I think I’ll do my winter shopping in Juneau in the future.” Juneau is the nearest town of any size to Skagway, but is accessible only by water or air!


Its also interesting to note that a road trip from Skagway to Anchorage is some 812 miles (nearly 16 hours) and requires travelling through Canada to get around massive Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. That's quite a drive for a training session, let alone for shopping!

You're exactly right about the long drive - that's a fact of life in much of Alaska. My one brief visit to Skagway suggested that shopping for anything but the basics is pretty limited there, but this was a good reminder that I'm glad I don't have to drive 812 miles one-way to get to the nearest Home Depot!

Re: the training session - I deleted some of the details that I didn't think would be of interest to many readers. The training was the annual law enforcement "refresher' that all commissioned NPS rangers are required to complete each year. A number of those sessions are held in central locations or larger parks, and rangers from smaller parks such as Klondike Gold Rush attend the one closest to their duty station. The two rangers were also hauling some radio equipment back to the park from Anchorage, rather than paying to have it shipped in by air, so the trip did double duty.

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