Winter is here, it’s just lurking up high

Download Audio

It may seem like another crummy winter in Southcentral. Too much pavement. Not enough snow and ice. But if you’re willing to head up — not north, but upward in elevation — there’s a different winter story playing out. 

The road at Turnagain pass sits at about 1,000 feet of elevation. Up there, winter looks a lot different than it does in Anchorage. Photo: Monica Gokey/APRN.
The road at Turnagain pass sits at about 1,000 feet of elevation. Up there, winter looks a lot different than it does in Anchorage. Photo: Monica Gokey/APRN.

It’s a wet and windy Saturday up at Turnagain Pass. You can hear the high-pitched screams of snowmachines ricocheting around, but you can’t see them. Visibility is low. Everything is socked in.

Anchorage snowmachiners Mike Lindemann and Nolan Boedigneihmer just got back to the parking lot from a quick rip. The rubber track on one of their snowmachines is loose. Lindemann tightens the track with a couple flicks of a wrench.

On a socked-in day up Turnagain Pass, you can often hear the snowmachiners before you see them. Photo: Monica Gokey/APRN.
On a socked-in day up Turnagain Pass, you can often hear the snowmachiners before you see them. Photo: Monica Gokey/APRN.

“So over time as you ride them the rubber track stretches out and you have to tighten them back down. So they make these tensioners right here,” he says as he cranks it tight.

Lindemann says wet snow exacerbates this kind of problem. And it’s pretty wet out. But he isn’t complaining too much.

“It’s actually pretty nice this year because Turnagain Pass is actually open,” he says. “Last year it wasn’t open so our nearest place to ride was two and a half, three hours away.”

Turnagain Pass wasn’t open to snowmachiners last year because of a lack of snow. Backcountry skiers had to hoof it — skis strapped to their backs — for 20-30 minutes before there was enough snow to skin up the mountain.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center keeps tabs on snow activity in the Turnagain Pass area. Avalanche center director Wendy Wagner has been on the mountain all year. And she says, yes — yes, indeed — winter is back this year.

“So our snowpack, right around treeline and above treeline in what we call the apline, is more than average. And that’s wonderful because it lays down a lot of the alders and people are able to recreate in many of the areas they haven’t been able to recreate in the last couple of years.”

Now that the snow’s in, backcountry users have been coming in droves.

“We had a sunny weekend a couple of weekends ago and there were, I would say, a thousand people out recreating on Turnagain Pass.”

A thousand people at Turnagain Pass might sound insane, but Wagner says the area is big enough that it doesn’t exactly feel like Alyeska on a Saturday.

And speaking of Alyeska — they, too, are having a good snow year. Up top, at least. Down low, not so much.

Daniel Fisher of the National Resources Conservation Service manages the automated snow-measuring sites across the state. (Here’s an interactive map of Snotel sites across Alaska.)

And the numbers concur with what people are seeing on the ground.

“Generally, the the farther up the mountain we go, the closer to normal the snowpack becomes.”

Snowpack is even well above the norm at some high-elevation sites. At Hatcher Pass, for example, snowpack is about 140 percent. Up Turnagain Pass, 160 percent of normal. According to one observation submitted to the Chugach avalanche center by a glaciologist, a snow-measuring site on Wolverine Glacier on the Kenai clocked the highest mid-season snowpack on record since the early ’80s.

The Snotel site at Turnagain Pass is at 1,880 feet. Image generated by NRCS.
The Snotel site at Turnagain Pass is at 1,880 feet. Significant precipitation in January and February pushed snowpack above the norm this year. Image generated by NRCS.

But the lower elevation sites tell a different story. At a number of spots — like Portage Valley and Kincaid park — there’s less snow now than there was in December. Low-lying areas have been melted out by winter rain.

At lower elevations throughout Southcentral Alaska, whatever snow has accumulated is being melted away by winter rain events. Image generated by NRCS.
At lower elevations throughout Southcentral Alaska, much of the accumulated snow has been melted away by winter rain events. Image generated by NRCS.

So what’s with the awful winter down low and the great winter up top?

“Well, at one point it would certainly seem unusual, but, I mean, looking at the last three years, that’s been sort of what’s going on,” Fisher says.

Fisher says there are two reasons you get a low snowpack. The first: precipitation is below average. That is not the case this year.

After a couple of quick repairs, Mike Lindemann and Nolan Boedigheimer take off toward a ridge line up Turnagain Pass. Photo: Monica Gokey/APRN.
After a couple of quick repairs, Mike Lindemann and Nolan Boedigheimer take off toward a ridge line up Turnagain Pass. Photo: Monica Gokey/APRN.

“So you can have low snowpack because of low precipitation, but you can also have low snowpack because your precipitation is coming as rain instead of snow. That’s what’s been happening the last three years.”

It’s what Fisher calls a temperature-driven snowpack. The precipitation is right on schedule — but it’s falling as rain instead of snow in low-lying areas.

But up high… well, there’s enough snow for Lindemann and Boedigheimer. They’ve got their sights set high up the mountain.

“Yesterday I was up to the ridge line,” Lindemann says. “Today we haven’t quite gotten there yet.”

Their two snowmachines growl into life and they take off, headed up toward an invisible ridge line where the snow is right.

Winter conditions in Turnagain Pass have paved the way for significant avalanche activity. Backcountry users are advised to check daily bulletins from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, and to undergo basic backcountry safety and rescue training.