Ken Smith/Turnagain Times
Avalanche technicians Rob Hammel (left) and Matt Murphy work for the state DOT in Girdwood.
By Ken Smith
With winter over, the avalanche season is winding down. But that doesn’t mean the work is over for two avalanche technicians who work for the state Department of Transportation at its Girdwood office.
Matt Murphy and Rob Hammel are avalanche specialists who work full-time on avalanche safety and mitigation for the Central region, which encompasses Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak, the Aleutians and parts of western Alaska.
But the primary focus of Murphy and Hammel is the avalanche areas where paths cross highways, and the Seward Highway has the most paths and highest frequencies and most severe consequences.
Murphy, 37, is the head avalanche technician and has been an avalanche specialist for 10 years. He started in the DOT position one-and-a-half years ago, working alongside Hammel, 59. Murphy’s job is to oversee the avalanche mitigation that goes on throughout Southcentral.
His immediate focus is the Seward Highway, with particular attention paid to the Bird Flats area at Mile 98 where the greatest activity of avalanches occur. There are five avalanche shoots at the location, referred to as Five Fingers. And with the heavy snowfall accumulation this year, it has been an active season in Bird and the entire Seward Highway as far south as Mile 37 and north to McHugh Creek.
“It was a very busy season all over, and Bird Flats is one of our most problematic areas every year, due to snowpack, weather and terrain,” said Murphy. “It’s real steep terrain above the highway that goes up 3,400 feet.”
Penguin Ridge, which extends from Girdwood to Bird is the most prone area of avalanches along the Seward Highway. That’s why there’s a gate position at the side of the highway in Bird just before the Five Fingers area, so DOT officials can shut down the highway when they shoot the mountainside. The shooting is done with a 115 millimeter Howitzer, one of two used in Southcentral. And with about 100 avalanche paths that can affect the Seward Highway, there’s a lot of shooting throughout the winter months.
The true test for technicians is to read the mountains and look for potential slides and it’s the people – drivers of the Seward and other highways in the state – that make avalanches mitigation a necessity.
“The stretch between Anchorage and Girdwood is one of the more hazardous because of the amount of traffic on that stretch of highway,” said Murphy.
There are four avalanche paths between Milepost 167 and 105 that they keep a close watch on, but the entire highway is constantly on watch for avalanche mitigation.
“On the whole road corridor there have been 200 avalanches between Milepost 107 and Milepost 21,” Murphy said. “These are avalanches above the road.”
As for avalanches that actually put debris on the roads this past season, Murphy identified 13 incidents: One on Hatcher Pass Road (natural), three at Milepost 44 near Summit Lake Lodge (two artillery triggered and one natural), two at Milepost 37 at Sterling Y (one natural, one artillery triggered), two at Milepost 106 (both natural), two between the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and the boat harbor in Whittier (both natural), one in Portage near the short tunnel (natural), one in Five Fingers (artillery triggered), and the most recent slide was April 18 near Milepost 44 and Summit Lake (artillery triggered).
Avalanche crews shot on 12 different days so far this season, Murphy said, between Milepost 21 and 99, utilizing all eight DOT gun mounts.
“As far as avalanches go, there’s a lot to it,” Murphy said. “There was a lot of cold, dry snow at lower elevations and that can lead fast moving powder cloud avalanches, which we had a lot of this year.”
Alaska is one of the most dangerous states for avalanches in the U.S. There have been 23 highway avalanche fatalities in all of the U.S. since 1951, and three in Alaska, two of those on the Seward Highway. However, the backcountry of Alaska makes it the most dangerous state when it comes to fatalities per capita.
“Alaska has the highest per capita fatality rate in North America for the backcountry,” Murphy said. “Mostly recreational users, snowmachiners, climbers, skiers, snowboarders, hunters, and that reflects the snowpack, weather and terrain in the state.”
There have been 132 avalanche fatalities in the state since 1950. Alaska has more backcountry fatalities than Utah, Washington, Montana, and Idaho.
“Considering the millions of people that live in those areas, that’s pretty bad, given that Alaska only has a population of 650,000,” said Murphy.
The average fatalities from avalanches in the U.S. is about 30 per year. Colorado tops the list of avalanche deaths with 241 since 1950.