Iditarod will bomb trail to ease avalanche risks
By CRAIG MEDRED; Anchorage Daily News; February 24, 2006
High in the Alaska Range, efforts were under way Thursday to blast open the Iditarod Trail near where snowmobiler Richard Strick Jr. was buried in an avalanche 10 days ago.
Officials of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race said a helicopter, an avalanche expert and explosives were in place at the Rainy Pass Lodge in preparation for bombing potential danger areas to safely bring down snow.
"They're going to try to stabilize the pass," said Bill Merchant, director of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which precedes the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race through the area on its way to McGrath.
About 40 Invitational competitors on mountain bikes, skis or foot are scheduled to leave Knik this weekend on a better than 300-mile journey to the isolated Interior community. Then, more than 80 dog teams and drivers signed up for the Iditarod head north from Anchorage March 4 on an 1,100-mile march through McGrath and on to Nome.
All have been worried about avalanche dangers in and around Rainy Pass since Strick was caught in a snowslide and swept to his death Feb. 14.
After that accident, an expert was brought in to reconnoiter the Rainy Pass area for the Iditarod Trail Committee. They said it appeared many of the more dangerous avalanches had fallen and that with some avalanche-control efforts, the trail down from Rainy Pass into the Dalzell Gorge could be rendered relatively safe.
Part of an old mail route from Seward to the Iditarod gold fields of the Interior, the stretch of the trail from the west end of the wide-open Happy River valley up into Rainy Pass and then down into the Dalzell Gorge has been known as a dangerous avalanche area since the turn of the century.
"I've gone through there holding my breath before," said Merchant, who noted some Invitational competitors one year turned back to Puntilla Lake at the south end of Rainy Pass after getting nervous about growing avalanche dangers during a storm.
Unfortunately, Merchant added, there are no predictably safe routes through the central Alaska Range.
The Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race uses Ptarmigan Pass and Hellsgate to the south of Rainy Pass for the Wasilla to Nome leg of its annual 2,000-mile race to Fairbanks, but that is made easier because snowmobiles ridden by experts can easily "water skip" the free-flowing stretches of river for which the route is notorious in winter.
A one-time Iron Dog racer, Strick had been in Rohn to help in the checkpoint there as Iron Dog racers went through in early February. A popular resident of the Kuskokwim River community of McGrath, he subsequently took the lead for a group of volunteer trail breakers on a goodwill mission to open the route for the Iditarod sled dog race from Rohn up the Pass Fork of Dalzell Creek to Rainy Pass. The snowmobilers were unaware they were traveling at a particularly dangerous time -- just after heavy snows and winds in the mountains had worked to dangerously load gullies.
Because storms that pound Rainy Pass often fail to penetrate the mountains surrounding Rohn, it is easy to underestimate avalanche dangers high in the valley near the pass. Strick was headed uphill breaking trail through deep snow when a wind-loaded gully gave way beneath his machine, subsequently causing the snow above him to slide.
Avalanche rubble pushed him into a narrow ravine. A 46-year-old man who was as savvy about Alaska Bush travel as anyone, he was buried there under several feet of snow.
The avalanche spooked not only organizers of the sled dog race, but also those involved with the human-powered Invitational. Because of avalanche fears, Merchant said immediate consideration was given to the alternate route through the Alaska Range via Ptarmigan Pass and Hellsgate. But that was eventually deemed even more dangerous for dogs and people than avalanche-threatened Rainy Pass.
An advance guard of trail breakers on snowmobiles did manage this week to battle their way into Rohn via Hellsgate and the South Fork, Merchant said, "but they were soaked.''
From the one-room, wood-heated log cabin that is the only permanent structure at Rohn, they reported back by satellite phone that it would be extremely difficult for dog teams or people on foot to negotiate nearly 25 miles of trail regularly punctuated with open water sometimes feet deep in the South Fork Kuskokwim valley.
The grim report heightened desires to try to do something about avalanche dangers in and around Rainy Pass. The first of Invitational competitors will begin passing through that area by early next week.
One of them, skier Ned Rozell, a science writer for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, expressed relief avalanche-control efforts were under way.
"That's good," he said, when reached by telephone, "I figured they'd be doing something if Iditarod is going through there."
A bare-bones operation run almost single-handedly by Merchant and his wife, Kathi, the Invitational lacks the assets to fund avalanche control work. But the Iditarod is in a somewhat better position. Though still predominately staffed by volunteers, it is now a $2 million per year business that each year draws thousands of tourists to the state and attracts international attention.
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