Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)

Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)

South Klondike Highway remains closed due to avalanches

Yukon Avalanche Association recommending backcountry recreators remain vigilant

The South Klondike Highway will likely remain closed until Monday due to avalanche activity.

“That’s a result of the dramatic levels of snowfall and the storm systems that have been hitting that region,” said Oshea Jephson, spokesperson for the Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works.

The highway between Carcross and Fraser has been closed since March 1.

Jephson told the News that the Yukon has seen about 20 avalanches this season, ranging in size. Four highway crews are working to return the South Klondike Highway to driveable conditions.

“We’re just continuing our efforts to clear those as best we can,” Jephson said.

Unlike city maintenance crews, highway clearing crews can only work during daylight hours because of safety precautions, slowing the process.

The teams are currently concentrating their efforts to clear the main arteries between Whitehorse and Carcross.

Road clearing is more challenging after an avalanche than after snowfall, Jephson added.

“Unlike clearing freshly fallen snow, like we dust off our car, avalanches create concrete-like snow. So you’re essentially fighting against this compacted, tough snow, which just makes it that much more difficult to clear,” Jephson said.

The onslaught of avalanches is arriving after a snow-heavy winter season. A meteorologist told the News that the Yukon has received the most precipitation this year since 1972.

Ben Horowitz, communications director for the Yukon Avalanche Association, said his team is closely monitoring risk potentially affecting backcountry users in partnership with Avalanche Canada.

“It’s been an incredible snow year … what people are calling a one-in-100 year,” Horowitz said.

“There’s been an incredible amount of avalanche fatalities elsewhere in North America. I would say that we’re just really grateful that we’ve had no fatalities, no active involvement.”

The snowpack in the White Pass is generally strong and free of persistent weakneses, he explained.

Horowitz said that warming spring weather may lead to intensifying avalanche risk in the coming weeks, but the correlation is “complex.”

“Rapid temperature rise is definitely a factor that can drive instability,” he said.

“It depends, though. Warming doesn’t automatically equal instability, there are so many other factors and variables.”

Entry-level avalanche training does teach that temperature shocks are a “red flag” and something to be mindful about, he added.

The Avalanche Association primarily monitors risk in the White Pass and Wheaton Valley regions. The White Pass is currently inaccessible due to the South Klondike Highway closure.

“That kind of speaks to the current situation, there were a series of storms over the last week or so and really strong winds and precipitation is very often a formula for avalanche activity,” Horowitz said.

“That’s definitely what drove the increased danger and the resulting natural avalanches along the South Klondike.”

When the highway reopens, Horowitz recommends that backcountry adventurers check the avalanche forecast to get a “foundational picture of what’s going on” before visiting.

“Then, it’s critical when you actually arrive at your trailhead … that you are ground-truthing and verifying conditions for yourself because the forecast is just forward-looking,” he said.

“It’s based on a scientific process that has a margin of error in it, always. So it’s incumbent on skiers, snowmobilers, backcountry users to always be verifying actual conditions for themselves.”

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at gabrielle.plonka@yukon-news.com

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