ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A dangerously unstable snowpack in the Chugach Mountains north of Valdez has forced two heli-ski tour operators to call it quits for the season. That comes more than a month earlier than usual.
Alaska Backcountry Adventures and Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, two of four helicopter-transport skiing services in the Valdez area, said last week that the mountain snowpack near Thompson Pass had deteriorated over the past two weeks and was expected to get worse.
Guides and clients of both companies had triggered slides recently, although no one was seriously injured.
''We've had close calls, and we didn't like it. And we had guides leading out and triggering avalanches, and we didn't like it,'' Doug Coombs, owner and chief guide for Valdez Heli-Ski, said Friday.
Slides were occurring even without any help from skiers, said Tom Thibodeau, co-owner of Alaska Backcountry Adventures.
''I can look out my window and see seven of them that have natural releases with 5-foot crowns,'' Thibodeau told the Anchorage Daily News, referring to the depth of the fracture line where a slab avalanche pulls away. ''That can take out a building.''
The acute instability at Thompson Pass is due to a relatively unusual development in the snowpack dating from February and apparently is not widespread, snow specialists said.
The two other heli-ski guide services out of Valdez, for example, operate on different slopes to the south, closer to Valdez, and will continue to take skiers into the mountains this season, they said.
Nor does the same problem exist in the mountains above Girdwood, according to Chugach Powder Guides, the local heli-ski operator.
''We skied all day today with overall good stability,'' Frank Coffey, operations manager for the Powder Guides, said Friday.
The snowpack skied by his clients was beginning to destabilize during the afternoon, but only on sun-exposed slopes, and it restabilizes by nightfall, Coffey said.
The heli-ski season at Thompson Pass generally begins in early March and lasts well into May. About 1,000 clients a year ski the area's mountains via helicopter.
Officials said the mountains in Chugach State Park next door to Anchorage also may be hazardous.
Al Meiners, the park's superintendent, observed three loose-snow avalanches on sun-exposed slopes a week ago near Eklutna Lake, he said.
The Alaska State Troopers said a snowmachiner from Fairbanks was killed in an avalanche over the weekend while high-marking in the mountains near Paxson.
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