Sun Road bikers stranded by avalanche

May 28, 2019

Significant avalanche activity Monday at Triple Arches on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park trapped 13 cyclists on the far side of a avalanche debris pile and unable to return down the road for a number of hours, the park reported Tuesday. No injuries were reported.

Earlier Monday, the park had closed the road to pedestrian and cyclist traffic at the Loop after a separate significant rock slide blocked the scenic highway and prevented emergency vehicle travel. However, many cyclists were already beyond the road closure at that point. Two Glacier National Park volunteer bike patrol units were also up the road, though on the west side of the avalanche slide area. They relayed the call for help to park dispatch, and stayed in the area for more than four hours until park rangers gained access to the scene.

A park road crew cleared the rock slide, and began cutting a path through the avalanche debris to open the way for the stranded cyclists. Avalanche forecasters with the U.S. Geological Survey also assessed the avalanche area and slope above.

The snow stabilized after several hours, allowing crews to work safely. Conditions often do stabilize after a period of hours, so the park reminds hikers and bikers to carry extra food and clothing in case they are stranded because of an emergency or unexpected situation.

The operation took approximately eight hours and involved more than a dozen park staff and volunteers, the park said. The cyclists were reportedly cold but in good spirits, and otherwise unharmed.

Visitors photographed cyclists walking over the slide activity to continue their cycling trip up the road.

The park advised bikers and hikers who encounter a slide along the road to turn around. Signs of slide activity means that more avalanche activity is possible, as was the case Monday, the park said.

Do not attempt to cross an avalanche slide unless it’s absolutely necessary, the park said. If you do, you may become trapped on the other side as more snow continues to slide. If you must cross, use a spotter to watch for additional slide activity farther up the mountain and cross one at a time, the park said.

“If you see fresh snow on the side of the road or across the road, even if you are excited about your bike trip, turn around,” said Chief Ranger Paul Austin. “Take responsibility for your safety and though disappointing, plan on heading out another day. Biking along the Going-to-the-Sun Road is not the same as an easy bike trip around town.”

Glacier reminded visitors that conditions change rapidly in the park and advised that visitors should always pack extra food, bring extra clothes, and learn about potential hazards that may exist in the area you plan to visit.

Sunny weather affords comfortable conditions for cycling and hiking, but does increase avalanche hazard as snow softens, the park said. Even small slides can knock a person off their bike or feet, and the steep terrain along the road can increase the danger of even a small slide.

The Sun Road is a narrow mountain highway prone to rock slides and avalanches. It’s not uncommon for the park to have one or two incidents each year where visitors become trapped on one side of a slide.

Spring rescue can be particularly difficult because the road is not yet cleared along its entire length. The final area to be cleared is the “Big Drift” near Logan Pass, a large snowdrift that accumulates all winter and typically is 40 to 80 feet deep.

Last week, park officials warned bikers and hikers about the potential of avalanche-related hazards along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

They said the park had received multiple reports about close encounters with avalanches along the Sun Road and in the backcountry. Plow crews and visitors have encountered multiple avalanches crossing areas already plowed in the last two weeks, particularly in the Triple Arches area, officials said in a news release.

Avalanches that begin out of sight near the tops of the highest peaks can impact the road thousands of vertical feet below without warning, the park said. Snow avalanches on the Sun Road corridor are capable of reaching the road and depositing debris piles more than 30 feet deep.

Spring avalanches can occur during and after snowstorms, during and after rain, and on sunny days as snow softens. The park said visitors should watch out for “snowballs” falling on the road from above, which can be an early warning of an avalanche. Hearing avalanche activity in the distance also means avalanche danger in the area is high.

Hikers and bikers also should learn to spot avalanche chutes and pay close attention as they walk or cycle past these areas. Avalanche chutes can often be identified by a lack of trees, many downed trees, or vegetation growing in a downward direction. Never stop for a drink of water or a photo near an avalanche chute.

People can minimize avalanche-related risks by riding portions of the Sun Road below significant avalanche terrain, the park said last week. Though a few slide areas exist below the Loop, most exist beyond that point in the alpine section of the road.

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press.All rights reserved.