Too much snow to ski

This machine melts the snow and the water is dumped down storm drains. Photo courtesy Nick Barshay. Click to enlarge.

The snowed-clogged town of Cordova had rain Wednesday, adding pounds to the snow, increasing avalanche danger, and complicating the cleanup. The forecast calls for more snow over the next two days, then some sun.

The town needs the sun, says former Cordova Mayor Tim Joyce. He’s the new information officer for the small Prince William Sound community. The job didn’t exist until the world found out about Cordova’s 15-plus feet of snow.

Joyce volunteered to answer all those media phone calls coming into city hall.

He says the warmer temperatures and rain have helped somewhat, but it’s also made all that snow a lot heavier. Residents were evacuated from one apartment building earlier this week when the roof started to sag, jamming doors and windows. It’s one of the many roofs yet to be shoveled by residents and others who’ve come to the town to help.

Joyce says the Copper River Highway to the airport also has been closed due to high avalanche danger.

“During daylight hours, people are being escorted through by police, a little like a convoy kind of thing around the avalanche zones,” he says.

Large, scoop-type shovels – capable of moving a cubic foot of snow at a time — are expected in town by Friday. Joyce also describes a wonderful piece of equipment that came in from Anchorage.

“Basically, it’s a snow melter and it’s here!” he says. “We’ve been working on some of the snow that we’re pulling off the roads and got no place to put. We have like three backhoes feeding this thing as fast as they can. And it melts the snow and turns it into water. The only thing you have to do is make sure the drains are open so it has some place to go,” he says.

Sixty Alaska National Guard members have been helping state transportation crews, city workers and residents dig out those drains, shovel the roofs, and a myriad of other chores. Joyce sends a shout out to the guardsmen’s home towns.

“They all had jobs and their employers let them go to be able to come down and do this. And we really want to thank those employers wherever they might be in Alaska to let these guys come down here to help us,” he says.

Twenty-two crew members from the Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore have been working in the harbor, including shoveling floats, some of which had started to sink.

“They’ve also been really good because they had six mechanics assigned to us to help maintain some our heavy equipment, you know loaders and graders and stuff,” he says. “That’s been real useful.”

Too much snow to ski

Cordova is on Orca Inlet at the base of Mount Eyak. Two weeks ago, Joyce says, the Mount Eyak Ski Area had some of the best skiing Cordova has ever had.

“You know with two feet of powder, it was phenomenal skiing,” he says. “After our storm we have no skiing because the chairlifts are buried.”

Jan. 9, 2012. More snow has fallen since. Courtesy Mt. Eyak Ski Area. Click to enlarge.

The Mount Eyak Ski Area, elevation 1,230 feet, is operated by the Sheridan Alpine Association. Dave Branshaw is general manager.

“We had 15 feet at the snow stake, but that was a week and a half ago,” he says. “It’s snowed quite a bit since then, and it’s still snowing up there.”

Branshaw says even the 30-foot O tower close to the top of the mountain is nearly buried.

Here’s the message he put on the Mount Eyak Ski Area hotline earlier this week:

“After this storm blows through we’re going to start and it’s going to take us probably about a week to dig it out, depending on how much help we get.”

Mount Eyak’s historical chairlift dates back to Sun Valley, Idaho’s Mount Baldy, where it was first installed in 1936. It was moved to Cordova in 1974, and is one of only two single chair lifts still in operation in the U.S. The other, by the way is in Mad River Glen, Waitsfield, Vermont, which remains closed for lack of snow.

Branshaw says a crew started shoveling a path to Mount Eyak’s base buildings and shop on Wednesday. They still have to uncover the rope tow, the base of the chair lift, and midway station. Then they’ll tackle the top.

But first there’s the town to dig out. Branshaw says it’s like a job:

“Every day we’re starting with a shovel plan and we get our gear together and head out there and keep scoopin’,” he says. “We usually put in a solid eight hours every day.”

Valdez also breaks snow records

Another Prince William Sound community is struggling with more snow than it can handle.

Valdez normally has about 150 inches by this time of the year, but the National Weather Service says snowfall is up to 318 inches, or 168 inches more than usual.

Even so, the city is holding off on declaring a state of emergency.

The Valdez City School District earlier this week closed Hermon Hutchens Elementary School, because the roof had exceeded its snow load capacity. Then the high school roof exceeded its capacity, so the Valdez district has shut down schools for the rest of the week.

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