By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A fuel-laden Russian tanker and its U.S. Coast Guard escort struggled through treacherous, ice-choked seas on Wednesday to reach the frozen Alaska port of Nome with an emergency gasoline and diesel delivery, Coast Guard and shipping officials said.
The unusual mission to ice-bound Nome, now facing a fuel shortage, is the first-ever attempt at a marine delivery of fuel to western Alaska in winter.
It was organized last month after the city missed its last scheduled barge delivery of fuel, which had been slated to arrive in the fall, in a cancellation blamed on bad weather, including the worst storm to hit Alaska's northwest coast in decades.
As of Wednesday morning, the ice-class tanker Renda, carrying 1.3 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, and the Coast Guard's only functioning icebreaker, the cutter Healy, were plying the Bering Sea about 100 miles south of Nome, said Stacey Smith, manager of the Anchorage-based Vitus Marine company that chartered the Russian vessel.
After traveling a combined 68 miles on Sunday and Monday, the two ships actually "lost a little bit of ground" on Tuesday as shifting ice pushed the vessels back, Smith told Reuters.
Smith said it remained unclear when the ships would reach Nome, a city of 3,600. "That's the question of the hour. Nobody's able to answer that as of yet," she said. "Each day is very, very different."
Bringing the Renda and Healy to port is only "half of our mission," Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley said. "We've got to get two ships to Nome, then we've got to ensure the safe transfer of oil. ... And then we have to get both ships back out to the open water."
"It's day by day. They say icebreaking is an exercise in patience," he said.
The fuel delivery to Nome coincides with other efforts to cope with extreme winter weather around Alaska.
Successive storms have hammered communities along the Gulf of Alaska coast in the southern part of the state, including Anchorage, the Prince William Sound village of Cordova, and the island fishing port of Kodiak, where some boats in the harbor sank after being overloaded with snow.
Avalanche dangers were heightened in much of the region, with strong winds and warming weather hitting the Chugach Mountains, state and local officials said.
In Cordova, which typically receives 100 inches of winter snow, accumulations since November have already reached 176 inches, interspersed with rain. Heavy amounts of snow and rain continued on Wednesday, city officials said.
National Guard crews were sent by the state to help residents dig out, and Coast Guard crewmen also pitched in to clear snow from city docks.
Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, is on track for a record snow year, according to the National Weather Service.
Avalanches and blowing snow forced day-long closures of the sole highway leading south of Anchorage, temporarily isolating the ski-resort town of Girdwood, and the tunnel that is the only road access to the small Prince William Sound port of Whittier.
Both the highway and tunnel re-opened on Wednesday.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)