A weekend avalanche in the Kenai Mountains near Cooper Landing that left one snowmachine rider dead might well have killed two if not for others in the area who came to the rescue.
Investigators from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center who got to the scene on Sunday reported a massive fracture in the snow that broke to an average depth of 4-feet along a surface almost a mile wide late on Saturday afternoon.
What followed was every mountain riders worst nightmare. Tons of snow rumbled more than 1,000 feet downslope near what is locally known as “V-Max Hill” in the popular Lost Lake riding area.
Two snowmachine riders were caught. Both were buried.
Soldotna’s Rob Meyer was one of the first on the scene after the catastrophe.
“I first found a half-buried sled, then I saw a hand waving and I found Bryant (Evans) buried with just his hand waving and his face showing,” Meyers wrote in a Facebook post now being widely shared by snowmachine riders in the 49th state. “I believe we found Bryant within the minutes from when the snow covered them. He was buried so tight he couldn’t move anything except his hand. I dug him out as fast as I could, so we could turn off his (avalanche) beacon and search for Tyler (Kloos).”
A desperate search
Both Evans, a 29-year-old from just down the highway to the north in the small community of Sterling, and his riding buddy, 29-year-old Kloos from Kasilof on the Cook Inlet coast by way of Minnesota were wearing avalanche beacons for safety.
These transceivers as they are called emit a homing beep while in the transmit mode. After an avalanche, survivors can switch their beacons to the receive mode and use the beep to track their way back to someone who is buried.
When would-be rescuers did that Saturday, however, their search efforts were confounded by the beeps coming from the two separate transmitters.
While Meyers was working hard to free Evans – “the snow was set up like concrete and was very heavy and difficult to dig out,” he wrote – his son, 18-year-old Jackson, was continuing the search for Kloos.
“…It was difficult because of both beacon’s sending a signal,” Rob wrote. “It took me approximately seven minutes to dig Bryant free. We got Bryant’s beacon turned off so we could use our own beacons to locate Tyler. Jackson found Tyler’s signal about 100 feet to the east of where Bryant had been buried and started probing and felt his body right away.”
Kloos, however, was buried deep. Rob estimated 8- to 10-feet.
“We dug and dug and dug,” he said. “We were so tired and desperately needed more help. I decided to jump on my sled and go get Johnny (Smithwick) who had another shovel. David (Barlow) walked up the hill to help, too. We were all so exhausted (that) it was so helpful to have more people to help us dig.”
Five people were now fighting to get to Kloos, but it is no easy task digging through heavy, compacted avalanche rubble.
“It was very challenging trying to get the snow out of that deep hole but we finally made it down to Tyler after about 15 more minutes of digging,” Rob said. “By this time, we estimate he had been buried for 20 – 25 minutes.”
They found the former standout 189-pound wrestler from Minnesota unresponsive.
“I pulled his helmet off, and Jackson started mouth to mouth immediately. We did chest compressions on him while he was down in the hole,” Rob said. “He was completely purple in the face, unconscious, with no pulse.
“A man named Johnny Freeze showed up and helped us pull him out of the hole. A few more people showed up willing to help. We worked on Tyler for another 15 minutes, and I decided that I needed to mark the spot with my GPS and go call for help. I raced out to the (Snug Harbor Road) parking lot and a couple of guys gave me a ride out to get cell phone signal to call for help. I was finally able to call in the report.”
Far from easy rescue in Alaska
Cooper Landing emergency medical technicians rallied to the scene as Alaska State Troopers notified of the accident asked LifeMed Alaska to dispatch a rescue helicopter.
Rob said he arrived back at the avalanche with another snowmachiner and two Cooper Landing EMTs just as the helicopter was landing.
“Jackson had continued mouth to mouth while Jonathon Freeze did chest compressions for the entire one and half hours we were gone,” he wrote. “I believe all total they did CPR for approximately two hours straight….Everyone there did what they could to help in the best way they knew how. They never gave up.
“Once we arrived, (EMT) Jacob Pass worked on Tyler for a few minutes until the chopper could find a stable landing zone to load Tyler. We all helped load him on the chopper and they took off.”
Kloos, unfortunately, never regained consciousness.
Forty-year-old Rob admits to being badly shaken by what happened.
“I cannot express in words how incredibly exhausting, both mentally and physically, it is to be a part of a rescue like this,” he wrote. “I also want to express how important it is to be prepared with a shovel, probe, and beacon so you can help find someone. I do not own an avalanche pack (the kind you pull a cord when you are in danger and it blows up air bags around your head and upper body) but after witnessing what I did on Saturday I will be buying one for me and my sons. They can help keep you floating on top of the snow and if you are buried they give you air space to breath until you can be rescued.”
The “avalanche pack” is a reference to avalanche air bags now widely popular in Europe and becoming more so in the U.S. The bags, which a user can trigger to blow up around his or her head, act sort of like an oversize version of the old “Mae West” personal flotation device.
In the best case scenario, they float people up out of snowslides. They have proven the most effective piece of avalanche survival gear to hit the market to date.
But, like avalanche beacons, the air bags remain far from perfect. They will reduce your chances of being critically buried by more than half, but in examining the corresponding chances of survival, an “11 percentage point decrease in mortality represents the best case scenario when airbags are properly deployed and inflate as designed,” Pascal Haegeli, a Canadian avalanche researcher and safety consultant writes at BeaconReviews.com.
“Past studies have repeatedly highlighted non-inflations as a serious problem for the performance of airbags,” he adds.
No perfect tech solution
In about 20 percent of cases, airbags are not deployed by their users. Usually, Haegeli reported, it appears that the people wearing the bags simply weren’t familiar enough with the equipment to be able to put it into use in a terrifying situation. He suggests anyone who buys an air bag practice, practice, practice on how to use it so that if it is ever needed deployment is an automatic, trained reaction and not something that requires thought.
Non-inflations are a real and serious issue.
“If non-inflations are taken into account,” Haegeli wrote, “airbags reduce the risk of dying from 22 percent to 13 percent.”
The flip side of that math is not all that encouraging because it leaves a 78 to 87 percent chance of death even with the bag.
All of which underlines a comment from Rob Meyer:
“The very best advice I can give (and I have learned the hard way myself over the years) is to be aware of avalanche conditions before you leave your home and stay away from the danger zones,” he wrote. “Ride in the trees and valleys. It may save your life.”
Several riders who saw the ridge onto which Kloos and Evans were headed Saturday thought it dangerous, but that did not stop the two young men. The CNFAIC report says their snowmachines were what triggered the slide that killed Kloos.
Rob wrote that he is just thankful that Evans survived.
“We were very honored to have been in the mountains on this day to be in the right place at the right time where God needed us to be,” he said. “We are so thankful that we were able to free Bryant and so sad that we could not revive Tyler. My heart and prayers go out to his family and loved ones.”
Digging a cold, lifeless body out of a pile of avalanche rumble is not something you ever want to do because you never forget.