A highly experienced and well-known Anchorage skier has been identified by Alaska State Troopers as the man killed in a pre-Thanksgiving Day avalanche about 60 miles north of the state’s largest city.
Randy Bergt is the first to perish this winter in a state where avalanches are a deadly winter reality. His death comes two years to the November 22 day that 33-year-old Dr. Liam Walsh disappeared in an avalanche while skiing alone in the same Hatcher Pass area of the Talkeetna Mountains.
Walsh’s body was not found for eight months. Solo skiing in avalanche terrain is considered highly dangerous.
The 60-year-old Bergt was skiing with two friends, and all were reported to be wearing avalanche beacons and carrying shovels. Beacons enable those who escape an avalanche to quickly search for and dig out those who might end up buried.
Troopers reported Bergt’s companions found him, dug him out of the avalanche and started CPR, but he never regained consciousness.
Avalanche beacons are often thought of by backcountry skiers and snowboarders as a fool-proof piece of survival gear, but a 2005 studied warned that the danger of dying in an avalanche remains high even if you are wearing a beacon and your companions are highly skilled in beacon search procedures.
“Despite a significant reduction, mortality still exceeds 50 percent even with the use of transceivers,” the Austrian authors of that study reported in High Altitude Medical Biology.
Subsequent studies have reported better results for airbags, but early season skiing or snowboarding in conditions when boulder patches and other deadly terrain features are often covered by only a thin layer of snow remains particularly dangerous. And even when the snow cover is better, avalanche avoidance remains far and away the safest approach.
The Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center reported the deadly, Wednesday slide occurred at approximately 3,700 feet on the south face of Marmot Mountain. The peak is one of many popular with backcountry skiers in the Hatcher Pass area.
Winds had been howling through the area and moving snow in the days prior to the slide. Windloading along ridgelines can create dangerous and sometimes tricky avalanche conditions. The weight of a hard, compacted drift atop loose, unconsolidated snow on a steep slope can create a natural landmine just waiting for someone or something to trigger it.
“Strong easterly winds, sustained for 20 hours, on Monday, Nov. 20, reached 30 mph gusting 51 mph,” the avalanche center reported. “These winds built dangerous, sensitive, wind slabs at mid- to upper-elevations which continue to be an avalanche problem.”
Most deadly avalanches in Alaska are human triggered.
The avalanche center was continuing to warn of danger in the Hatcher Pass area.
Bergt was a very well-known local skier both on the cross-country and downhill scenes. Friends said he had just retired from his longtime job as an engineer with the Municipality of Anchorage.
He coached Nordic skiing for a time at Service High School where he helped tutor future Olympic biathlete Jeremy Teela. Biathlon, one of the most popular winter sports in Europe, combines cross-country skiing and shooting.
Bergt and his wife, Tasha, a P.E. teacher at Huffman Elementary School, were big supporters of the Nordic Skiing Association of Alaska (NSRAA) and often volunteered to help with NSAA projects. The ski group has built and now maintains tens of miles of ski trails spider webbing through Alaska’s largest city.
Early season snows in coastal Alaska often presents difficult conditions for assessing avalanche danger. The annual report for last winter from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, which monitors a broad area around Turnagain Pass south of Anchorage that is as popular with backcountry skiers and snowboarders as the Hatcher Pass north of the city, reported “numerous…skier triggered and natural avalanches” in November 2016. But fortunately no one died.
The winter of 2016-17, which was snow short in many areas, was a relatively safe one for Alaska. Only two avalanche fatalities were reported, and one of those was a child killed by snow sliding off a roof near Fairbanks.
Avalanches claimed the lives of six people the winter before, two of them in the Hatcher Pass area. A map of fatalities compiled by the Hatcher avalanche center is dotted with the sites of 13 deaths.
Alaska, despite its small population, is second to only Colorado in the number of avalanche deaths since the winter of 1950-51, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center which tracks deaths nationally. It reports 152 deaths in that time.
Alaska is tied with Montana for third nationally in the number of deaths since the winter of 2008-09, according to the center. Colorado remains the deadliest state with the state of Washington only four fatalities ahead of Alaska.
Washington state is home to about 10 times as many people as Alaska, which is now averaging more than three deaths per year. Avalanche experts say it a good idea for anyone who plans to venture away from the Alaska road system into the mountains of the state in the winter or spring to get at least some basic avalanche assessment training.