Deadliest day

deadliest day

Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the deadliest recreation-related avalanche in Alaska history, and in the days leading up to it the state has suffered the first two avalanche deaths of the 2018-2019 winter.

Until 33-year-old snowboarder Jeffrey Cheng of Anchorage was buried and died in a Kenai Mountain avalanche on March 9, this looked like the first winter in a long, long time that might pass without an avalanche death in Alaska.

But first Cheng fell victim and then, only four days later, Alaska State Troopers reported 34-year-old David Dzenawagis died in an avalanche in the Takshanuk Mountain near Haines.

The back-to-back fatalities brought the 2018-2019 death toll even with that of 2017-2018, Both deaths that year came before the start of March.

The winter of 2016-2017 saw two deaths as well, but one was a bizarre avalanche fatality in North Pole, a suburb of the Interior city of Fairbanks.

A 4-year-old child died when a roof avalanched and buried her in April. She was not the first to die in a roof avalanche in Alaska. And, sadly, she is unlikely to be the last in a state where people have been killed by snow with an alarmingly regularity for years.

Six died in the winter of 2015-2016, two in 2014-2015, one each in 2013-2014 and 2012-2013, two in 2011-2012, four in 2010-2011 and on and on.

Danger zones

Most of the accidents happen on the edge of Alaska civilization. Usually the avalanches are triggered by the victim or friends of the victim. Often the dead are carrying protective gear.

Ski guide Rob Liberman made an avalanche forecast for Alaska Heliskiing, his employer in Haines, hours before he went out and died in an avalanche along with a client at about this time of month in March of 2012.

The fatal accident later became the subject of a movie – “The Alaskan Way” – and a New York Times feature story. Alaskan Way director Ben Clark told the Times that the accident caused him to give up both extreme skiing and rock climbing.

“I started to think about my own parents and about my own wife,” Clark told Times reporter Neil Amdur. “Now that I have a son, it’s sort of like, wow, my whole life could still completely screw up and I could become a terrible father. But I can think of nothing harder than just wanting to know something and losing them in this way.”

Clark confessed to being tired of people explaining such deaths as people “dying doing what they love.”

Now retired Denali National Park chief climbing ranger Daryl Miller used to bristle at that suggestion as well. Miller had to console too many surviving family members after people died in the Alaska mountains.

To him, the issue was pretty simple. People die because they screw up. Then families and friends suffer. The object of outdoor adventure was, in his opinion, to survive and come back alive.

“…Doing something you love or being willing to risk your life for something that thrills you, people think that’s admirable,” Clark told the Times. “But the people who think that’s admirable are not the people that were close to me, that I loved, that I left behind. We need to let people know that it is not just about you and the risk that you take, it’s about what you leave behind when you make this decision.”


That seems to be a hard message to get across to people who love snow.

Doug Fesler, the dean of Alaska avalanche experts, walked away from the avalanche business after helping dig out the bodies of too many people he’d tried to teach about avalanches. They ended up using what they’d learned to push ever closer to the fine edge between life in the mountains, and in the end they pushed just a hair too far.

The reason snow kills people is that it is so easy to take for granted. Everything often looks fine right up until the time it is not fine.

“A large problem with prime avalanche slopes is they are highly enticing…,” noted Dr. Terry O’Connor in a report for the University of Colorado. Most slides happen on 25 to 45 degree slopes. The sweet spot is 36 to 38 degrees.

The blue-square, intermediate runs at American ski resorts run from 25 to 40 degrees. Black diamonds don’t start until 40.

A Swiss study concluded 74 percent of human-triggered avalanches are kicked off on slopes with angles of 34 to 45 degrees, but as O’Connor,  the chief editor of the Colorado Wilderness Medicine blog, observes, “if a gentle slope of 25 degrees or less is connected by a persistent slab to a larger, steeper slope it is still possible to trigger a slide from below without ever getting on the steepest part of the slope.

“This is known as remote triggering and is a common way that riders get into avalanches in the backcountry when the hazard is high.”

Alaska has witnessed too many deadly avalanches that people brought down on themselves either by remote triggering or high-marking by snowmachine, an activity that involves trying to power up a black diamond or double-black diamond slope as far as the rider can.

Turnagain killer

As Fesler and his spouse, Jill Fredston, wrote in an after-incident report on the 1999 Turnagain Pass slide, high-markers on sleds had kicked off several avalanches before they brought down a massive, nearly half-mile-long, six-foot-deep slab of snow.

The fourth slide to release was “most likely triggered by high-markers trying to reach the top of the mountain,” they wrote “This fracture, interconnecting several avalanche paths,  extended roughly one half mile south from the southern side of the Knob (a prominent feature on Seattle Ridge north of the Seward Highway), almost linking with the avalanche that had run 15 or 20 minutes earlier.

“Breaking at approximately 2,800 feet elevation, the fracture depth measured six- to seven-feet thick for most of the distance across (the face.)”

Six snowmachine riders who’d been on the slab or downslope when it broke were buried and died. Three others were injured but survived. One rider was buried but uninjured. Nine snowmachines were destroyed. At least five people were caught in the blast of snow preceding the tumbling avalanche but escaped.

“An unknown number of other snowmachiners (6-12, estimated) narrowly escaped,” Fesler and Fredston reported.

The accident fueled avalanche concerns that eventually led to the formation of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. The center is hosting a meet-and-great from noon to 2 p.m. in the north Turnagain Pass parking lot on Saturday in memory of the event.

Meanwhile it is warning that avalanche conditions in the area remain high as they do to the north and west into the Chugach Mountains.  Winds to nearly 90 mph, heavy wet snow at higher elevations and rain at lower elevations have wind-loaded slopes and weighting the snowpack which makes it less able to reduce the pull of gravity.

“…Rain on snow may initiate natural avalanches in the treeline elevations where we’ve seen mostly snow for the past three-plus days,” the Center reported. “Any avalanches today will be large and unsurvivable as storm slabs alone are two- to three-feet deep.”

Farther north where the weather has been cooler and the winds less, the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Information Center is reporting “moderate” conditions. The Hatcher Pass area north of Palmer rivals Turnagain Pass and nearby parts of the Kenai Peninsula for avalanche fatalities but has not witnessed a death this winter.















6 replies »

  1. I’ve skinned & skied Hatcher Pass from 1979 until we finally moved to SE in 2013. My take on the deaths has always been lack of knowledge. I’m still active ice and rock climbing but scaled way back with age. Now I have young guns to lead while I take the soft end of the rope.

  2. The scale of that slide was hard to fathom, I drove up to the parking lot about an hour after the slide, it was a gorgeous spring day. I offloaded my sled and hustled over to where a group of guys were digging furiously, it turned out to be a snowmachine hood. Almost everyone there had seen, and several barely survived the avalanche. They were shell shocked and doing everything they could to find their friends. One guy I talked to had been well down the hill in a “safer” zone because of the obvious avalanche danger, he saw it trigger high up at the ridge, he was already moving pretty good, accelerated and was doing well over 80 when it still caught him, he was close enough to the front so he got out clean.
    There were a lot of shovels, but limited probes for searching the snow where I was, maybe half a dozen, someone left one for some reason so I got on it and started probing an area nearby that hadn’t been checked, about 10 minutes of searching and I found the second body. In a moment a bunch of guys got digging furiously, working hard and fast and then jumping out to let someone fresh in. The guys there were a serious and capable bunch and had the body out in a few minutes from 5 or 6 feet down.
    The guy I talked to who had the close call, told me there on the mountain who was missing, and approximately where they were, and he was right. Pretty amazing as the State Troopers had all kinds of numbers for a few days trying to get it sorted out.
    Incredibly humbling to see the scale of that avalanche. Where I found the body, if I had been standing there taking pictures and saw the avalanche start up top, I would have thought I was safe as there was a fairly long flat area between myself and the base of the mountain. The reality was that the avalanche went another hundred yards past me!

  3. This:
    “A Swiss study concluded 74 percent of human-triggered avalanches are kicked off on slopes with angles of 34 to 45 degrees” but, I’d just say stick with 30+ degrees. Who the hell knows what a 34 degree slope looks like?
    Steve, agree. But, I disagree with the part of you moving solo along glaciers untethered, especially Denali’s.

    • Bryan,
      My reference to traveling un-roped on Denali mostly applied to higher up on the hill on routes and ridges…as I still traveled with a rope up to 14 camp.
      As for your reference to the 35-45 hazard range, I agree that is the danger zone.
      My personal preference is to go steeper than 45, you can even ski these lines mid winter as the slope tends to slough off the new snow and not load as much with wind events.
      Either way, best way to stay safe is know your snow pack and be able to dig a pit to evaluate layers when deciding where to descend in the back-country.

  4. I remember long time Alaskan mountaineering guide Gary Bocarde describing the 3/21/1999 avalanche at Turnagain Pass. Gary was skiing on the other side of the valley. He said he couldn’t believe how big it was, and that it looked like an “Alaska Range avalanche” as it swept down the ridge. A huge avalanche of the big mountain type that Gary had seen many times before.

  5. It is a good thing that Daryl Miller is retired off of Denali. His protectionist attitude was terrible for the American Mountaineering Spirit. His infusion of LE rangers on the mountain only further exasperated conflicts between climbers and rangers. When I volunteered as a medic with NPS back in 2003, Daryl flat out told me there was a policy that stated I was not allowed to “Solo” on the mountain while a part of “his” patrol. For anyone with any extent of alpine experience in large mountains, you will notice that there are many times when going “un-roped” is the safest way to move through an alpine environment. Many of the deaths on Denali that involve slides or falls cannot easily be mitigated with a rope and partner since there are many times “anchors” are just not available. Also, climbers rarely caring avalanche beacon since they are trying to cut all unnecessary weight in their packs. Having two climbers attempt to ski roped while descending Denali only insures that if one skier triggers a slide, then the other is sure to fall victim as well. Many times moving fast and light in what has been termed “Alpine Style” is the safest way to quickly move through an avalanche prone or icefall ridden area. Early mornings are best to travel “sketchy” zones before the sun comes up. Moving fast also helps to maintain metabolism and body temperature in prolonged periods on the glacier.
    The key to avalanches is in understanding the snowpack history in the area you are skiing or riding. A hard layer buried deep in the snow pack from a fall rainstorm or mid winter warming spell can make all the difference between a stable area and an unstable slope that is waiting for a trigger to release it.
    My advice for those who wish to rip the hills in the Spring is to wait for the “melt-freeze” cycle to stabilize at lower elevations, then once the layers consolidate into a concise layer with a “corn” cycle as the sun hits your target slope, the area is good to go and relatively safe for descents.

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