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.
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.
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.
“…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.
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.