Once again the dangerous tourist season in the north is underway with six people dead in a floatplane collision at the southern end of the Alaska Panhandle and an injured snowboarder rescued from near 13,500 feet on Mount Denali, North America’s tallest peak.
Welcome to a state with one of the highest rate of accidental deaths in the country. Blame the weather, the lack of roads and adventure sport.
Some come to the 49th state looking for danger and find it. Others just get unlucky in a land where off-road travel comes with some inherent risks.
Tip for tourists: If you want the safest Alaska vacation, fly commercially to Anchorage and rent a car or motorhome. Alaska has the seventh highest accidental death rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), but the seventh lowest per capital rate of motor vehicle deaths.
Driving around the wild Disneyland of the North is the safest way to see it because this isn’t the Disneyland of California, where the accidental death rate is just shy of half that of Alaska.
Big wild life
For better or worse, Alaskans themselves have come to accept accidental deaths as normal. When a snowmachine disappears into a winter storm or through spring ice and someone dies, the tragedy rates only a few paragraphs in the state’s fading newspapers and sometimes even less attention in the online world.
The state doesn’t even bother to keep a count of the all-too-common snowmachine deaths or what other states tabulate as snowmobile fatalities. What Alaskans would consider the normal dangers of spring really only make the news when the become issues related to global warming or climate change.
“Alaska Relies on Ice. What Happens When It Can’t Be Trusted?” the New York Times headlined above a story reporting five people dead after going through the ice of lakes in rivers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta region in March. About a half dozen more such deaths would follow in April and May, including the death of a family of three in Northwest Alaska, but attract less attention given that by that by the official start of “spring” such deaths are sadly normal.
And the last of them – early this month – unfortunately involved a young Alaskan doing what they often do, taking risks either because the risks come with living in the state or because risk-taking is the thing to do. Twenty-seven-year-old Casey Fagerstrom died while “water skipping” his snowmobile across an open lead in Golovin Bay near Nome in early May.
Skipping open water on a snowmachine is something a lot of Alaska riders take for granted given that even without global warming open water is sometimes encountered in wild Alaska in the winter.
But these are risks to which simple visitors to the state are seldom exposed.
Those from elsewhere – those from “Outside” as Alaskans call everywhere elsewhere – are expected to be provided some protection from Alaska dangers unless they expressly wish to avoid it. And there are those who come to Alaska expressly for the thrills of taking risks.
They range from mountaineers to whitewater river runners to backcountry hikers to self-proclaimed bear man Timothy Treadwell, who wanted to make friends of the grizzlies of Katmai National Park and Preserve.
More than once in the years before the Californian’s death, he was rescued by Alaskans who thought his escapades in Katmai both dangerous and nuts, but they saved him anyway.
Alaskans have a certain fascination with and appreciation for the risk takers and a wealth of empathy for the unlucky, most especially those who die in the state’s all-too-regular crashes of small planes as happened again this week.
If you’ve lived in Alaska long, the odds are high that you’ve known someone or several people who died when a plane went down. If you’ve traveled much to the unroaded part of the state, which is most of it, the odds are high you have either been involved in an aircraft incident of some sort yourself or know someone who has survived a crash.
The U.S. Coast Guard was reporting 10 cruise-ship passengers on a day excursion to George Inlet just east of the city of Ketchikan survived the latest such incident, a mid-air collision between a six-passenger de Havilland Beaver and a 10-passenger de Havilland Otter.
Princess Cruises reported all were tourists from aboard the Royal Princess, which was docked in the Southeast Alaska port. Princess organizes popular bus or single-engine airplane flights to a lodge on the Inlet for a crab feed.
“As your flight takes off from the bustling downtown Ketchikan harbor, panoramic views of Revillagigedo Island and the spectacular mountains of the Tongass National Forest are revealed,” the company’s says of the latter. “The narrated flight highlights the historic importance of your aircraft and the landmarks below. After 20 minutes of breathtaking scenery, you’ll experience the thrill of a water landing at the remote George Inlet Lodge, a rustic yet elegant oasis that once served as an early 1900s cannery bunkhouse.”
The Monday crash is not the first involving tourists visiting Ketchikan. All 11 people aboard an Otter that crashed into Mount Jumbo about 40 miles southwest of Ketchikan last July miraculously survived. Nine died in a crash 24 miles northeast of the city in 2015.
After the latter crash and the investigation that followed, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) warned of a “company culture” of risk-taking, reporting that the “pilot’s decisions regarding his tour flights were influenced by schedule pressure; his attempt to emulate the behavior of other more experienced pilots; and Promech’s organizational culture which tacitly endorsed flying in hazardous weather conditions.”
A year after the crash, Promech Air was bought by competitor Taquan Air, one of the companies with a plane involved in the latest crash. That accident came only three months after the NTSB warned commercial operators it was time to update aircraft technology to protect against midair collisions.
“The ‘see-and-avoid’ concept has long been the foundation of midair collision prevention,” the agency wrote in the final report into a midair collision in Western Alaska that left five dead in 2016. “However, the inherent limitations of this concept, including human limitations, environmental conditions, aircraft blind spots, and operational distractions, leave even the most diligent pilot vulnerable to the threat of a midair collision with an unseen aircraft.
“Technologies in the cockpit that display or alert of traffic conflicts…can help pilots become aware of and maintain separation from nearby aircraft.”
Commercial pilots and Alaska guides are paid to keep safe those who come to Alaska looking for what is today marketed as soft adventure – “activities that lack danger, seem safe to most people and do not require skill or experience” – versus old school, hard adventure, which has always entailed hanging things out there a little or more than a little.
The Sunday Denali rescue involved the latter, according to the Park Service, which described “traumatic injuries in a snowboarding fall while descending Windy Corner…a feature at 13,500 feet on Denali named for its extreme winds and a site known for rockfall hazard.”
What the agency left out was that Windy Corner is also known for ice. As the Park Services mountaineering FAQs sheet notes, “most climbers leave their floatation (skis or snowshoes) at Camp 3, (11,200 feet) and put on their crampons from there.”
“Because of the steeper and often icy terrain (there), you should pack your sleds lightly and use crampons and ice axes,” guide Colby Coombs warns in Denali’s West Buttress: A Climber’s Guide to Mt. McKinley’s Classic Route.
Snowboarding or skiing on high-altitude ice is invariably sketchy. The Park Service’s Maureen Gualtieri reported that after sustaining “traumatic injuries” in the Wednesday fall, the unnamed snowboarder and a companion ended up pinned down by bad weather near Windy Corner for days.
“An NPS ranger patrol camped at 11,000 feet attempted to reach the party (Wednesday) evening,” she said, “however high winds and poor visibility turned them around. On Thursday, although weather improved lower on the mountain, high winds prevailed at Windy Corner. The park’s high altitude helicopter was able to fly over the incident site, but sustained winds over 30 mph precluded a rescue.”
Cloud cover kept the helo away on Friday and Saturday, but the ranger patrol and a volunteer nurse were able to reach the injured climber and his partner. The injured snowboarder and his climbing companion were short-hauled off the mountain individually on Sunday and flow to a lower location where they could be loaded into a helo and flown to Talkeetna for further care.
It was not a great start to the climbing season just getting underway. Gualtieri said there are only 166 climbers currently on the mountain. The year’s first ranger patrol didn’t reach Denali’s 14,200-foot camp until late Sunday night after assisting with the evacuation at Windy Corner, and no one has been reported to have summitted Denali yet this year.
No climbers died on Denali last year. It was the first time in 15 years without a climbing-related death. But all five people aboard a de Havilland Beaver on an August, flightseeing tour died when the plane crashed into nearby Thunder Mountain.
The bodies were not recovered because of the steep and dangerous terrain in which the wreckage of the plane came to rest.
“(Craig) Layson may be far from home, but his family has come to terms with a grave that is both public and private in a land both beautiful and haunting,” Francis X. Donnelly would later write in The Detroit News.
“Alaska can kill you a hundred ways, locals say. You could get eaten by a grizzly bear, slip off a glacier, freeze to death overnight, get lost in the vast wilderness.”
It is the state’s danger, and in some way, part of the state’s attraction.