The three men killed in a Tuesday avalanche just north of Alaska’s largest city appear to have been driven more than 1,500 feet down a steep couloir by a shallow layer of snow that gave way above them, according to a report now out from investigators with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.
Two of the three dead men – 54-year-old Thomas Devine of Chugiak, 43-year-old Matthew Nyman of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and 50-year-old Edward Watson, of Miami – were experienced climbers, according to the report.
All had set off on a march up a 2,500 gully rising to a high point on the Mount Eklutna ridge known as Bear Point. The report says they were well equipped for such a hike with crampons on their feet and ice axes in their hands.
Rain and wind in the Anchorage area in late January left much of the Chugach Range covered in a layer of snow that is in some places near rock hard. Such snow makes it easy to walk up steep slopes with front-point crampons.
Whether the climbers were aware of early February weather conditions that overlayed the icy surface with windblown snow at upper elevations is unclear. The climbers’ “avalanche training is unknown,” the report says.
Incident investigator Wendy Wagner emailed that it appeared that “the climbers were near the top of the chute when the avalanche occurred. It was a wind slab over weak snow.”
A deadly trap
Most likley it was the stomping of the men up the couloir that caused that slab to break loose, according to the report, which reported the release of a slab estimated to be three to 10 inches deep across a distance of 200 to 500 feet at the top of the couloir.
The resulting wave of snow drove them back down the route up which they had just hiked and into a classic terrain trap.
“There was enough debris generated to run almost the length of the narrow gully (2,200 vertical feet),” the report says. “At the toe of the avalanche, where the climbers came to rest, the debris was between three to four feet deep.”
It is yet unknown how the climbers died, but the report said they “were found partially buried on the top of the debris.” Two of the climbers were face down with their “airways covered in snow,” the report said. The third was face up, but with his airway also covered with snow.
“All of the climbers had signs of significant trauma, suggesting a long travel distance,” the report said.
The report noted that none of the men were carrying avalanche transceivers, though it appears they would have been of no use even if the men had been carrying them. The report did not say how or if the men were attached to their ice axes – tools that can become dangerous to their users in accidents like this.
Ice-axe leashes are a subject of some debate among climbers and steep mountain hikers.
“Some people like to attach the ice-axe leash to their harness. This is a very bad place to attach a leash. Any loss of control during a fall could lead to a catastrophic torso puncture injury.”
The Institute generally advises against leashes, arguing that though “people are very adamant about wanting to use a wrist-leash while climbing for fear of dropping the axe…how common is it for a climber to drop an axe? Not common at all. An ice axe is like a mountaineer’s weapon. How many soldiers in the heat of battle drop their weapons? While mountain climbing is definitely not as intense as a war, it can be a dangerous pursuit and most climbers are unlikely to drop the most important tool they carry.”
Still, many climbers and hikers use leashes.
Dangerously long falls
Long falls down steep couloirs are inherently dangerous even without avalanche rubble and the danger of an axe attached to your body. People often tumble and cartwheel in falls like this which compounds the risks of deadly injuries.
The peaks near the state’s largest city breed a familiarity to some that can compound their danger. Experienced climbers Bruce Hickok and Geoffrey Radford in 1992 died in an avalanche in the Chugach not far from their Anchorage Hillside homes.
They’d decided to go ski the slopes of Flattop, the city’s most popular mountain, after a big snowstorm. They triggered an avalanche that killed them.
In 2006, 32-year-old Brian Mulvehill went for a snowshoe on Flattop and triggered an avalanche that buried him in a slot along the mountain near what is called Blueberry Hill. He was dug out by others within a couple hours, but by then was dead.
The CNFAIC report said the Bear Point trio planned to stomp their way up the northwest couloir to a plateau on the ridge above and then hike the Bear Point Trail back to where they were to catch a ride back to their vehicle. The trail, which is less steep than the couloir, offers an easier way down the mountain.
When the climbers didn’t come home, the report says a good friend of Devine’s went looking for them.
He “checked the starting location and found their parked vehicle,” the report said. “He walked toward the base of the gully, but turned around as he deemed it unsafe since it was dark and snowing lightly.
“He then hiked up Bear Point Trail to look into the gully from the top, but saw or heard no sign of them.”
A search was launched by the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group early the next morning. It did not take long to find the bodies.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story mistakenly reported the men were planning to hike the Bear Point Trail and then back to their vehicle. The story has been edited to note that they planned to get a ride back to their vehicle.