Update: This story was updated on April 13 to include new information.
Days before a 40-year-old heli-skier was reported dead in an avalanche near the Matanuska Glacier north of Anchorage, a 22-year-old skier died of injuries suffered in a skiing accident at the Alyeska Resort east of the city.
The death of Penelope Foudeas passed unreported by authorities. Attempts to find out what happened to the Service High School graduate who had recently completed a master’s degree in nutrition at Case Western Reserve University and was planning a career as a physician’s assistant have gone nowhere.
A Greek dancer in her youth, Foudeas was a fit and healthy young woman who usually wore a helmet when skiing, friends said. One said she apparently landed on her head after falling off a steep slope onto flat ground.
In the wake of the publication of this story, the Foudeas family told the Anchorage Daily News that Penelope died from a blunt-force injury to her chest. The ADN reported no details on how that might have happened.
But a witness statement provided the family is said to have reported that she was “going very fast” on a steep slope of the upper mountain in what was described as a “death wedge'” when she “hit a bump, hit the guard rope and crashed into the Main Street cat track.”
“Main Street” is a gentle slope cut into the side of Alyeska’s south face with a snowcat to provide the easiest possible route for beginning and intermediate skiers to make their way from the upper tram station to intermediate terrain on the slopes below.
There is often what might be described as a “ledge” on the uphill side of the cat track. It is roped off to steer away skiers descending from above and to discourage young daredevils from trying to use the ledge as a jump.
The terrain in question can be seen on the left side about a minute into this rather low-quality video: https://vimeo.com/87707223
Penelope was wearing a helmet for safety, but it appears that she went airborne above Main Street and then landed so hard on her chest on that gently sloping surface that she suffered fatal injuries.
No official investigation
Alaska State Troopers referred questions about her death to authorities in the tiny, port city of Whitter on the western edge of Prince William Sound.
“You will need to reach out to the Whittier Police Department for information about death investigations from the Girdwood area, including the Alyeska Ski Resort,” a spokesman said.
Whittier Police Chief Andre Achee could provide no information.
“The Whittier Police Department did not respond to any death investigation at the Alyeska Resort /slopes in March of 2021.”
After several requests for information from the resort in the days after Penelope’s death, Harjeet Heer, Alyeska’s director of brand marketing, provided a vague statement describing what happened on the mountain.
“Alyeska Resort can sadly confirm that a skier who fell on the upper mountain on March 21 has not survived her injuries,” it said. “Our heartfelt condolences and prayers are extended to the skier’s family and friends. The resort appreciates the actions of all emergency responders that provided rescue and medical care until she was transported to an Anchorage hospital. In deference to the family, and with respect to this very personal matter, the resort will not be sharing any more information at this time.”
The Foudeas family reported Penelope’s death on Facebook on March 27.
A later obituary indicated she was an experienced skier and regular recreational athlete. It noted that she started dancing at age six and had continued dancing throughout life.
“In college, she danced with two club teams and taught at a local dance academy,” the obituary said. “She traveled all over the United States always looking for adventure. She skied the mountains in Colorado, kayaked the keys in Florida, hiked on glaciers and in deserts, and even went skydiving in Utah.”
The obituary attributed her death to a “skiing accident.” The accident appears to have gone uninvestigated because she was still alive when evacuated from Alyeska.
A Google search revealed Foudeas is at least the sixth skier to die in an accident at Alyeska, but there is no official record-keeping
on ski deaths in Alaska.
The last reported death on the slopes of the state’s only real ski resort was that of Dr. William Mills III, the son of a famous Anchorage physician, who slipped on an unusually icy North Face in 2011 before tumbling and caroming to his death.
Whether other deaths since have gone unreported would now seem a legitimate question.
Deaths in outdoor accidents in the 49th state – other than aircraft accidents – are poorly reported and investigated if at all.
Most all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and snowmachine deaths, for instance, go uninvestigated in any detail even though the state’s latest “Alaska Injury Facts Report” reports “ATVs and snow machines were responsible for over a quarter of all
serious transportation-related injuries (in Alaska) between 2012 and 2016.”
Many of those accidents take place in rural areas with the nearest investigatory agency is often a long, long way off.
But even when outdoor deaths happen near the state’s urban centers, investigations tend to be cursory or non-existent.
After 40-year-old Erin Lee died in the Matanuska-area avalanche while skiing with Majestic Heli Ski, troopers waved off a thorough investigation in part because of continuing snow instability in the area.
“The availability of having witnesses see what happened is key in us making the decision on trying to track down an avalanche specialist to go out there and determine a little bit more closely what had happened,” agency spokesman Austin McDaniel told the Anchorage Daily News.
Apparently, in the Lee case, troopers decided they were able to gather enough information from witnesses to the avalanche.
All backcountry recreation has risks, McDaniel added by way of explanation.
Better and worse
Some things have improved over the years. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the National Park Service now make concerted efforts to investigate bear attacks with an eye toward learning more about their causes and possible means of avoidance.
And the Park Service, which oversees more land in the 49th state than in all the rest of the state’s combined, investigates most accidents, though not all and not necessarily in a timely manner.
Three years on from the death of 22-year-old Austrian Adian Don in a packrafting accident on the Nizina River in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the federal agency still refuses to say what happened, claiming the case remains under investigation.
Don has been reported to be staying with Phillipp Sturm, a wealthy European who owns a business called “Fly Alaska” just outside the park boundary.
The business caters to wealthy clients – both from Europe and the U.S. – who want to come fly the wilderness. Sturm’s website stipulates that his “club” operates “no commercial services,” but there have been rumors he dropped Don off with a packraft in the park before his death.
Sturm refused to respond to questions about that subject in 2018. The Park Service has repeatedly refused to respond to questions about Don in the years since claiming the circumstances surrounding his death remain under investigation.
The agency was far more forthcoming about the apparent disappearance of 40-year-old Nathan Campbell in Denali National Park and Preserve last fall, but its investigation of his disappearance appears to have been rather limited.
A pilot who dropped Campbell off in the wilderness a long way from nowhere said the man spoke of being on a hunt for a lost Alaska pyramid. Campbell appeared to be well-equipped and possessed of some wilderness experience.
He also carried with him into the wilderness a Garmin InReach satellite communication device with which he maintained contact with his wife in Anchorage until mid-June. Three months after contact ended, he was finally reported missing. He is now presumed dead.
Much about the case is odd, but it has attracted little media attention. Still, there was more coverage than for the death of Foudeas, which is in some ways a sign of a deteriorating Alaska media.
Once home to a vibrant and well-connected news business, Alaska has watched as its media has increasingly become another arm of government, and occasionally of business, engaged primarily in rewriting official communiqués with many of the journalists clueless as to how easily this subjects them to manipulation.
Adolph Ochs’s old motto of “all the news that’s fit to print” has been increasingly replaced by “all the news the news releases provide.”
The death of Foudeas has attracted more media attention in the Ohio cities of Cleveland and Columbus than in Anchorage.
“She was loved and appreciated by her peers as an unusually kind and considerate person who worked well with other students and was very much a team player,” reported the Modern Greek Program at The Ohio State University.
“Penelope’s studies in biology reflected her longstanding interest in the field. Already in high school, she aspired to a career in a biomedical field, particularly physiology. Her interest in physiology constituted an important aspect of Penelope’s life that shaped her character.”
Her many friends in Alaska, meanwhile, are left baffled by how a day trip to Alyeska could end in such tragedy.