CSAC Avalanche Incident


Thompson Pass, Alaska - December 28, 1997

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Official Reports

Excursion Run Avalanche Accidentbr Thompson Pass, Chugach Mountains, Alaska

Date of Incident: December 28, 1997br Report Prepared by: Doug Fesler, Alaska Mountain Safety Center, Inc.br Synopsis:

Two skiers were caught in self-triggered deep slab release, with one nearly completely buried and one partly buried with equipment lost.

Background:

On Sunday Dec. 28, three backcountry travelers, Steve, Donnie, and Mark were involved in a self-triggered deep slab avalanche while descending a 45-50 route called Excursion, located between the switchbacks of the Richardson Highway south of Thompson Pass in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. They had skied more than a dozen runs in the area that day and this was to be their last run. They hadn't skied Excursion in the past two years because of insufficient snow and heavy brush. Though no wind was blowing earlier in the day, the wind was blowing 35-40 mph by the time they reached the top of the run which was a leeward slope. Because of the hardness of the surface layer and the absence of any clues to instability all day long, they assumed the entire snowpack was bullet-proof. All were experienced backcountry skiers/boarders, familiar with the local terrain and extreme conditions. All carried beacons, but no shovels or probes (except for Mark's ski poles). Donnie and Steve had participated in a 3 day avalanche workshop the previous year, but Mark had no previous formal training.

Report:

Using a snowboard, Donnie was the first to descend. Once Donnie reached a safe spot on a bench, located approximately 800 vertical feet below the top of the run, Steve jumped in riding a mono-ski to a point 150-200 feet above Donnie, and to skiers right. Before Steve had a chance to finish his run and tuck into a safe spot, Mark jumped in, on skis, to skiers left of his partners route and descended approximately 200' to a patch of alders where the snow consistency changed from hard pack to soft. When he hit the alders, he triggered a small 3' deep slap which broke immediately above him and propagated upslope releasing a 6-9' deep by 200' wide slab above Steve. Both Mark and Donnie yelled "Avalanche".

Mark was caught by the smaller slab (missed by the big one) and carried a couple of hundred feet. In the process, he lost a ski pole and was partly buried but able to dig himself out. Steve looked upslope in response to the yell, saw the small slab above moving toward him and skied immediately to his right to avoid it. Unfortunately, he skied directly into the path of the larger slab and was almost instantly hit from behind by a 10-12' wall of snow which blasted him approximately 50' into the air, carrying him over the next corniced hill and approximately 800' downslide, roughly 600' beyond Donnie's position. The slide missed Donnie by 10-15 feet.

Because he had inhaled considerable spindrift as he was being tumbled, Steve had great difficulty breathing and found himself gagging and hyperventilating as the snow came to rest pressed tightly around his body. He was buried upside down diagonally, with his head approximately 2 to 2 feet under the snow surface and his arms extended in front of him, still clutching his poles. At one point, his gagging cleared his airway and helped to create a small air space in front of his mouth. Initially he was unable to move, but after calming down a bit, he started to survey his situation and found that he could wiggle one foot and thrust his boot out of the snow.

The bindings on Steve's mono-ski had been set in the non-release mode, but the board was ripped from his boots nonetheless. Alders 4" diameter were found snapped in half along the descent route. The lettering on his new Solomon boots had the paint completely sand- blasted off so that you could no longer read the label. And the headlamp tab riveted to his helmet was likewise sheared off. He attributed the helmet with saving his life or at least, preventing a concussion, thus, allowing him to have the presence of mind to push his boot out of the snow.

A quick visual search down slope along the fall line by Donnie and Mark revealed nothing initially. While Mark probed the last seen area, Donnie continued visually searching further down slope. Looking over the next corniced drop he spied Steve's boot sticking out of the snow among the blocks of debris 40-50 vertical feet below and more than 100 feet onto the flats. They estimate it took about 5 minutes to locate him and another 5 minutes to dig him out using a snowboard and hands. Steve said the worst part for him, other than being completely out of control on the descent, was when he was being dug out, because snow kept plugging his airway and causing him to gag and hyperventilate. Once he was able to communicate with his rescuers, he had Donnie put a hat in front of his mouth to prevent snow inhalation, and that helped considerably. Miraculously, Steve broke no bones, though his whole body was covered with bruises the next day. Rather than skiing/boarding the remainder of the route and possibly getting caught again, the group climbed back up 1500 vertical feet using a windblown ridge.

Lessons Learned:

Commentary:

The area known as the Switchbacks has been used extensively since the early 1980s and contains may such runs, which are frequented by aspiring local boarders and skiers. Most of these enthusiasts are kids who have had no previous avalanche training and carry no avalanche rescue equipment. Human triggered avalanches occur weekly, and often daily, in this steep, booby-trap terrain, and numerous people are caught and/or buried yearly. Steve is the first mono-skier known to have been caught in an avalanche in Alaska.

Doug

----------------------------------------------------
Doug Fesler
Alaska Mountain Safety Center, Inc.
9140 Brewster's Dr.
Anchorage, Alaska, 99516, USA

Media Reports

Skier rides avalanche to hellbr And friends bring him back

Thursday, Jan. 1, 199 - Anchorage Daily Newsbr By PETER PORCO, Daily News reporter

When the avalanche stopped moving, Steve Radotich found himself in hell - buried upside down, his nose and throat crammed with snow, arms pinned by tightly packed debris.

Only one part of him remained uncovered after a large slide wiped him off a slope at Thompson Pass Sunday afternoon - his left foot.

It was that foot, wiggling for its owner's life, that helped Radotich's fellow skiers find him and dig him out.

The avalanche abraded the label clean off his boots, tore metal tabs from his helmet, and twisted off his tightly fastened monoski, but Radotich escaped serious injury. He went home that evening to his pregnant wife and 2-year-old child with a few bruises and "freaked out," he said, but otherwise no worse.

"It was such dense snow, it's amazing I didn't break a thing, didn't even tweak a thing," he said Wednesday from his home in Valdez.

But what a scare.

For surviving the collapse of a slope that by rights should have killed him, Radotich credits luck. But he also credits the education in backcountry travel and survival he and his companions have had.

Radotich, 32, and Donald Mills, 32, one of his three companions, are both part-time heli-ski guides in the Chugach Mountains. Both are emergency medical technicians and both have training in recognizing avalanche hazard and rescuing avalanche victims.

"If Donny didn't have any training, I don't know if I'd be here," Radotich said. "He saw me wiggling my foot and was right on top of it. He kept his head instead of freaking out and dug down and got me an airway."

Radotich, director of a teen center, and Mills, a snowboard manufacturer, were joined by two others Sunday as they skied and boarded what they call "road runs" from the summit of the pass above Valdez.

Taking turns, one of the four would drop off the other three on the side of the Richardson Highway, drive down toward the city and then pick them up at the bottom. The runs are from 1,000 to 1,500 vertical feet or longer.

The four already had completed about 15 runs by early afternoon.

Their last run of the day was on Excursion, which is roughly 250 feet wide and drops down 1,500 feet in a series of benches and steep slopes.

Mills, Radotich and Mark Johnson, 29, skied in a pack, with Mills leading. He stopped and pulled off to the left about 500 feet down. Radotich was 75 feet above him, with Johnson a little above Radotich but to his right by some 50 feet - both carving turns on a slope of more than 50 degrees.

"I heard Donny yell," Radotich said. "I knew what he was yelling about - either there was a slide or Mark was (falling toward) me. I looked over my left shoulder and saw a cloud of smoke. I thought it could have been Mark."

Radotich turned hard to the right, skiing about 35 mph, he guessed, when he got blasted by what Mills described as a "wall of snow" four feet taller than Radotich.

The skiers said Johnson had set off a smaller, looser slide under him - which knocked him down and momentarily buried him in the alders - and the small slide released a large slab avalanche from near the top.

"The slab blasted me off the toe of the avalanche - which was good," Radotich said. "It hit me with enough force that I blew ahead and came ahead of the debris and didn't get buried so much.

"I was probably in that snowpack, flailing down the hill, for only five seconds. It was sure hell trying to breathe. That was the worst part of it, actually being in it," he said.

"My throat filled up with snow - you're aspirating snow basically. I was hyperventilating, trying to get in any air, and you're sucking in snow."

Radotich felt the snow come to a heavy stop.

"My God, it was over and it was over that quick," he said. His first thoughts were, "I'm dead." He discovered he was upside down and twisted. His head was more than two feet under.

"Once I got stuck in the snowpack, I was not trying to vomit but I was trying to gag the snow out. ... The gag reflex jettisoned the snow from my throat ...

"The first minute you realize you're stuck and you can't breathe, it was hard to calm down. I'm sure I was hyperventilating."

Radotich said he's read hundreds of articles on avalanches and knows how critical it is for a buried person to conserve air by calming down.

" 'they're gonna get me, they're gonna find me,' I told myself. It wasn't easy."

He quickly slowed his breathing and then tried to figure out what, if anything, was broken. He couldn't get his hands to his face to get the snow out of the way. He found out that he could move his foot and popped it out.

Radotich had fastened his monoski so it would not release, yet luckily it had done just that. Had it not, the moving snow might have anchored the single board below the surface, he said.

Mills ran to the edge of a small cliff and saw the foot below. He jumped off, ran to Radotich and began digging.

Less than five minutes after he went under, Radotich had an airway, he said.

"His first words were 'Good to see you!' " Mills said.

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