2-27-08:  Sunburst Avalanche

This post is coming a bit late as I’ve really struggled to find a place to begin. Looking back to Saturday morning has proved rather difficult, so hard has it been to reconcile loafing around the Sunrise cabins, after a night of gunfire at mile 9, while discussing that nights dance in Moose Pass over coffee and pumpkin waffles, with the events of that afternoon which were to break so clean and violently from the cloud of that sunny morning. And it was an amazing morning, with the startlingly early morning sun pouring over the mountains and through the windows to drench the cabins with warmth.

Dazed by the sudden and rapid lengthening of daylight up here, skiing was hardly on the mind. I don’t know if we even managed to get on the road until noon. The drive was awing, this being the first time since the storm that I’d seen the mountains, and the fresh snow (working like moonlight) had transformed everything into a bold and plumper state. The site of large natural avalanches while driving along 6 mile had us sticking to our plan to stay in the trees and keep the day on pretty low angle terrain, with facetious comments going around about skinning up Magnum or Cornbiscuit thrown in to lighten the mood. Rolling into the pass that morning was heart stirring; everything being lit with warm Utahesque sunshine. I was shocked as well by people skinning up everything, with tracks going up Lips and Cornbiscuit, a group halfway up Magnum and a full on express-way going up Sunburst with dozens and dozens of tracks down the west face towards the highway and a couple people beginning to ski the south face towards the creek between that ridge and Magnum.

alaska skiing

We pulled in, as planned to the Tin Can lot, still half planning on skiing the lower south facing trees, but a window to window chat between vehicles had us headed towards Sunburst before anyone got out of the car. The skin was super quick, with the skin track beat down smoother then most of the state’s roads and the site of hoards of people devouring the ridge giving increased motivation to climb quickly. It was really amazing too me at the time just how many people were out skiing. Where as during the last high pressure spell it seemed the extreme old scared everyone into staying on the couch, despite the great skiing and stable conditions; Saturday, with the thermometer reading a relatively balmy 20 Turnagain was packed like the Wasatch. I even adopted the old SLC mentality of maddeningly fast hiking, believing each rest to be jeopardizing the slim chance I thought I had of finding anything untracked. I broke over the top to find hardly a trace of human traffic, just a random guy, skiing alone, ready to drop in next to some earlier made tracks, with the remaining ½ mile extent of the ridge laying completely untouched to his left.

sunburst avalanche

While everyone transitioned to downhill mode and I set up Max’s new POV camera I had zip tied to my goggle strap, Brennan set about digging a pit. He dug about 6 feet or so and was wailing on the shovel with force; without getting the column to budge, which was surprising. Sean’s findings in the pit as well as watching the hoards and hoards of skiers descending from everything with nothing sliding conflicted with everything I’d expected that morning, which were massive slides cutting loose at the slightest prompting. When I dropped in, about 100 feet skiers left of where I’d seen the solo skier ski descend (doing the chi-town swivel) moments earlier and I was pretty confident in the stability. And as I sat (well stood, as sitting would have had grave consequences as you’ll soon see) at the bottom, snapping occasional pictures as Sean, Sam, Greg and Caitlyn came down I was joyous with both the excellent run and the prospect of the skiing to come; with everything seeming to have miraculously stabilized.

alaska skiing

I didn’t really see the avalanche pop as I was looking through the small screen on my camera and talking to Sam about skiing Superbowl the next day. Then I heard the massive whomph, someone shout “shit! go!” and I was in a tuck skiing towards the road looking up past my right shoulder as Ian was bombing to his right; watching as the slide kept propagating further down the ridge in front of him. A dust cloud leapt upwards blocking any view of Ian and as it came rushing in I remember looking back to check the other’s progress to see the entire valley coming down on us. I kept skiing forward as the dust cloud hit and it went dark; waiting to get pummeled myself. When it cleared I had Caitlyn next to me, Sam and Greg were just behind; with the debris field a scant 3-4 feet behind their tales. Sean and Ian were gone. Caitlyn took off for the road and help, moments before Sean who got slammed by the slide and partially buried jumped up from the snow to start directing the search. With skins on Greg, Sam and I began searching for Ian’s beacon signal from the bottom, with Brennan and Mitch coming down from the top. Our inability to find a signal was maddening. The hoards of people that came pouring over the ridge to help was both hopeful (as it seemed that with all these people someone would surely find a signal soon) but also infuriating as I kept looking up to be convinced someone was about to send another avalanche down upon us, and found myself continually answering the same questions (“there’s only one body” “last scene point was bellow that rock” etc.) only to hear my answers relayed moments later all skewed with tales of multiple victims and general what have you. People arriving also had a habit of leaving their beacons on which confused us horribly. Hearing Matt scream “faint signal” was an amazing relief only to be topped by hearing Sam yell that he’d hit something with his probe which itself was only bettered by hearing much later, while helping search for possible other victims, that Ian, after getting swept down 1500 or so feet and then up the opposite wall of the valley where he spent 30 minutes under the so was responsive, breathing and seemed generally ok.

alaska skiing massive avalanche

After Ian was flown off in the helicopter I spent what seemed like an eternity sharing hugs with everyone and staring at the enormity of the slide, as the reality of the entire situation slowly letting the reality of the situation set in. Eventually after a massive exchange of e-mails addresses, phone numbers and a body count to make sure everyone was accounted for we finally set off, meeting up with Caitlyn back at the road, where, horrifically, she had been forced to spend the entire time with little information about the proceedings, and having left with two people missing.

avalanche

The drive back to Anchorage with Brennan was somber and quiet; the two of us discussing the multitude of things we’d both learned and could have done better, quietly hoping we’d arrive at Providence to find Ian in good health. But to walk into the Emergency Room to see him standing in the lobby with a dazed look on his face was amazing.

alaska skiing

Originally I was going to pass on a nice little list of things I’d learned from the whole horrible experience (which I’ll admit couldn’t have possibly ended better) but looking at the size of the list here in front of me I’ll save it for another time. I’ll just mention that the size of this slide was bigger then anything I’d really comprehended. Having skinned up that valley between the Sunburst and Magnum ridges many times through out the year I’d never really been able to imagine a slide of this size before. I’d viewed the itself creek as a potentially deadly terrain trap, but sitting there staring at the aftermath, once Ian had been flown out, the realization that if we’d been any further up the valley then we had been, then none of us would have made it out. That was just one of many; many things I’ll take form this, which hopefully will prove an invaluable inexperience I never go through again.

alaska skiing sunburst

Finally, I’d like to extend a thank you to everyone that came to help out today, Matt Murphy and the people from AMRG especially but also the countless other people that poured in to help us out; who’s names I’ve forgotten or was too stressed to remember. Any thing written on these pages isn’t capable of conveying just how thankful I am for all of your help.

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