Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: WWAN by ADN Report
Place: Point Whitshed, west of Cordova
Summary: 2 Snowmobilers caught, 1 buried and killed
Search for avalanche victim was search for friend
Cordova rescuers have been hit hard in the last four years.
By Craig Medred, Anchorage Daily News, December 14, 2001
Shortly before his temporary entombment in a Cordova avalanche that killed
a friend Wednesday night, 24-year-old Mark Lobe contemplated the risks of
the fresh snow in which he and four other snowmobilers had gone to play.
"James (Dundas, 30) went up and got his machine stuck, and I went up to
help him," Lobe said Thursday. "When we were digging our machines out,
we thought, This is not a very good idea.' Two seconds later it all came
"It was kind of like a muffled gunshot going off, and then it was silent."
Lobe and Dundas turned and ran. They did not get far.
"I looked back to see it coming," Lobe said. "It comes so fast."
He was swept off his feet and tumbled down Heney Peak. He remembers
being rolled to the surface of the snow once and then disappearing beneath it
until the world stopped turning.
"I ended up with my head about two feet down in a hole," he said. But "I had
an airspace. The rest of my body was almost completely buried. I had an
Lobe couldn't move.
"It's like you're just cast in concrete," he said. "Everything around you is
Lobe was lucky. Friends Jason Flatt and Tracy Whitcomb, both 27, also
escaped the slide, and Dundas was only lightly buried. Dundas dug himself
out, and all three men came to the rescue of Lobe.
Twenty to 30 minutes later, they had managed to dig Lobe free using only
Thirty-seven-year-old Donovan J. Lee of Soldotna was not so fortunate. The
last Lobe saw of him was the flash of a headlight.
"I could see his light on the wall of snow coming down on me," Lobe said.
Then Lee and his machine disappeared into the mountain and the night.
Early Thursday morning, rescuers finally found Lee's body beneath almost 3
feet of snow just miles from where he grew up at Point Whitshed, west of
Cordova. The only one of the five snowmobilers to be completely buried,
Lee was also the only one not wearing an avalanche beacon.
Whether it would have saved his life is unknown.
State Fish and Widllife Protection trooper Sgt. Steve Arlow of Cordova
said Lee took such a beating as he tumbled down the slope that his
snowmobile helmet was ripped off.
"We've been hard hit here," said Michelle O'Leary, "three (avalanche
victims) in the last four years."
"The realization is starting to set in now," Lobe added. "It's pretty harsh. He
was a riding buddy. We were really close. I'm going to miss him."
An estimated 50 rescue volunteers worked probe lines through Wednesday
night in search of Lee. It was, for many, a hunt for an old friend.
"He was dearly loved in this community," said O'Leary, one of the
searchers. "He was a great guy. Really nice, always sunny, bright, smiling,
happy, and he was one of the best fishermen on the (Copper River) flats."
Tempted by fresh snow on Wednesday, Lee -- who loved snowmobiling so
much he'd moved from Cordova to the Soldotna area to be near more
reliable snow falls -- led his four friends above the treeline into a popular
riding area within sight of the city.
"It's our back yard," O'Leary said. "It's where we all play. We look down
nicely on the lights of town."
The five snowmobilers, she added, were not unaware of the potential for
"Some of them had taken Jill (Fredston's) class several years ago," O'Leary
said. Fredston and husband Doug Fesler are well-known across the state for
the avalanche classes they teach.
Fesler was warning of widespread avalanche potential across Southcentral
Alaska on Thursday. Many areas have seen 16 to 18 inches of new snow
accumulate atop ice or flimsy, frostlike snow in recent days. As if that were
not dangerous enough, winds have subsequently moved the snow around,
drifting it into slabs just waiting to be kicked free off the weak bonds that
hold them to the surfaces below.
"The ticking time bomb, as I see it, is up in the Hatcher Pass area," where 19
to 21 inches of new snow sits "on a very weak layer," Fesler said.
With Kenai Peninsula and Chugach State Park snowpacks still so thin that
snowmobiling remains prohibited in those areas, Hatcher Pass is likely to
attract significant numbers of snowmobilers through the weekend and into
the start of the Christmas holidays. They are likely to encounter dangerously
Given forecasts for a run of subzero cold, Fesler said, "this instability is
going to be around for a long time."
Chugach park officials on Wednesday were urging anyone heading into the
mountains to use extreme care.
"Park visitors should stick to the low-elevation areas and lower-angle
slopes," chief ranger Jerry Lewanski said. "If you must travel on potential
avalanche terrain, every member of your party needs a beacon, shovel and
He later amended that list to add avalanche training and judgment, which
might be the most important safety tools of all.
"My husband (Mike) always felt this would happen," Michelle O'Leary said
of the accident in a Cordova winter playground. "He always said, It's not a
matter of if, it's a matter of when.' "
Mike O'Leary was in the field Thursday with avalanche expert Bill Glude.
Glude happened to be in Cordova to conduct an avalanche seminar. He was
instead compiling the measurements for a killer slide.
"The slide was huge," Michelle said. "It ripped across the whole
It was, in that way, similar to the Turnagain Pass avalanche that killed six
snowmobilers in spring 1999.