Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2001-12-11
Submitted By: WWAN by ADN Report
Place: Point Whitshed, west of Cordova
State: AK
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
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

arm out."

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

their hands.

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

unstable snow.

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.