Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2002-03-28
Submitted By: Doug Fesler, Alaska Mountain Safety Cent
Place: S.Fork Eagle River
State: AK
Country: USA
Summary: 1 caught, buried, and rescued ALIVE, wearing an avalanche transciever

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ACCIDENT REPORT: South Fork of Eagle River, Alaska

Prepared by: Kip Melling, Alaska Mountain Safety Center and Anchorage Nordic Ski Patrol

Date of Accident: Thursday, March 28th, @ approximately, 5:15pm.

Accident Location: South Fork of Eagle River, Three Bowl Path (South Bowl), NW aspect, Mile 6.6 Hiland Rd., Elevation 2400 ft.

Synopsis: Two backcountry skiers and two dogs triggered a large class 3 slab avalanche at the base of the path. One skier escaped, one was completely buried under 4 ft. of debris and rescued alive by his partner, and two dogs were killed.

The Avalanche: The avalanche was estimated at 1500 ft. across the crown, measuring 12-24 in. depth. The debris was a mix of soft and hard slab material, varied in size, from as big as a basketball to the size of a pizza box. Step fractures occurred along the flanks and bed surface between two weak layers. The flanks measured between 4 in. and 24 in. The avalanche fell approximately 1600 vertical ft. and traveled approximately 3,300 linear feet from the crown face to the toe of the debris. Debris depth in the runout zone ranged from 2 ft. to over 10 ft. and consisted of pencil hard slab blocks, soft slab debris, intermingled with unconsolidated, faceted snow. The runout angle was measured at 23 degrees.

Background Weather and Snow Conditions: The South Fork area received 26 in. of snow during a storm on March 16-17th. Ten days later, on March 26th, another storm deposited 14 in. of snow. These storm layers, which comprised the slab, rested on a shallow layer of intermediate facets formed during an extended cold period earlier. These in turn rested on a pencil/knife hard melt freeze crust formed during late December and early January. Depth hoar extended beneath the melt freeze curst to the ground, formed by an early season period of cold weather preceded by a 1-2 feet of snow in late September and early October. Air temperatures ranged from +15? (F) to +34? (F) over the 10 day period leading up to the incident. The weather on the day of the incident was calm, clear, and sunny with temperatures in the mid 20??s (F).

Terrain Factors: The accident site consists of a steep, NW facing bowl, covered with alpine tundra, small rocks and alder bushes unsuitable as anchors. The northerly aspect is commonly leeward during storms, and thus wind loaded, releasing naturally throughout the season. The starting zone slope angle measured 35?, with less steep angles of 30?. The slopes were steep, smooth, and uniform, converging in a high-consequence terrain trap (a creek drainage) at the base.

The Accident: On Thursday afternoon, Skipp Repetto, 38 and John Stroud, 33, both from Anchorage, were skiing on the east side of the South Fork of Eagle River Valley, Three Bowls area. With two large dogs, the men started up a ridge near the northern most bowl. Near the top of their climb they dug a quick pit with their hands, isolating only the top two layers. The two concluded that the top two layers were well bonded and continued on. They skied the ridge to the bottom without incident. They climbed their skin tracks to the top and traversed south along the ridgeline to a different line near the south bowl. Skiing the ridge to the 2600? level, both noted the change in the snow conditions, they decided to change to a more northerly aspect and cross a deep V-shaped creek bed to a steeper slope to get in a few more turns. Repetto recalls feeling uncomfortable with the consistency of the snow and yelling back to Stroud to stay in his current safe location.

At 5:15 p.m. with Repetto leading, he crossed the creek bed and changed aspect. He then proceeded about 50 ft, only to look back to see Stroud, and his two 130 lb. dogs following his track on the suspect slope. (They were separated by only 125 ft.) The weight of the two skiers and the two large dogs triggered the slide, which propagated up and across the drainage to steeper terrain.

Because of his position on the slope (Repetto), was able to stay on his feet and ski to safety. Stroud attempted to ski to the opposite side of the drainage with his two dogs, but was quickly knocked off balance and overcome by the moving debris. His skis and poles were acting as anchors pulling him down as he was fighting to stay on top. He made several attempts at grabbing for a small stand of alders near the edge, as was indicated by the hand and finger marks left in the bed surface. All attempts were unsuccessful as he was swept down the drainage and buried. He traveled an estimated 500-ft, before coming to a stop on the right side of the debris, near the toe. (While buried Stroud reports only being able to move his left index finger about ? in.) Neither he, nor his dogs were visible to Repetto.

The Rescue:

With no surface clues, Repetto skied to the toe of the debris, put on his climbing skins, and switched his transceiver to receive. He immediately picked up the signal, followed it to a point at the edge of the debris, pulled out his probe and shovel, and pin-pointed his friends location. After a few random probes, he hit Stroud in the back. He was buried beneath 3-4 ft. of debris, head slightly downhill, perpendicular to the slop. Repetto estimates it took him 35-40 minutes to gain an airway, at which time his friend appeared to have quit breathing. He cleared the snow away from his head and mouth, after which, Stroud started to gasp for air. Stroud did not respond to verbal communication for around 10 minutes, but eventually came around. It took another 20 minutes to excavate enough snow to remove Stroud. His skis and poles were still attached.

Footnote: At 5:50 p.m., the author, a resident of South Fork of Eagle River and an avalanche instructor with the Alaska Mountain Safety Center/ Anchorage Nordic Ski Patrol, was looking out his kitchen window and noticed fresh avalanche debris in the Three Bowl Path. Earlier in the day he and his ski partner Dave Disselbrett had seen two men and two dogs skiing in the same area. Melling gathered up his ski and avalanche gear and drove the 1.3 miles to the trail. The red Toyota truck he had seen earlier in the day was still parked there. He climbed 10 minutes and covered the short distance to see that there were two sets of tracks entering the debris, but none coming out. He yelled to a neighbor to call 911. Once on site, he saw the two men at the toe of the debris. Both Stroud and Repetto were visibly shaken by the event. There were no serious physical injuries to either, yet both dogs were still missing. Melling skied the remaining distance to the road with Stroud as Repetto went for Sroud?s truck. Both came to Melling?s house to recuperate, warm up, and talk, prior to the drive back to Anchorage.

An attempt by Stroud and several friends to recover Strouds two dogs was made on Firday, March 29th without success. Lacking an accurate area last seen (ALS) and sufficient resources, the search for the dogs was called off. As rescuers were leaving the site around 3 p.m., one of the participants lost his balance and fell, triggering a large slide that wrapped around the western flank of the South Bowl, hitting a two year old residential structure located at its base. The resident of the structure watched from her living room as the debris came down and gently kissed the east side of her home. Hard slab debris was 2 ft. to 4 ft. deep on the back wall of the home and a 20-ft. section of fence was pushed over, but no other damage or injuries were reported. The avalanche fell 700 vertical feet and wrapped 1800 ft. around the ridge.

Contributory Factors:

? Terrain: Steep (35 degrees) at the starting zone. Leeward, smooth, convex and concave with little or no anchoring. A terrain trap (a deep V-shaped creek drainage) with three separate bowls and starting zones. The change in slope aspect from westerly to northerly resulted in a significantly less stable snowpack.

? Weather: Seasonal wind and melt/freeze events created a favorable sliding surface. Periods of wind, melt/freeze, cold weather, and a thin snowpack, provided the ingredients for a persistent, unstable snowpack. Current clear, sunny weather with fresh powder created a false sense of security.

? Snowpack: Early season snow, a thin snowpack, created several faceted weak layers. These layers were noted near the ground as depth hoar and additionally on top of a melt/freeze layer. Recent heavy snow events on top of these layers affected the snowpack, by adding stress, without adding strength. The only element missing was a trigger.

? Human Factors: Both Stroud and Repetto carried basic rescue equipment (a beacon, a probe, and a shovel), and knew how to use it. Without this gear and knowledge, Stroud most likely would have died. Making route selection decisions base upon ?getting in a few more turns? is a common human foible that can lead us into trouble unless all relevant snowpack, terrain, and weather factors are considered. Hasty pit data taken from a different aspect and elevation some distance away was used (in part) to determine snow stability of a very different area at lower elevation and different aspect. This data was used to make a go/no-go decision, rather than incorporating it into the overall avalanche hazard evaluation. Skiing one at a time, from safe spot to safe spot (in this case, top to bottom), would have minimized the risk to the skiers, and maybe even prevented the accident. Traveling with large dogs increases, not only the potential for finding sensitive trigger zones, but adds to the ease with which they may be triggered due to the greater stress exerted. The blue-sky weather and fresh powder, may have contributed as a lure to the backcountry.

Conclusions: This accident illustrates the importance of having the right rescue gear and knowing how to use it. It also underscores how a combination of several seemingly minor factors can contribute to an event with potentially deadly consequences such as:

? skiing with dogs;

? changing slope aspects and elevations without having sufficient stability data;

? not completely assessing the consequences of having a terrain trap at the base;

? skiing with well intended, but insufficient, spacing between partners;

? being lured by blue-sky weather and the absence of recent avalanches in the area.


Slide traps man for 30 minutes

CLOSE CALL: Skier uses his avalanche gear to find his friend, dig him out unharmed.

By Lucas Wall

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: March 29, 2002)

An avalanche buried a skier for about 30 minutes Thursday evening off Hiland Road in Eagle River before his companion was able to dig open an airway and get him out. Two dogs with the pair died.

The snow let loose about 5:15 p.m. east of Mile 6.6 Hiland Road, burying John Stroud in about 3 feet of snow. Skip Repetto, who was telemark skiing with Stroud near the 2,000-foot level, used an avalanche beacon and probe to find Stroud. He shoveled snow until Repetto could get air, said Kip Melling, an avalanche instructor for the Alaska Mountain Safety Center.

Melling said he was in his house near Mile 5.3 Hiland Road when he looked out his kitchen window about 5:45 and saw a fresh slide. Melling had been skiing on the west side of the valley earlier in the afternoon and had seen two men on the east side.

He gathered his gear, drove up the road and found the men's vehicle. He could see ski tracks that disappeared into the 500-yard-long avalanche area and began skiing up toward them.

A resident on Johnny Drive also saw the slide and called 911 at 6:22, concerned that the two skiers had been trapped. Anchorage police and firefighters responded along with local volunteers. An airplane flying near the area volunteered to look for victims.

By the time Melling reached the slide area and rescuers began assembling on Hiland, Stroud had been freed and the pair were starting down the mountain.

"I was glad to see two people moving around there," he said. "The rescuer, much to his credit, had the right gear and knew how to use it, and that was the difference between having a good outcome and a bad outcome."

Melling said it took Repetto another 20 minutes to dig Stroud free after he cleared an airway. Two malamutes that the pair brought along were also buried but not found.

Melling described the incident as a close call and said Stroud believed he would die. The odds of surviving under snow for 30 minutes are only 40 percent, he said.

"The guy actually resigned himself to the fact he wasn't going to make it," Melling said. "He had made his peace, but his partner found him with the transceiver and hit him with the probe."

Melling took the two back to his house to recuperate. Stroud "wouldn't take his beacon off. That's how freaked out he was," Melling said.

Stroud and Repetto could not be reached Thursday night.

Doug Fesler, director of the mountain safety center, said it appears the two skiers triggered the avalanche as they traveled together down into a bowl after having skied up on a ridge. The area has recently received two heavy dumps of snow, he said.

"Two skiers and two dogs come on out, and bingo: It's just not strong enough to hold the weight," he said.

Marilyn Ross, a Johnny Drive resident, said she has been worried about the potential for disaster with many people skiing carelessly in the area.

"They are just taking their life in their own hands," she said.

Mountain safety experts expressed concerned about the potential for more avalanches this weekend, when the Anchorage Hillside snowmachine riding area in Chugach State Park opens for the first time this season.

"There's a lot of ticking time bombs in this park around Anchorage," Fesler said. "People need to be smart about the routes they choose. That means picking low-angle slopes and traveling one person at a time."

Reporter Lucas Wall can be reached at or 907 257-4321.