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Date: 2004-04-10
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Gun Creek, near Paxson
State: AK
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 3 snowmobilers caught, 1 killed

Conditions right for tragedy

AVALANCHE: Fatal slide near Paxson caused by heavy, wet snow over a loose, sugary base.

By S.J. KOMARNITSKY

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: April 12, 2004)

A deadly avalanche that killed a North Pole man Saturday near Paxson and nearly swallowed

another was an accident waiting to happen, Alaska State Troopers said.

"It was right place, right time and right snow conditions," said troopers Lt. Charles Tressler,

who responded to the accident.

Richard A. Staley, 24, was killed in the slide while his 22-year-old friend Jake Wegner, who

triggered it, barely escaped after being buried in snow up to his face, Tressler said.

Wegner's father Ray, 55, also was caught in the avalanche but was not buried, according to

troopers.

The three were riding in an area known as Gun Creek about a mile from the race course for the

GCI Arctic Man Ski & Sno Go Classic. The three had traveled to the area to watch the race,

Tressler said. Both Wegners are from Fairbanks.

The three were riding in a valley bordered by a mountainside laden with snow warmed by

temperatures in the mid-50s, Tressler said. Those temperatures had left a heavy, wet layer of

snow on top of a loose, sugary base, a perfect combination for an avalanche, troopers said.

"The conditions were extreme," Tressler said.

Jake Wegner apparently kicked off the avalanche when he rode up a hillside about 25 to 30 feet.

Above him was a small lip and then another steep hillside, which is the one that broke loose,

troopers said. Wegner apparently cut off the base that was supporting the snow above, breaking

loose a slab of snow that slid about 600 yards and enveloped all three men, Tressler said.

The avalanche left a debris pile Tressler estimated at about 150 feet long and 13 feet deep.

Staley was found buried at the base of the pile under about 8 feet of snow. Searchers located

him using probes, Tressler said. He had been buried for about 30 minutes and could not be

revived, the trooper said. Wegner was able to dig himself out.

While troopers were on the scene, three other avalanches occurred nearby, Tressler said.

Staley was known in Fairbanks as the former captain of the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, an amateur

hockey team, according to a report in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. In more recent years, he

had worked as a laborer for his father's construction company, the paper reported. He also was

engaged to be married in 2005, the paper said.

"I can say a million things about him," Richard Staley, the victim's father, told the paper.

"Basically he and I were going to stay in business together ... pursue his dad's dream of

having his son work alongside of him."

The death was the second avalanche fatality during the Arctic Man event in recent years. In

2000, 43-year-old Walter Coty of Fairbanks was killed in an avalanche triggered by high-marking

several miles from the course.

Arctic Man, held in the Hoodoo Mountains near Paxson, is one of Alaska's most extreme sporting

competitions. It draws thousands of fans who come to watch as snowmachiners tow skiers over a

5-mile course at speeds of more than 100 mph.

High-marking is not a competitive event at Arctic Man.

Reporter S.J. Komarnitsky can be reached at skomarnitsky@adn.com or 352-6714.