The promise of good snowpack for recreation is drawing people out into the backcountry of the Kenai Peninsula, but the danger of avalanches is very real in many areas.
A group of snowmachiners learned that firsthand this weekend when a Soldotna man was killed in an avalanche near Cooper Landing on Saturday afternoon. The man, Tyler Kloos, 29, was snowmachining with friend Bryant Evans, 29, also of Soldotna, when an avalanche came down on them both. Evans was not buried as deeply and was able to be rescued in time, but Kloos died after being flown by LifeMed helicopter to Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna.
Sterling resident Rob Meyer, his son Jackson Meyer and friends David Barlow and Johnny Smithwick were out snowmachining in the same area on Saturday. Upon riding up the Snug Harbor trail toward Lost Lake, they spotted Kloos and Evans stuck just before a landmark called V-Max Hill, he wrote in an email. Then Jackson Meyer became stuck, and Kloos and Evans helped him get loose, Rob Meyer wrote.
“I was leading our group, as we were heading up the valley I looked up to my right and saw the two men riding on a slope that I would not have touched under these avalanche conditions,” he wrote. “I thought to myself, ‘I hope they are careful!’”
Not long after that, Rob Meyer turned around and saw Barlow waving his hands. Upon circling back around, Barlow told him that he’d seen someone be buried in an avalanche, Rob Meyer wrote. Upon making sure his whole group was safe, he and Jackson Meyer rode up to the avalanche to begin looking. It didn’t take long before he found the half-buried sled and then saw Evans’ hand waving above the snow, with his face showing. It took him about seven minutes to dig Evans free, he said.
“He was buried so tight he couldn’t move anything except his hand,” Rob Meyer wrote. “I dug him out as fast as I could so we could turn off his beacon and search for (Kloos). The snow was set up like concrete and was very heavy and difficult to dig out.”
When they turned Evans’ beacon off, they were able to tell Kloos’ beacon was emitting a signal about 100 feet to the east and began probing. They found him right away, about eight feet below the surface, Rob Meyer wrote. They immediately began digging, taking about 15 minutes before reaching him. He had no pulse and his face was purple, so they began CPR immediately, he wrote. Other people came through to help as well.
“I raced out to the parking lot and a couple of guys gave me a ride out to get cell phone signal to call for help,” he wrote. “I was finally able to call in the report … we arrived at the site just after the chopper landed.”
About an hour and a half had elapsed, with Jackson Meyer and the other people who had come to help continuing CPR, he wrote. The group helped to load Kloos into the helicopter and made sure Evans was OK and that his snowmachine was running before heading out, he wrote.
Kloos and Evans triggered a hard slab avalanche, in which dense snow slides down in cohesive slabs of usually old, hardened layers of snow. The slide was nearly a mile wide and ran about 1,000–1,500 vertical feet, coming down a northwest facing slope with an average crown depth of about four feet, according to a preliminary avalanche report from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, published Monday.
“It was a hard slab avalanche that failed in weak faceted snow near the base of the snowpack,” the report states.
Though the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center does not do forecasts for the specific area where the Saturday avalanche occurred, people should take caution around slopes steeper than 30 degrees, said Wendy Wagner, the director and forecaster for the center. All slopes are currently suspect, she said.
A number of weather events have led to dangerous snow conditions in the Chugach Mountains and Kenai Mountains on the Kenai Peninsula, especially up high, she said. A cold and clear period moved through in December and January that created a weak snowpack, and then major storms moved through on Jan. 21 that deposited four to five feet of snow on the mountains, she said. Another warm and wet storm followed on Jan. 26, bonding well to the snow from Jan. 21 but not to the snow from December.
“These are fairly dramatic avalanches that people can trigger,” she said. “… We’re recommending folks stick to the mellower terrain … It is the type of snowpack and avalanche conditions we have… you could trigger them from the middle of the slope, or you could even trigger one from the bottom of the slope.”
The center staff are working on a final report for the Snug Harbor avalanche incident and will likely make it available later this week, she said. The primary goal for the final reports is to provide more information for people to learn about the accident and be safer in the future, she said.
People can keep an eye out for avalanche risk through a number of red flags. One is to look for recent avalanches; another is to be aware of a phenomenon called whumpfing, which is when weak snowpack collapses when people cross it, signaling unstable snow conditions, she said. People can also watch for cracking in the top of the snow as a signal for unsafe conditions.
The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center will host a free avalanche rescue workshop on Feb. 11 at the Turnagain Pass motorized parking lot on the Seward Highway. Participants will be able to practice with their avalanche beacons, probes and shovel, discussing shoveling techniques and common mistakes. It’s open to everyone who recreates in avalanche terrain regardless of experience level, Wagner said. Scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the goal is to reach people before they head out into the hills for activities, she said. Participants should bring their rescue gear, though the staff will have a few extra to borrow.
“We really tailor these workshops to folks who are doing this,” she said. “…These workshops are open to everybody.”
Rob Meyer wrote that he was proud of his group for all their effort in the rescue. He recommended riding in the trees and valleys, staying away from avalanche zones and being prepared with a shovel, probe and beacon to help find victims. He also said he would be buying avalanche airbag packs for himself and his sons. The packs allow a snowmachiner in danger to pull a cord and an airbag will inflate, helping to keep the person near the top of an avalanche.
“We were very honored to have been in the mountains on this day to be in the right place at the right time where God needed us to be,” he wrote. “We are so thankful that we were able to free Bryant and so sad that we could not revive Tyler! My heart and prayers go out to his family and loved ones.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.