Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 1999-03-12
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Alyeska Ski Resort
State: AK
Country: USA
Summary: 2 skiers caught and partially buried in large slide

`Official` Report will be posted as soon as we receive it.

Avalanche hits Alyeska ski run, Officials say no one badly hurt


Anchorage Daily News reporters, 3/13/99

GIRDWOOD - An avalanche roared down a ski run at

Alyeska Resort on Friday afternoon, partially burying

at least two skiers and prompting a massive search

for people who may have been trapped underneath.

The effort, involving as many as 200 searchers

and six rescue dogs high on a mountainside, was

suspended between 8 and 9 p.m., and authorities said

they were confident no one was still buried.

"We have no reason to believe at this time that anyone

is in the avalanche," Alyeska general manager Larry

Daniels said Friday night. There were "absolutely no

clues to indicate that there's anybody else," he said.

No one was seriously hurt. The resort was scheduled to

reopen as usual today, and no further searches are

planned unless it's determined that someone is missing,

Daniels said. Although there have been close calls, he

said it was the first time in his 25 years at the resort that

an avalanche had hit skiers.

The slide originated high on Mount Alyeska, above the

area open to skiing, when part of a ridge-top cornice

fell about 2:30 p.m.

"We started seeing it," said snowboarder Dustin

Edmondson, 14. "We started screaming, saying, 'Go!

Avalanche!' It was huge."

The slide swept through the Glacier Bowl and extended

another 800 feet down a run called Prospector, one of

the highest runs on the mountain. The steep run,

classified as difficult, can be seen by people riding

Chair 6, the high-speed quad lift, as they look to the

right, near the top of the lift. The avalanche came to a

stop on the Mainstreet track near Eagle Rock.

Witnesses said it sounded like thunder and felt like an


Kari Albaugh of Girdwood said she and two

companions had just gotten off the tram, down the

mountain from the slide, when they heard people

screaming from Chairlift 6 nearby. They looked up, she

said, and saw a "fluffy billow of snow" rushing down

the mountain.

The skiers watched at least two people, she said, ski out

of the path of the avalanche. When the snow settled,

other skiers came down over the slide. People on the

chairlift were shouting that people were buried in the

debris, she said.

Snowboarder Edmondson and a fellow student from

Benny Benson Secondary School, 16-year-old George

Tauriainen, said they were a few feet outside the

avalanche path. They said they saw a woman get caught

in the slide.

"We seen the lady go down," Edmondson said. "We

seen it and we came and helped."

The settled snow, the teen said, "was like concrete, like

rock." Using their hands and snowboards and later

joined by another skier, they freed the woman, who they

estimate was buried for about 40 seconds. She was

frightened but otherwise OK, they said. Authorities

identified her as Natasha Latta.

Another woman, Mary Ann Nickles, was buried up to

her neck and was dug out by another snowboarder.

Margie Mercer, a retired nurse from Eagle River, was

standing outside the restaurants at the upper tram station

taking pictures of her husband and son as they cruised


Suddenly, she heard an "Oh my God, look!" from

someone on a chairlift nearby. She turned slightly, she

said, and saw the avalanche in full flood.

"I saw that one (person) on the outskirts trying to get

away from it (and) come out on the side of it," she said.

"And I saw - it looked like one was in it, too."

The ski runs were shut down immediately and remained

closed the rest of the day.

The temperature hovered around the freezing mark

throughout the day Friday. The snow was wet and sticky

and had fallen heavily at the resort the previous day. "It

was incredible the amount of snow that was coming

down" on Thursday, said skier Robert Thrasher. "It was

white-out conditions."

Resort officials said more than 31/2 feet had fallen in

the two days prior to the slide, and the top of the

mountain had received two feet in just the previous 24


On Thursday, the resort closed the North Face and parts

of the bowl, including Prospector, because of avalanche


To lessen the chance of an uncontrolled avalanche,

Alyeska workers Friday morning fired at snow-loaded

slopes with a 105mm howitzer rifle. The ridge where

the avalanche started had been fired at three times, said

resort spokeswoman Kjerstin Lastufka.

"That cornice just apparently decided to fall later," she

said. A wall of bare rock was exposed where the snow

had fallen away.

After the slide, the Alyeska Ski Patrol - aided by 150 to

200 skiers, volunteers from Girdwood and specially

trained rescue dogs - combed the slide area, looking for

buried people. They spread out in rows, probing the

snow with skinny 10-foot poles.

Two German skiers, Markus Faulhaber, 32, and Axel

Bauer, 23, were drafted for the effort. They were at the

Girdwood airport waiting to take their fourth helicopter

run of the day into the backcountry. The company they

were flying with, Chugach Powder Guides, stopped its

tours and began ferrying searchers up the mountain and

asked them to join.

On the mountainside, ski patrol members and others

used the poles to probe the avalanche debris. Groups of

10 to 15 searchers stood in a line shoulder to shoulder

with a crew leader. The leader would yell "right!" and

the team would stick the probe poles into the snow in

front of them to the right. Then the leader would yell

"left!" and "center!" Then the line took a step forward

and repeated the probe pattern. They combed up and

down the slide area. The ski patrol kept lists of

searchers to keep track of everyone.

"It was really ... organized," Faulhaber said.

The depth of the snow in the area being searched was

two to six feet, Daniels said.

By the time the search was suspended Friday night,

searchers had been over the slide area four times and

some places eight times, Daniels said.

The search went on past nightfall, with searchers

wearing headlamps, because authorities couldn't say for

certain that no one was under the snow. The resort had

sold 800 lift tickets Friday, and as people came off the

mountain, workers asked skiers to write down their

names, telephone numbers and names of ski companions

still on the mountain. As others came down, their names

were crossed off.

Daniels said authorities interviewed a number of people

who saw the avalanche and felt confident that they had

accounted for everyone who had been seen in the area

when the slide occurred.