Aaron Arthur, 03-21-99
4 DEAD; 5 STILL MISSING
By Craig Medred, ADN 3/23/99
Turnagain Pass ---Holding his pain and grief inside, Rick Combs watched silently
on Monday as the body of his 26-year-old son, Jodi, was dug from the rubble of a
massive avalanche that had swept through this wild mountain pass the previous afternoon.
"This is Jodi," he said quietly as anguished searchers carefully uncovered the face
of the young Anchorage snowmobiler found under six feet of snow. "That's my son."
Then the father stood speechless and overcome, his hands clasped behind his back,
his face a mask of shock. All day volunteers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group,
the Alaska Snowmachine Search and Recovery Team, Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs and
other groups had probed the remains of the avalanche that swept down along a mile
of ridgeline that parallels the Seward Highway.
Four bodies had been found by late afternoon. Five snowmobilers remained unaccounted
Alaska State Troopers identified the dead as Combs, 28-year-old Chris Scott of Anchorage,
29-year-old Jeff Saunders of Anchorage, and 37-year-old Dan Demers of Eagle River.
Missing are Aaron Arthur, 29 of Palmer; Victor Jones, age undetermined, of Elmendorf
Air Force Base; Charles McLead, 38 of Anchorage; and Dick and Cal Steisken, both
40, home unknown.
The state's top experts said no Alaska avalanche in modern times has buried so many
Eyewitnesses said dozens of snowmobilers were playing on the sun-kissed slope or
in the gullies beneath it when the entire mountainside seemed to erupt. A slab seven
to 15 feet deep and more than a mile long broke loose near the ridge.
Some of the riders had been high-marking close to the top of the slope, trying to
see how high they could climb their powerful machines up a mountainside that is
in places clifflike. Beth Arthur said her brother Aaron, one of the missing, was
"Everyone loved him and he loved snowmachining," she said.
A newly married Palmer electrician, Arthur was a hotshot rider who had outrun avalanches
before. He went to Turnagain Pass Sunday with two friends to be part of a film about
extreme snowmobiling. She said another rider told her he saw Arthur being swept
into the flow this time.
High-marking is "not something testosterone-crazed people do," said Joe Guana, past
president of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club. "People do it because it's fun and because
you can do it. It's just like how some people like to ride horses fast, drive a
dog team fast or fly loop-de-loops in an airplane."
But most of that had ended by the time the snow gave way around 4 p.m., said witness
Ken Seagle of Anchorage.
"I was on the far left side (of the avalanche)," he said. "I was hill climbing.
I broke away to the left side and ran when it started to come down."
Seagle escaped. But he watched as one man whose snowmobile had become stuck in the
middle of the slope got swept up in the thundering slide.
"He grabbed onto his handlebars, and ducked down behind his sled, and that was it,"
Seagle said. "He was the first victim."
Farther below, Seagle said he could see snowmobiles roaring through a 40-foot ravine
at the base of the mountain. Some were obviously trying to flee the onrushing snow.
What happened to them on Monday was unknown.
There was no more ravine. The avalanche filled it, spilled out, buried some hemlocks
on a knoll behind it, and kept rolling toward the Seward Highway about 300 yards
"If there were people caught in that ravine," Seagle said, "they won't find them
Troopers called off the search for survivors as darkness settled Sunday, but a large
and growing search for victims continued through Monday despite heavy, wet snow
that soaked everyone.
Worse, though, was the sense of futility that overcame many peering at a pile of
boulder-size chunks of snow, wide as two football fields, 10 to perhaps 40 feet
deep, and stretching a mile up the mountain.
High along the ridge, a line of searchers lead by Doug Fesler of the Alaska Avalanche
School wavered like a string of ants. Below, Fesler's wife and partner Jill Fredston
tried to focus the efforts of several lines of searchers probing the snow with poles.
"It's such a huge project," she said.
More than 100 searched during the day, but Terry Kadel of the Mountain Rescue Group
admitted 10 times that many might be needed.
Several dozen airmen from Elmendorf Air Force Base searched for signs of Tech. Sgt.
Victor Jones of 3rd Wing Civil Engineering Squadron. Troopers had requested an additional
200 soldiers to help today, but the military denied the request because the state
has not declared the avalanche an official emergency, said Lt. Col. Jerry Brown,
spokesman for the Alaskan Command.
More airmen will likely search today as volunteers, Brown said.
Even with the extra help, questions remained about whether all of the victims could
be found. Some were thought to be buried so deep that they were beyond the reach
of the probe poles used to poke for bodies and snowmobiles in the rubble.
Searchers started with standard, 10-foot aluminum probes, but eventually moved up
to 14-foot sections of electrical conduit. All day, the valley echoed with their
methodical chant as they moved forward elbow-to-elbow:
"Probes down. Probes up. Forward. Probes down."
It was tedious and difficult work.
"There's an ice layer probably a foot down that you have to punch through," said
Joseph Skeete of Anchorage. "It's pretty tough. I've been out there all morning.
I found the windshield of a snowmobile, but nothing else."
Skeete, like many others, had come looking for friends. Some arrived well prepared.
Others came in street clothes and were told they wouldn't be allowed on the mountain.
Many had to be organized for their first experience in a probe search.
"Line up to the person on your left," Kadel said. "It's real important: Elbow-to-elbow,
touching. Elbow-to-elbow. I see gaps. If you think you hit something, tell the person
next to you. Have them probe it, too. We're going straight through this area."
Search dogs and their handlers wandered the area until the dogs began to tire.
"These guys have been working pretty hard," said Paul Brusseau, handler for a pup
named Chili. "It's kind of frustrating for them."
Chili did help confirm the location of Combs' body after a searcher poked something
solid with a probe. A half-dozen young men with shovels had spent 20 minutes frantically
digging four feet into dense, heavy snow before exhaustion and frustration began
to overtake them.
Then Chili was lowered into the hole. She went to a corner, sniffed and started
digging. Encouraged, searchers threw themselves back into the task.
"It never gets easier," said one of them, 29-year-old Travis Foreman of Anchorage.
"This is my second friend I've done this for."
Almost exactly five years ago, Foreman and 21-year-old friend Brandon Ford of Anchorage
were caught in an avalanche in Chugach State Park's Powerline Pass.
Foreman barely outran that slide on his snowmobile. Ford was caught and died. He
was later dug out, 12 feet under.
Foreman said he's been leery of avalanches since. He took a class from Fesler. On
Saturday, he rode his snowmobile in soft, new fluffy snow at Turnagain, but he abandoned
the area on Sunday as a warm sun began to change the snowpack.
What had been light fresh snow resting on a pavement-hard base on Saturday became
heavier and wet on Sunday. A thin layer of porous, old frost between the layers
could no longer hold.
"I was down at Lost Lake Sunday," Foreman said, riding in the relative safety of
trees that anchor the snowpack there.
"This," he said, pointing to the slope where searchers in red, yellow and green
nylon probed for bodies, "this, you didn't need to dig a (test) pit to know it was
Minutes later, from a hole in the snow now six feet deep, came the words, "We've
got a boot."
Then, someone said, "This isn't Vic. He's got Carhartt pants and bunny boots."
Slowly a pair of Sorel's were uncovered, then a bare hand with a wedding ring, and
finally Rick Combs faced every parent's worst nightmare.
No snowmobilers could have imagined this, said Seagle, who had watched it all come
apart on Sunday. Riders had seen an avalanche in a gully to the west only 20 minutes
earlier, he said, but everyone knew that gully was prone to avalanche.
"Nobody was ever expecting the whole mountainside to fall off," Seagle said.
But some in recent years have sounded warnings about snowmobilers triggering a major
slide. Fredston said she, Fesler and others have flown over the Kenai Peninsula
mountains and noted the high-marking tracks ever higher onto steeper and less stable
Dave Hamre, an avalanche forecaster for the Alaska Railroad and a backcountry ski
guide, had made clear the instability of Kenai Peninsula snow this weekend when
he canceled the Anchorage Nordic Ski Association's annual Ski Train.
The popular ski outing had been planned for Saturday at Grandview less than 20 miles
to the south. Hamre said no. Several feet of new snow was sitting atop a layer of
hard, old snow with almost nothing to bond the two. It would be too easy for someone
to trigger a monster slide.
The U.S. Forest Service does not normally post avalanche warnings in Chugach National
Forest, but records a snowmobile report. On Sunday, the recording told snowmachiners
to "be cautious" and that slopes on Turnagain Pass "may have unstable layers in
there and avalanches are possible."
The ranger did not discourage people from riding in Turnagain Pass and noted that
the weather in the pass was the finest in days.
The rangers who record the avalanche conditions are not experts, said Deidre St.
Louis, head ranger for the Turnagain area. The Glacier District encompasses 2.3
million acres, she said, and it would be impossible to provide warnings for every
dangerous area. Posting just some areas would give people a "false impression of
safety" in the non-posted areas, she said.
"It's up to individual users to educate themselves about the hazards they might
encounter," she said.
Experienced rescuers said they had never envisioned a slide catching so many people.
Larry Daniels from Alyeska Resort, which loaned searchers a snow-cat, remembered
a 1978 slide that killed two skiers on the south side of the Seward Highway near
here. That slide was big, he said, but a fraction of this one.
"It's big," said Dan Hourihan, the on-scene coordinator for Mountain Rescue. "It's