Russel Foster, 12/23/01, Hope, Snowmachiner, Avalanche

Avalanche claims snowmachiner
DEATH: Dangerous snow conditions led to the third slide fatality of the winter.

By Lisa Demer
Anchorage Daily News, (Published: December 25, 2001)

The slide that killed a snowmachiner in a scenic riding area near Hope on Sunday came amid deadly avalanche conditions in much of Southcentral Alaska, say public safety officials, avalanche experts and other riders.

Russel Foster of Anchorage, his girlfriend and five other snowmachiners were with a group riding in the Chugach National Forest off Palmer Creek Road near the old Swetmann Mine.

Sometime after 1 p.m., Foster, 35, headed up a slope above the rest of the riders, said trooper Bill Welch. A friend, Bobby Frankson, was below him when the snowpack on the side of the mountain let loose.

"He said he looked up and all he could see was a white wall coming down," said Welch, who talked to Frankson and other riders afterward. "It was a massive wall of white."

The avalanche buried Foster. Frankson went for help. A couple of miles away he found a group of snowmachiners from Hope, who were riding in a flatter area.

"We were hanging on the low ends because of the high avalanche danger," Henry Motoyama, 35, said. "He came down screaming that his buddy is trapped in an avalanche."

Motoyama said he and his brother and others took off through an area marked with fresh slides. When they got to the site, it appeared "a big cornice broke off and took the whole hillside down with it," he said.

Snowmachiners found Foster through a signal emitted by his avalanche beacon. The searchers used probe poles to identify his precise location, and dug Foster out from about 3 1/2 to 4 feet of snow packed as hard as concrete, Motoyama said. At least 30 minutes had elapsed since the avalanche, he estimated.

For the next two hours, the group took turns performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation but couldn't revive Foster. Alaska State Troopers gave permission for the riders to take his body out of the mountains on a snowmachine sled.

Foster's death is the third avalanche fatality in Alaska this winter. Only one other state, Colorado, has reported any, according to the Web site of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which tracks fatalities and close calls in the United States and Canada.

Beacons are helpful to rescuers but as this case shows, don't equate to survival, Welch said.

"You are talking about small amounts of time that you can survive underneath the snow with no air," the trooper said.

Someone who believes another has been buried in an avalanche should immediately begin to search, said avalanche expert Doug Fesler. "You don't go for help. You are the help," he said.

This year's mix of extreme cold punctuated by warm storms has made the snowpack especially unstable, Fesler said.

On the bottom is a layer of very weak sugary snow -- technically called faceted snow -- that formed during the cold periods. Above that is heavier, denser snow that fell during the warmer periods, and wind-packed snow. In between are thin layers of surface hoarfrost and ice.

"It's almost like an upside down layer cake," said Fesler, who runs the Alaska Mountain Safety Center with his wife, Jill Fredston.

People should avoid steep snow slopes unless they've already slid, Fesler said.

The weak faceted layer "is notoriously weak and it is persistent. It is going to last for a long, long time." It doesn't generally bond to other layers or the ground and resists becoming denser and safer by settling, he said. The only thing that would eliminate the weak layer would be a long warm period with lots of rain, he said.

When it opened the Chugach to snowmachining on Thursday, the Forest Service warned people to be alert to slide danger.

Fesler and Fredston both sent e-mail warnings to the Forest Service on Thursday about the avalanche dangers. Snow depth shouldn't be the only criterion for opening an area to snowmachines -- the stability of the snowpack should be evaluated, Fesler said.

On Monday, during a drive to Moose Pass, he saw signs of three fresh avalanches in the Turnagain Pass area, all apparently triggered by snowmachines.

Rangers are evaluating the danger, but so far officials intend to keep forest lands on the Kenai Peninsula open for riding, said Dave Gibbons, forest supervisor.

"We warn them. We try to do as much education as we can as to avalanche danger. We leave it up to the individual," Gibbons said. His advice: Stay off steep slopes.

Chugach State Park remains closed to riding; high winds keep sweeping the snow away, said Jerry Lewanski, chief park ranger. Skiers in the park need to be on the alert for avalanche signs. Sunday, natural slides released above the Hillside in Upper Campbell Creek Valley, he said.

The state Department of Transportation is concerned about avalanches covering roads. On Saturday, workers set off six avalanches above the Seward Highway near the Sterling Highway turnoff.

The Hope area is growing in popularity with Anchorage snowmachiners, who may not realize how dangerous it is, Motoyama said.

"I knew it was going to happen sooner or later," he said. "There is a lot of potential for avalanches through the whole valley. They just need to be aware."

Reporter Lisa Demer can be reached at and 907-257-4390.