Brian Mulvehill, 02-08-06
Slide kills man
NEAR FLATTOP: Snow buries snowshoer a mile from parking lot.
By MEGAN HOLLAND Anchorage Daily News
Published: February 9, 2006
A snowshoer was killed Wednesday night when an avalanche swept down from the slopes
of a gully beside Flattop Mountain, authorities said.
Authorities said the snowshoer was buried in an area popularly known as Boy Scout
Gully, which for years has been a concern of Chugach State Park rangers because
of its easy accessibility and the boom in popularity of backcountry snowboarding
and skiing. The region is one of the most popular recreational areas, both in the
winter and in the summer, in the Anchorage vicinity.
Anchorage city manager Denis LeBlanc, who was on the scene Wednesday night, said
searchers began a massive effort that ultimately involved the Alaska Mountain Rescue
Group, the Nordic Ski Patrol, the Anchorage Fire Department and the Alaska State
Troopers after a snowshoer reported about 7:30 p.m. that a friend had been swept
away by the sliding snow and was missing.
Searchers probed the snow and brought in dogs to help. They reported about 9:30
p.m. that one of the dogs had located the body of the missing man.
"You know, life is so fragile," LeBlanc said. "It's a beautiful night tonight. And
Alaskans were out doing what Alaskans love to do. It's just a tragedy."
Authorities on the scene said one of the snowshoers somehow triggered the slide.
The dead man, whose body was flown off the range in a helicopter, had not been identified
late Wednesday night.
The avalanche occurred within a mile of the Glen Alps parking lot. "It just goes
to show you the mess you can get into right out of the parking lot," said William
Laxson with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and who was involved in the search
Soren Orley, also with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, said it appeared the two
snowshoers were en route back to the Glen Alps parking lot and were about 100 feet
apart when the avalanche occurred. He said high winds of recent days had loaded
the slopes of the gully, which is between Blueberry Hill and Flattop, with snow.
"It was an area that frequently avalanches," said Bill Romberg of Alaska Mountain
Rescue Group. "It's not a spot to mess with."
Romberg said the slide appeared to be about 200 yards wide. He said the snowshoers
carried no rescue gear with them -- no avalanche beacons, no shovels, no probes.
Authorities said the two were the only ones who appeared to be in the area when
the avalanche occurred.
Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 257-4343.
Outdoors editor Craig Medred contributed to this story.
Victims triggered fatal slide
FLATTOP: Brian Mulvehill died crossing unstable avalanche chute.
By CRAIG MEDRED and MEGAN HOLLAND
Anchorage Daily News
Published: February 10, 2006
The night was beautiful with twinkling stars and a near-full moon when 32-year-old
Brian Mulvehill took his last steps on Flattop Mountain above Anchorage.
Snowshoeing down toward Blueberry Hill with friend John Lorentzen on Wednesday night,
the transplant from Michigan avoided patches of wind-scoured rock in favor of a
route across a smooth patch of snow. It was a decision that cost him his life.
Hurricane-force winds and blowing snow had by Thursday prevented a complete investigation
of what happened in the gully between Blueberry Hill and the top of Alaska's most-climbed
peak, but rescuers who were on the scene the night before painted a picture of a
seemingly attractive route that turned out to be deadly.
"It was a setup,'' said Paul Brusseau with Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs. It was
Brusseau's dog who found Mulvehill's body Wednesday night.
Mulvehill stepped into a patch of snow that was just waiting for something or someone
to trigger a slide, rescuers believe. He became the second man to die in an avalanche
in the Anchorage area in the past five weeks. His death follows that of 30-year-old
skier Joel Schihl of Anchorage, who perished in an avalanche on Raggedtop Mountain
near Girdwood on Jan. 3.
Schihl was an experienced mountaineer who misjudged the stability of high-altitude
snow above Girdwood. Mulvehill was a less-experienced snowshoer who appears to have
stumbled into a trap left by a weekend storm.
That storm raked the Chugach Mountains with high winds and moved snow into dangerous
locations, said Mike Goodwin, acting superintendent for Chugach State Park. Drifts
formed atop a layer of sugary, unconsolidated fluff that retained just enough friction
to hold everything in place until someone cracked the surface.
On Wednesday afternoon, after Mulvehill finished work, he did what he did every
Wednesday this winter with roommates and friends: snowshoed up Flattop.
On the way down, the two men were 15 feet apart when they heard what Lorentzen described
to Alaska State Troopers as a snap. The snow came apart and started sliding downhill
on the force of gravity.
The two men started running, troopers said. But Mulvehill was caught up in the slide,
which swept him down the slope and buried him.
Lorentzen escaped the full force of the slide.
Two hours later, after a massive search effort was under way, Brusseau's dog found
Mulvehill under 3 1/2 to 4 feet of snow in the gully.
"It was a soft slab (slide),'' Brusseau said. "There were big chunks, but fairly
"It was right in there in what we call the tunnel,'' Brusseau said. "It usually
slides a couple times a year. It just kind of slumps on down.''
Mulvehill, an electrician who moved to Alaska two years ago, first to Mat-Su then
to Anchorage, was described by friends and family as an avid outdoorsman who loved
to fish, hunt and hike -- he had only been snowshoeing recently though. He was just
settling into life in Anchorage and was about to buy a condominium, said Larry Clock,
an uncle in Michigan.
Mulvehill is believed to be the first to die in the tunnel, but others have been
caught by sliding snow and partially buried there in the past. And a number of nearby
slopes are notorious for their avalanche danger.
Just to the south in a gully between Peak Two and Peak Three, experienced mountaineers
Bruce Hickok and Mike Radovan died when caught by an avalanche while skiing in 1992.
Just to the east, Anchorage newspaper publisher Nick Coltman was left paralyzed
after being caught in an avalanche and tumbling down the slope in 2000.
Because the Glen Alps entrance to Chugach Park is so close to Anchorage and so popular,
Goodwin said, people tend to overlook the dangers that lurk nearby. Signs at the
start of the trail to Flattop clearly warn of avalanche danger.
Mulvehill and Lorentzen carried ice axes, crampons and poles but neither had avalanche
probes, shovels or avalanche beacons. All three are vital if there is to be hope
of finding and rescuing someone caught and buried in an avalanche, experts say.
Even more important than safety gear, however, is knowledge, said Carl Skustand
of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (www.fs.fed.us/r10/chugach/glacier/snow.html).
He noted that the two men went hiking in the mountains just after a big storm that
moved around tons of snow, leaving leeward slopes wind-loaded and just waiting for
something to trigger a slide.
Where the men could have used bare, windswept ground to steer clear of avalanche
danger, Brusseau added, they chose instead to charge into a snowfield.
"It's kind of frustrating,'' Skustad said. "People don't know the danger they're
getting into. They don't really know that they're in dangerous terrain.''
The Anchorage-based Alaska Avalanche School has been trying to change that with
avalanche clinics around the state, as has the North America Outdoor Institute which
does a "Be Snow Smart'' program for Alaska junior high and high school students
in cooperation with the Alaska Department of Public Safety.
But the programs have yet to reach all Alaskans and appear, at least in a handful
of cases, to be somewhat counter-productive. Some skiers and snowmachine riders
have used their knowledge of avalanche risks more to push the envelope of mountain
adventure than to seek the safest routes for travel.
Goodwin said that now is a time when everyone should be thinking safety. The snowpack
in many areas is highly unstable and is only likely to become more so because of
the storm that was sweeping through the region Thursday.
Even before the Thursday storm hit, he said, snow in the Hatcher Pass area north
of Palmer was so tender that state park rangers trying to put up warning signs on
snowmachine trails there were themselves setting off avalanches.
South of Anchorage, Skustad said, things aren't all that much better. Girdwood and
Turnagain Pass got so much snow in last weekend's storm that the weight of it brought
down natural avalanches on about 60 percent of the most dangerous slopes, he said,
but that still leaves a lot of terrain waiting to catch an unsuspecting skier, snowmachiner
On Thursday, Skustad was anxiously waiting to see whether the new storm, which was
bringing avalanches down across the Seward Highway, would make the situation for
recreationists better or worse.
Daily News Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Megan
Holland can be reached at email@example.com.