Robert L. Pulliam III, 4/10/03

Anchorage cardiologist is killed in avalanche
SKIING: Robert L. Pulliam III strayed from the trail of his guide.

By PETER PORCO, Anchorage Daily News, April 12, 2003

Robert L. Pulliam III, a 55-year-old Anchorage cardiologist, was killed in an avalanche while skiing on a remote peak in the Chugach Mountains east of Valdez, authorities said Friday.

Pulliam and another Anchorage doctor had been staying at a lodge on the Chitina River and taking guided day trips into the nearby mountains of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, said Tom Betts, the Chitina district ranger.

Early Thursday afternoon, Pulliam, obstetrician-gynecologist Hedric B. Hanson, 61, and ski guide Andrew "Drew" Lovell, 27, were descending a ridge off the south side of Verde Peak, some 40 miles southeast of Chitina, according to Betts.

During the previous several days, each time they skied, Pulliam shadowed Lovell, copying him turn for turn, Betts said.

"For the last week he had been right on Drew's tail," the ranger said.

That changed on Thursday. Pulliam skied off the ridge into the top of a gully below the 45-degree ridge.

"He chose this day, and all of a sudden he turned off into the ravine there," said Betts. "It was underneath where all the snow accumulated. That's what Drew was trying to stay out of."

Lovell and Hanson said later they weren't sure if Pulliam had taken a fall or decided to wander a little off the trail and went too far, according to the ranger.

"Drew was in the right spot and leading his clients in the proper direction, and why Pulliam didn't follow him we'll never know," Betts said.

As they watched from the ridge, Pulliam stopped and was turning around, probably to climb out of the gully to the ridge, he said.

At that moment, however, a slab avalanche broke loose under him, pitching Pulliam head-first upslope into the loosening snow. Almost immediately, a second slab broke free higher up, and Pulliam was carried in a massive pile of debris down about 1,700 feet to the bottom of the gully.

The slab cleaned out the snowpack down to the rocks, a slab depth Betts guessed at about 5 feet. Pulliam wore an avalanche transceiver, and Lovell was able to find him under a pile of debris, Betts said.

He was dead. Hanson told the ranger that he could not be sure what killed Pulliam, but the man suffered "severe head trauma," Betts said.

A team that included Betts, Lovell and the owner and several employees of the lodge and guide service, called Ultima Thule Outfitters, recovered Pulliam's body Friday.

The body was flown to Glennallen about 2 p.m. and turned over to Pulliam's family, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Pulliam began his career as a family practitioner and later became what is known as an invasive cardiologist.

In 1997 he joined the Alaska Heart Institute, a group of heart specialists who provide diagnostic testing and clinical treatment, said Baxter Burton, the Institute's chief executive officer.

"Lee was a valuable member and will certainly be missed, and his (death's) impact will be felt on the entire state's population because it will mean a longer wait to see cardiologists," Burton said.

Pulliam also was medical director for cardiology for Providence Alaska Medical Center, a position that allowed him to "provide the grease" to make the institute's doctors and the hospital staff work well together.

"I interacted with him every day for the last couple of years," said Pat Lara, the clinical manager of the Providence Heart Center. "I asked specifically that he be the medical director here at the program (because) I had great confidence in his effectiveness in the position."

Pulliam is the second doctor associated with Providence to die in an avalanche in two years. In May 2001, Scott Dull, a 39-year-old emergency room physician who was the state medical director of emergency services, was killed in Utah while climbing.