Joel Schihl, 01-03-06
Avalanche claims backcountry skier
GIRDWOOD: Joel Schihl died, a friend was not injured descending Raggedtop.
By MEGAN HOLLAND Anchorage Daily News
Published: January 4, 2006
An avalanche near Girdwood killed one experienced backcountry skier while his partner
escaped uninjured Tuesday afternoon, Alaska State Troopers said.
Joel Schihl, 30, died when a sheet of snow 100 feet across collapsed under his skis,
tumbling him 1,600 feet down Raggedtop Mountain and burying him in 5 feet of snow.
Friend Bradley Cosgrove, 28, was able to avoid getting trapped and was not injured,
They were apparently the only ones on the steep mountain at the time. Raggedtop
is in the Chugach National Forest, about four miles north of Girdwood.
Across Girdwood Valley, Cosgrove's girlfriend, who works with the Alyeska Ski Patrol,
watched as the avalanche came down and called for help, troopers said. They did
not identify her.
Schihl and Cosgrove drove to the area Tuesday morning and parked near Crow Creek
Mine, northeast of Girdwood. Family and friends said both men were experienced mountaineers
and skiers, sensitive to avalanche hazards.
The pair climbed to the top of the 5,200-foot mountain using all-terrain gear. After
Cosgrove skied about a third of the way down the mountain, Schihl began to descend.
He was just two ski turns down from the top when he triggered the avalanche at about
1:30 p.m., said Carl Skustad, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche
"You can't have 3-D vision and look inside the snowpack. It's just very unfortunate,"
Skustad said. "They didn't ski in the exact same spot and the second skier happened
to hit a weakness in the snowpack."
Cosgrove was able to locate the buried Schihl, using an emergency beacon, but he
was already dead. Authorities did not immediately know if he died of suffocation
or the trauma of the fall.
A helicopter was launched from Anchorage and made it to the mountain about 3 p.m.,
said Chris Owens, owner of Chugach Powder Guides, a heli-ski service that helped
with the rescue.
"It's tragic," Owens said. "It's always horrible when nature gets the best of you."
A relative, Vasilios Gialopsos, said Schihl was an extreme skier who loved the outdoors,
taking every opportunity to go explore and play in the mountains. He lived near
Jewel Lake and was a waiter at Little Italy in South Anchorage.
Schihl came up to Alaska from Virginia for the outdoors experiences here, Gialopsos
said. Just a few weeks ago, Schihl and his new wife found out she was pregnant,
"He and (his wife) were such a happy couple, life couldn't have been much better
for them," he said. "They had a wonderful lifestyle."
"It's a double-edged sword that we live here," Gialopsos said. "The same elements
that took Joel are the same reason he came here."
Raggedtop is popular among backcountry skiers, although few climb all the way to
the top, Skustad said. Most ski down from just above halfway, or around 3,000 feet.
He said this early in the season he wouldn't be surprised if the pair were the first
ones at the top.
Skustad said the snow above 3,000 feet is tricky. "It's very cold, shallow, weak
and unstable snow up there."
"This was a bluebird day. The visibility was really nice and these were some of
the best skiers in the area and they were going to go for some of the best areas
around," Skustad said.
Trooper Jeff Evanoff said the avalanche left a clear pockmark on the mountain, visible
from his office near the turnoff to Girdwood on the Seward Highway.
"It's the real world out there," Owens said. "The mountains, open water, white water,
the desert -- whatever it is, Mother Nature can take your life."
Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at email@example.com. Daily News
reporter Craig Medred contributed to this story.
One skier killed in Alaska avalanche
By RACHEL D'ORO, Associated Press Writer
Published: January 3, 2006 Last Modified: January 3, 2006 at 07:06 PM
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A skier was killed Tuesday afternoon by an avalanche that
plunged him down a mountain near Girdwood, about 35 miles south of Anchorage.
Joel Schihl, 30, of Anchorage was found dead, buried under at least four feet of
snow at Raggedtop Mountain, about a mile from the Crow Creek trail head. The mountain
is a common destination for backcountry skiers, rescuers said.
Schihl had been skiing with another man, 28-year-old Bradley Cosgrove of Bird, when
the two were caught in the 100-foot-wide avalanche that fell about 2,000 feet, Alaska
State Troopers said.
"That's a massive amount of snow," troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson said. "It's
like having concrete fall on you."
Members of the adjacent Alyeska Resort ski patrol witnessed the avalanche through
binoculars shortly after 1:30 p.m. while conducting a routine scan of the area from
a patrol station on Mount Alyeska, said resort spokesman Todd Clarke. The ski patrol
then contacted troopers.
"Basically, they watched across the Girdwood valley as the avalanche came down,"
Clarke said. "It's part of their snow safety work to constantly watch our terrain
and the surrounding terrain."
Cosgrove managed to free himself and activated an emergency beacon. He found Schihl's
body soon after rescuers arrived in a helicopter.
Rescuers were able to reach the backcountry area about two hours after the avalanche
was reported, Wilkinson said.
Cosgrove was taken to his vehicle and released.
Members of the ski patrol and guides with Chugach Powder Guides, a local heli-skiing
company, assisted in the search effort.
Chris Owens, owner of the company, said he knew Schihl socially but had never skied
with him. Schihl was known as a regular backcountry skier, however, he said.
Raggedtop Mountain is steep but not particularly treacherous, according to Owens.
He said the avalanche could have been triggered by the skiers, but stressed it was
too early to say exactly what caused it.
"Any snow can turn into an avalanche if the conditions are right. There are a thousand
variations," Owens said. "The X-factor can get you - and you've got a tragic set
Statistically, 95 percent of backcounrty avalanches involving people are human-triggered,
said Doug Fesler, a longtime avalanche expert based in Anchorage. The weight of
a person can tip the balance of unstable snow layers on steep slopes such as those
of Raggedtop, which increasingly attracts experienced skiers and snowboarders, according
"I think lot of these skiers and snowboarders have travel skills that are way ahead
of their avalanche hazard evaluation skills," he said.