Jeremy Stark 2008-02-15
Christoph von Alvensleben

Turnagain Pass avalanche kills 2
SNOWMACHINERS: About 500 to 700 feet of the mountain collapsed.

By MEGAN HOLLAND and CRAIG MEDRED, Anchorage Daily News |, Published: February 16th, 2008

Two snowmachiners died in an avalanche at Turnagain Pass late Friday afternoon, Alaska State Troopers said.

Troopers late Friday night identified the victims as Christoph Vonalvensleben, 25, and Jeremy Stark, 27, both of Anchorage.

The two were swept up in the slide and buried on a mountain above Seattle Creek north of Turnagain Pass near Mile 68 of the Seward Highway, said trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen. She said the victims were in a party of six snowmachiners who were highmarking and inadvertently triggered the avalanche after being out on the mountain for only about 10 minutes.

A third man, 38-year-old Andrew Baugh of Girdwood, was partially or fully buried but survived, Ipsen said.

The fatalities occurred hours after park officials and avalanche experts warned that 10 inches to a foot of new snow had created treacherous conditions in Southcentral's mountainous backcountry -- especially treacherous because the fresh snow would look great for snowboarding and snowmobiling.

Friends of the victims described them all as longtime Anchorage residents and experienced snowmachiners who often pushed the limits in backcountry.

"These guys ride three days a week. They knew the risks," said Jimmy Blaze, a longtime snowmachiner and friend of the victims who had talked by telephone with other members of the group.

"If they had to go, at least they went that way instead of some freak drunk-driving hit on the highway on the way home," he said. "They were doing what they love."

Blaze, who said he often snowmachines in Turnagain Pass, said the area of Friday's avalanche is known to be slide-prone.

Ipsen said an initial 911 call came in at 4:45 p.m. reporting the avalanche and that the slide may have swept over some people, Ipsen said.

There were about half a dozen friends skiing two bowls back from the parking lot when the avalanche occurred. Ipsen said about 500 to 700 feet of the mountain collapsed, leaving a swath of debris 200 feet wide.

Two other people were caught up in the slide but not buried.

All members of the snowmachining group reportedly had avalanche beacons, Ipsen said.

The other snowmachiners found the trapped people about 45 minutes after the slide, Ipsen said. They were dead.

A trooper helicopter flew to the scene Friday evening. The bodies were not recovered because conditions on the mountain were too risky, Ipsen said. Troopers will attempt to recover them this morning at first light.

"The area is a very popular area. Usually more experienced snowmachiners go out there," Ipsen said.

Conditions remain dangerous, Ipsen said.

Even before the latest snowfall, said Debra McGhan, executive director of the North America Outdoor Institute in Wasilla, conditions in the area were getting dicey, with Turnagain Pass and Hatcher Pass especially problematic.

"On Feb. 1," she reported, the institute's Dan Dryden "counted over 10 recent avalanches in Hatcher Pass. The avalanches were on all aspects -- north, south, east and west. He skied up the west ridge of Microdot (Mountain) and encountered shooting cracks, a clear marker of snowpack instability. He reported hearing whoomping of a collapsing weak layer at approximately 3,500 feet."

Upon digging a snow pit, Dryden found the situation worse. There were multiple layers of dense, compact snow sitting on layers of weak, unconsolidated snow. These are prime conditions for creating the kinds of avalanches that send automobile-size chunks of slab roaring downhill.

"(And) now we have several new inches of snow as the icing on top of this mixture," McGhan said in an e-mail. "In layman terms, this is a lasagna recipe for avalanche. The (loose) depth hoar acts like ball bearings, and all it takes is a simple trigger like ... a snowboarder, skier or snowmachine to rip it loose and put everything in its path in peril."

McGhan said anyone planning to recreate this weekend needs to be especially careful. She noted there have been more than 50 avalanche victims in the state in the past decade.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center is warning not only of the risks of human-triggered avalanches but of dangers of people being caught in runout areas by naturally occurring avalanches. The Turnagain Pass area has the same layer-cake problem that Hatcher Pass has.

Wind slabs, Chugach avalanche officials report, have formed "over the most recent layer of buried surface hoar that formed over the past two weeks (of cold). The weak layer is buried about 16 to 23 inches deep. This layer is fairly widespread in the Kenai and Chugach mountains. Two other weak layers of buried surface hoar exist in isolated pockets approximately three to four feet down and four to six feet down."

An avalanche triggered at such depths would likely be massive, but even a slide going only a foot deep can easily bury and kill someone.

Closer to Anchorage, conditions are equally dangerous in Chugach State Park, officials said.

Slide victims were elite snowmachiners
TURNAGAIN PASS: Friends say riders killed Friday were among the best freestylers in the state.

By MEGAN HOLLAND, | , Published: February 17th, 2008

Jeremy Stark had snowflake tattoos on his neck.

Christoph von Alvensleben was featured in backcountry snowmachining films.

Both men, who died Friday when an avalanche poured down a mountain at Turnagain Pass, lived to snowmachine in Alaska's backcountry, said friends and family members. They loved the snow. They loved riding. They loved being extreme.

Stark, 27, and von Alvensleben, 25, belonged to an elite group of freestyle riders who rode when and where no one else would, sometimes with someone filming as their machines flew through the air or did flips off ridges thousands of feet up in the Alaska mountains.

"He was really the prototypical invincible person who could do anything and do it well," said von Alvensleben's older brother, Johannes, who was reached at the family home. "He might get hurt. But nothing bad would really happen to him. Not avalanches. Avalanches are something that happen to other people, not us."

Both men were buried when a slab of a snow above Seattle Creek came crashing down. Snowmachiners who ride in the bowl call the steep slope Widowmaker, said friend Kyle Armbrust.

Heavy snowfall, strong winds and extremely dangerous avalanche conditions stymied efforts Saturday to recover the bodies, said Beth Ipsen, spokeswoman for the State Troopers.

Alaska state troopers, friends and family and those at the scene when the avalanche occurred Friday afternoon provide varying accounts of what happened. What is known is that the six or seven riders were in an area where no one had been for a while and the avalanche dangers were considered high. The snowmachiners, mostly young guys in their 20s, were riding around the bowl when the snow slab started sliding. All the men had avalanche gear.

Stark even carried an extra beacon when he went out snowmachining for anyone who might have forgotten theirs, said his mother, DeeDee Stark, reached by phone Saturday.

"They were not stupid riders," she said.

Both Stark and von Alvensleben worked at the North Slope, usually on shifts that would leave them with weeks off where they could hit the backcountry, their families said.

Von Alvensleben, a German citizen who grew up in Anchorage and earned a welding certificate at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has been the star of snowmachining short films where he freestyles with 180-degree turns and flips. A couple of years ago, he broke a world record for a distance jump, soaring more than 240 feet through the air, his brother and friends said.

"He's one of the last people I'd expect to get caught in an avalanche," said von Alvensleben's friend, Armbrust.

His family used to find comfort in his extreme habits because he wouldn't go into the dangerous backcountry alone. He would go with a half dozen guys who were some of the best snowmachiners in the state, maybe even on the West Coast, said his brother.

"These were not weekend warriors, they were guys who went out every day they could," said Johannes von Alvensleben. They were more dedicated to snowmachining and spent more hours doing it than many people do to their full-time jobs.

Some movies that the group made included a series of films called "Turnagain Hardcore," showing jaw-dropping stunts set against bluebird skies with thumping heavy metal music.

Troopers are hoping to recover the bodies of both men today, Ipsen said.

Stark's mother said her son told her he felt free in the backcountry, that's why he did it. Now, though, she says, "I just want him back here. I can't stand the thought of him still being up there."

She said Stark's girlfriend is expecting twins. "So that's going to be hard. But it will be good to have some of him."

Avalanche experts say backcountry conditions around Anchorage remain ripe for avalanches.

Friday's avalanche deaths were the first this year in Alaska, according to the Associated Press.

Find Megan Holland online at or call 257-4343.

THE GROUP: Visit their Web site for photos and biographical information.

Avalanche risk hinders recovery of bodies in Turnagain Pass
SNOWMACHINERS: Troopers wait until conditions improve.

By JAMES HALPIN, |, Published: February 19th, 2008

Continued avalanche danger in Turnagain Pass on Monday again thwarted efforts to retrieve the bodies of two skilled backcountry snowmachiners who died last week when their group triggered a slide, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Jeremy Stark, 27, and Christoph von Alvensleben, 25, died Friday in the Seattle Creek drainage's Stock Bowl during a slide that buried them and swept away two others who survived, according to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

The center, which issued a warning about avalanche dangers the day before the deadly slide, continues to report that human-triggered avalanches are probable and natural avalanches are possible because of the heavy weekend snowfall that is sitting atop a weak layer of surface hoar.

"Many red flags are present right now: recent avalanche activity -- check; whoomphing -- check; recent wind-loading -- check," the center's Lisa Portune said in a news release. "The mountains are all about timing, and now is not the time to go big."

Most human-triggered avalanches occur within 24 hours of a storm, Portune said.

Stark and von Alvensleben were part of a group of about a half-dozen snowmachiners in the area about 70 miles southeast of Anchorage on Friday, according to troopers.

They were found by their friends about 45 minutes after the avalanche, but efforts to retrieve the bodies have been stymied because of heavy snowfall, strong winds and continuing avalanche danger, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said.

Troopers are continuing to monitor weather conditions and will attempt to retrieve the bodies when the weather breaks and offers them safe passage, Ipsen said. On Monday, wind gusts of up to 50 mph were reported, she said.

"With the winds as high as they are, they can't get the helicopter out there," Ipsen said, adding that the terrain is technical and somewhat hard to reach by land. "Getting snowmachines out there can be pretty dicey."

The avalanche deaths were the first this year in Alaska.

Snowmachiners defy dangers to recover body of buried buddy
Similar risk led to first tragedy, troopers say

By JAMES HALPIN, |, Published: February 21st, 2008

A group of snowmachiners took the search for their dead friends' bodies into their own hands Wednesday when they trekked through vicious weather to the Turnagain Pass scene, dug out one of the avalanche victims, and hauled him home on a sled, according to Alaska State Troopers.

The recovered body, identified by troopers as Jeremy Stark, 27, was pulled out late in the afternoon by a group of friends who wanted to help searchers unable to reach the bodies for nearly a week because of persisting foul weather and avalanche dangers. But what friends are calling help, troopers say was an unsanctioned and risky venture.

"This group -- they like to push the limit," said troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen. "That's how we got to this point in the first place."

Christoph von Alvensleben, 25, remains buried in the Seattle Creek drainage's Stock Bowl about 70 miles southeast of Anchorage, where he and five friends were snowmachining late last week when they triggered the deadly slide that killed the pair.

The experienced snowmachiners went out to the area Friday, the day after a warning from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center that the area was dangerous.

The area, which has gotten several more feet of snow since the fatal avalanche, continues to pose a significant risk to people in the backcountry, according to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. Both natural and human-triggered slides are likely, and backcountry travel is not recommended by the center.

"I think anyone can understand we don't want to compound a tragedy like this by sending more people back in there to get hurt," said Rebecca Talbott, spokeswoman for the Chugach National Forest.

In the course of just over a week, up to 8 feet of snow and 9 inches of water have accumulated on top of light-density snow, creating widespread avalanches in Girdwood Valley, Portage, Turnagain Pass and the Summit Lake areas, the avalanche center reported Wednesday.

Despite that, the friends of the dead men have been out braving the dangerous conditions for the past three days to break trail and assess the safety of the area so they could reach the scene and retrieve the bodies, said Joshua Smith, one of the 11 members on the recovery mission.

"Safety is always our first concern," he said. "We did everything as safely as could possibly be done."

The group knows the area and its dangers, he said, and members brought along appropriate gear in case of an unexpected slide or other hazard. They also took their time to methodically reach the area, he said.

After a slight break in the weather Wednesday, the group was able to get to one of the bodies, which had been marked the day of the slide by an avalanche probe -- only about six inches of which still protruded -- and get out before conditions worsened, according to Johannes von Alvensleben, who said he was not among the group searching for his brother.

Also not involved was Andrew Baugh, who got caught in the slide last week but survived. His wife, Abbie Baugh, said her husband has not participated in the recovery because "his wife won't let him leave the house."

In general, troopers try to recover victims' bodies as quickly as they can so that families can have closure, Ipsen said, though they are not going to risk more lives to make that come a few days sooner. With conditions the way they are, troopers would not have been able to help in time if something had gone wrong, she said.

The group of friends, which reported upon their return that conditions were "as bad as they can get," plans to recover von Alvensleben's body -- as do troopers -- when conditions improve, Smith said.

"Certainly, we'd love to have him down, but there's no way we'd want to risk loss of life," von Alvensleben said of his brother. "I can imagine that it was pretty harrowing and pretty risky on their part."

Find James Halpin online at or call him at 257-4589.