Aaron Arthur, 03-21-99
Jodi Combs
Dan Demers
Victor Jones
Charles McLead
Jeff Saunders
Chris Scott
Cal Steisken

By Craig Medred, ADN 3/23/99

Turnagain Pass ---Holding his pain and grief inside, Rick Combs watched silently on Monday as the body of his 26-year-old son, Jodi, was dug from the rubble of a massive avalanche that had swept through this wild mountain pass the previous afternoon.

"This is Jodi," he said quietly as anguished searchers carefully uncovered the face of the young Anchorage snowmobiler found under six feet of snow. "That's my son."

Then the father stood speechless and overcome, his hands clasped behind his back, his face a mask of shock. All day volunteers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, the Alaska Snowmachine Search and Recovery Team, Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs and other groups had probed the remains of the avalanche that swept down along a mile of ridgeline that parallels the Seward Highway.

Four bodies had been found by late afternoon. Five snowmobilers remained unaccounted for.

Alaska State Troopers identified the dead as Combs, 28-year-old Chris Scott of Anchorage, 29-year-old Jeff Saunders of Anchorage, and 37-year-old Dan Demers of Eagle River.

Missing are Aaron Arthur, 29 of Palmer; Victor Jones, age undetermined, of Elmendorf Air Force Base; Charles McLead, 38 of Anchorage; and Dick and Cal Steisken, both 40, home unknown.

The state's top experts said no Alaska avalanche in modern times has buried so many people.

Eyewitnesses said dozens of snowmobilers were playing on the sun-kissed slope or in the gullies beneath it when the entire mountainside seemed to erupt. A slab seven to 15 feet deep and more than a mile long broke loose near the ridge.

Some of the riders had been high-marking close to the top of the slope, trying to see how high they could climb their powerful machines up a mountainside that is in places clifflike. Beth Arthur said her brother Aaron, one of the missing, was among them.

"Everyone loved him and he loved snowmachining," she said.

A newly married Palmer electrician, Arthur was a hotshot rider who had outrun avalanches before. He went to Turnagain Pass Sunday with two friends to be part of a film about extreme snowmobiling. She said another rider told her he saw Arthur being swept into the flow this time.

High-marking is "not something testosterone-crazed people do," said Joe Guana, past president of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club. "People do it because it's fun and because you can do it. It's just like how some people like to ride horses fast, drive a dog team fast or fly loop-de-loops in an airplane."

But most of that had ended by the time the snow gave way around 4 p.m., said witness Ken Seagle of Anchorage.

"I was on the far left side (of the avalanche)," he said. "I was hill climbing. I broke away to the left side and ran when it started to come down."

Seagle escaped. But he watched as one man whose snowmobile had become stuck in the middle of the slope got swept up in the thundering slide.

"He grabbed onto his handlebars, and ducked down behind his sled, and that was it," Seagle said. "He was the first victim."

Farther below, Seagle said he could see snowmobiles roaring through a 40-foot ravine at the base of the mountain. Some were obviously trying to flee the onrushing snow. What happened to them on Monday was unknown.

There was no more ravine. The avalanche filled it, spilled out, buried some hemlocks on a knoll behind it, and kept rolling toward the Seward Highway about 300 yards away.

"If there were people caught in that ravine," Seagle said, "they won't find them until spring."

Troopers called off the search for survivors as darkness settled Sunday, but a large and growing search for victims continued through Monday despite heavy, wet snow that soaked everyone.

Worse, though, was the sense of futility that overcame many peering at a pile of boulder-size chunks of snow, wide as two football fields, 10 to perhaps 40 feet deep, and stretching a mile up the mountain.

High along the ridge, a line of searchers lead by Doug Fesler of the Alaska Avalanche School wavered like a string of ants. Below, Fesler's wife and partner Jill Fredston tried to focus the efforts of several lines of searchers probing the snow with poles.

"It's such a huge project," she said.

More than 100 searched during the day, but Terry Kadel of the Mountain Rescue Group admitted 10 times that many might be needed.

Several dozen airmen from Elmendorf Air Force Base searched for signs of Tech. Sgt. Victor Jones of 3rd Wing Civil Engineering Squadron. Troopers had requested an additional 200 soldiers to help today, but the military denied the request because the state has not declared the avalanche an official emergency, said Lt. Col. Jerry Brown, spokesman for the Alaskan Command.

More airmen will likely search today as volunteers, Brown said.

Even with the extra help, questions remained about whether all of the victims could be found. Some were thought to be buried so deep that they were beyond the reach of the probe poles used to poke for bodies and snowmobiles in the rubble.

Searchers started with standard, 10-foot aluminum probes, but eventually moved up to 14-foot sections of electrical conduit. All day, the valley echoed with their methodical chant as they moved forward elbow-to-elbow:

"Probes down. Probes up. Forward. Probes down."

It was tedious and difficult work.

"There's an ice layer probably a foot down that you have to punch through," said Joseph Skeete of Anchorage. "It's pretty tough. I've been out there all morning. I found the windshield of a snowmobile, but nothing else."

Skeete, like many others, had come looking for friends. Some arrived well prepared. Others came in street clothes and were told they wouldn't be allowed on the mountain. Many had to be organized for their first experience in a probe search.

"Line up to the person on your left," Kadel said. "It's real important: Elbow-to-elbow, touching. Elbow-to-elbow. I see gaps. If you think you hit something, tell the person next to you. Have them probe it, too. We're going straight through this area."

Search dogs and their handlers wandered the area until the dogs began to tire.

"These guys have been working pretty hard," said Paul Brusseau, handler for a pup named Chili. "It's kind of frustrating for them."

Chili did help confirm the location of Combs' body after a searcher poked something solid with a probe. A half-dozen young men with shovels had spent 20 minutes frantically digging four feet into dense, heavy snow before exhaustion and frustration began to overtake them.

Then Chili was lowered into the hole. She went to a corner, sniffed and started digging. Encouraged, searchers threw themselves back into the task.

"It never gets easier," said one of them, 29-year-old Travis Foreman of Anchorage. "This is my second friend I've done this for."

Almost exactly five years ago, Foreman and 21-year-old friend Brandon Ford of Anchorage were caught in an avalanche in Chugach State Park's Powerline Pass.

Foreman barely outran that slide on his snowmobile. Ford was caught and died. He was later dug out, 12 feet under.

Foreman said he's been leery of avalanches since. He took a class from Fesler. On Saturday, he rode his snowmobile in soft, new fluffy snow at Turnagain, but he abandoned the area on Sunday as a warm sun began to change the snowpack.

What had been light fresh snow resting on a pavement-hard base on Saturday became heavier and wet on Sunday. A thin layer of porous, old frost between the layers could no longer hold.

"I was down at Lost Lake Sunday," Foreman said, riding in the relative safety of trees that anchor the snowpack there.

"This," he said, pointing to the slope where searchers in red, yellow and green nylon probed for bodies, "this, you didn't need to dig a (test) pit to know it was dangerous."

Minutes later, from a hole in the snow now six feet deep, came the words, "We've got a boot."

Then, someone said, "This isn't Vic. He's got Carhartt pants and bunny boots."

Slowly a pair of Sorel's were uncovered, then a bare hand with a wedding ring, and finally Rick Combs faced every parent's worst nightmare.

No snowmobilers could have imagined this, said Seagle, who had watched it all come apart on Sunday. Riders had seen an avalanche in a gully to the west only 20 minutes earlier, he said, but everyone knew that gully was prone to avalanche.

"Nobody was ever expecting the whole mountainside to fall off," Seagle said.

But some in recent years have sounded warnings about snowmobilers triggering a major slide. Fredston said she, Fesler and others have flown over the Kenai Peninsula mountains and noted the high-marking tracks ever higher onto steeper and less stable slopes.

Dave Hamre, an avalanche forecaster for the Alaska Railroad and a backcountry ski guide, had made clear the instability of Kenai Peninsula snow this weekend when he canceled the Anchorage Nordic Ski Association's annual Ski Train.

The popular ski outing had been planned for Saturday at Grandview less than 20 miles to the south. Hamre said no. Several feet of new snow was sitting atop a layer of hard, old snow with almost nothing to bond the two. It would be too easy for someone to trigger a monster slide.

The U.S. Forest Service does not normally post avalanche warnings in Chugach National Forest, but records a snowmobile report. On Sunday, the recording told snowmachiners to "be cautious" and that slopes on Turnagain Pass "may have unstable layers in there and avalanches are possible."

The ranger did not discourage people from riding in Turnagain Pass and noted that the weather in the pass was the finest in days.

The rangers who record the avalanche conditions are not experts, said Deidre St. Louis, head ranger for the Turnagain area. The Glacier District encompasses 2.3 million acres, she said, and it would be impossible to provide warnings for every dangerous area. Posting just some areas would give people a "false impression of safety" in the non-posted areas, she said.

"It's up to individual users to educate themselves about the hazards they might encounter," she said.

Experienced rescuers said they had never envisioned a slide catching so many people.

Larry Daniels from Alyeska Resort, which loaned searchers a snow-cat, remembered a 1978 slide that killed two skiers on the south side of the Seward Highway near here. That slide was big, he said, but a fraction of this one.

"It's big," said Dan Hourihan, the on-scene coordinator for Mountain Rescue. "It's really big."