Dale Brabec 2011-04-17

West High teacher dies in Bird Ridge avalanche
SLEDDING: Searchers find body after he failed to show up for work.

By LISA DEMER, ldemer@adn.com, Published: April 20th, 2011

Friends knew something was wrong when West High physics teacher Dale Brabec didn't show at school Tuesday morning. School resource officers checked his house and his car wasn't there but nothing seemed amiss.

Within hours, troopers and volunteers recovered his body at one of his favorite hiking spots. Brabec, who was married with a young child, died in an avalanche that was triggered as he sledded down a gully at Bird Ridge after school the day before, Alaska State Troopers said.

Two fellow science teachers helped authorities find him, principal Rick Stone said Tuesday evening. They knew he had been hiking regularly, taking advantage of free time while his family was out of state.

When he didn't show up for work early Tuesday, the teachers figured he had gone hiking the day before at either Flattop or Bird Ridge, places they had gone with him, Stone said.

Authorities checked the Flattop parking lot but his car wasn't there. The teachers and a school resource officer, a police officer assigned to the school, headed south. They found his car in a small pullout at Mile 102 of the Seward Highway at the Bird Ridge trail head, troopers said.

Around 10:30 a.m., troopers were alerted he was missing and launched Helo 1 soon after. A trooper from Girdwood and a volunteer with Alaska Mountain Rescue Group were on board.

They spotted an avalanche chute on the Indian side of Bird Ridge. As the helicopter drew closer, they could make out clothing and what turned out to be a shiny saucer sled sticking out from the debris, said trooper Jeff Simpson, who was on board.

"He was going to sled down it and the avalanche triggered," Simpson said.

The chopper landed atop the ridge. The rescue group volunteer hiked down, and Brabec's friends hiked up from the trail head to where he was buried and dug him out. He was about 5 or 6 feet deep, Simpson said.

His body was recovered about 1:40 p.m., troopers said. He was found about halfway from the top of the ridge, around the 1,000-foot level, Simpson said. The sled looked homemade. The avalanche started maybe 100 feet from the top of the ridge.

The Bird Ridge trail draws hikers in early spring because it is often one of the first spots to be clear of snow. But that hasn't happened yet, said Bill Romberg, a member of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group who was getting updates about the mission through the day.

The next couple of weeks are likely to be a period of high avalanche activity, he said.

"Everyone wants to get out and hike. Down low, it's all baked off. But there's snow up high. The snow pack still thinks its winter. But it's changing fast, with the sunshine."

Brabec was born in Colorado and earned a master's in astrophysics from the University of Wyoming. He did a stint in the Peace Corps and taught in Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific. He then taught in New Mexico and got a master's in education.

"After living in all these hot environments, I needed to get back to colder climates," Brabec said on the West High website. "That is one reason why I came to Alaska."

Brabec taught astronomy as well as physics, according to the website. He also was an assistant swim and dive coach.

Extra counselors will be at West High on Wednesday to help grieving students and teachers, Stone said. Extra substitutes have been called as well.

West High is a big school, but also a close family, Stone said. Brabec was personable and charismatic. The loss hits hard, the principal said.

"It's just a huge tragedy to have a great teacher, a great man and a great dad lose his life in this way."

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.