Robert Coyne

Hatcher Pass avalanche kills Valley snowmobiler


An avalanche roaring down a steep slope at Hatcher Pass buried a snowmachiner Sunday.
The rider, identified by the Alaska State Troopers as Robert Keith Coyne, 37, of Wasilla, was presumed dead. Searchers could not locate his body before fierce winds and failing daylight forced them to quit about 3 p.m. The slide came down about 11:30 a.m. After that much time under the snow, victims are presumed dead, and troopers did not want to risk the safety of searchers, trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said.

Witnesses said a number of snowmachiners were riding in the area at the time. The avalanche may have been triggered by "highmarking," a contest in which riders head straight uphill to make the highest mark.

"We were all highmarking near an older avalanche chute. A guy went up the mountain to lay a high mark and got stuck," said Mike Anderson, 21, of Anchorage who was snowmobiling with his brother and a friend when the avalanche began. A small slide had broken loose beneath the victim and then a much larger slide began about 1,000 feet above him, Anderson said. Authorities described the slide as about 150 yards wide. "It started out small and then looked like the whole mountain was coming down," Anderson said. About two dozen snowmobilers were in the area at the time, he said. "Some kid yelled, 'Avalanche!' " said another snowmachiner, 21-year-old Joe Lyle. "And we all went running towards our machines. He was still stuck up there and the snow was coming down. I looked back and he was ducked behind his machine. I looked up again, and he was gone. He disappeared. We all went racing to the parking lot." Sid Anderson, 17, said he was the last person to make it down. "I happened to look back and saw 10 to 15 feet of snow coming down fast. I looked back and didn't see the guy coming down," he said. Those at the bottom of the mountain managed to outrun the slide. Lyle raced toward the Hatcher Pass Lodge for help. Others stayed behind and started looking for the missing man using probes and shovels. Lyle found state park ranger Pat Murphy and reported the accident. O'Neal Coyne, the victim's younger brother, said they usually went snowmachining together. "Have for 10 years," Coyne said. "I would've been with him today, but I had a hockey game. He was just going out for a couple of hours. "We've got close friends and family and we're going out at 8 a.m. to start searching." The victim's mother-in-law, Claire Barton, said, "He's got a great family. Heidi, his wife; son, Gregory, 16; and daughter, Amanda, 14. He's the best son-in-law you could ever have." Coyne worked on drilling rigs most of his life, lately for Nabors Alaska Drilling Inc. on the North Slope. Troopers and state park rangers were assisted in the search by the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and Mat-Su Motor Mushers. Winds gusting to 70 mph or more prevented an airborne search, Wilkinson said, and those on the ground were only able to probe the deep snow for short periods before taking shelter from the cold. The searchers picked up a signal from an avalanche emergency beacon. "We found a signal and dug on it for about 20 minutes and spread out in about a 10- to 15-foot radius," Mike Anderson said. The search crew of about 17 also used 20-foot-long poles to probe the deep snow for more than two hours, he said. Troopers and mountain rescue groups planned to resume searching today. The area will be closed, troopers said. Hatcher Pass, in the Talkeetna Mountains about 50 miles north of Anchorage, is popular with back-country skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers. The road through the pass is closed to automobiles in winter. On Sunday, it was closed just beyond the Motherlode Lodge, about five miles from the pass. There had been reports of other avalanches in the area. Hap Wurlitzer, owner of the Hatcher Pass Lodge, said the area had gotten about 6 feet of new snow in the past week. Half of that came in the past couple of days. "It made it tough getting up the road," he said. Wurlitzer said the new snow had area park ranger Murphy worried about the avalanche hazard. Earlier Sunday, Murphy had tried to flag a couple dozen snowboarders off a steep slope near the lodge. He had the red lights flashing on his patrol rig, and he tried using an air horn. He was ignored, Wurlitzer said. Thirteen snowmachiners died in avalanches last spring around the state. Two riders have been killed in snowslides at Hatcher Pass within the past five years. "When you are snowmobiling, you always worry. You are not sure when it is going to happen. You have to be on the lookout," Lyle said. "I'm still shaking, I never want to see that again."