Royce Morgan, 02-25-09

Snowboarder found dead in Hatcher Pass

By MEGAN HOLLAND,, Published: February 26th, 2009

An 18-year-Wasilla man who became separated from his brother while snowboarding at Hatcher Pass was found dead by rescuers Wednesday night.

The cause of Royce Morgan's death is unclear from a statement issued by the Alaska State Troopers today. Troopers did not immediately return phone messages.

Morgan was snowboarding with his brother, 25-year-old Matthew Theodore, at the Eldorado Mine in the late afternoon when the two became separated, according to troopers and Hatcher Pass Lodge owner Hap Wurlitzer, who later helped look for the missing man.

Theodore searched for his brother but couldn't find him, troopers said. He went to the Hatcher Pass Lodge and called troopers at about 6:30 p.m. Theodore then went back up the mountain.

The Eldorado bowl is directly west of the lodge, above the Independence Mine State Historical Park pay booth.

"I never thought there were any big problems, because people get lost all the time," Wurlitzer said.

Snow was falling heavily and winds were howling, but temperatures were about 20 degrees, he said.

Theodore eventually found Morgan on the mountain but he was unable to walk, troopers later said. Theodore then went back down to the lodge just before 9 p.m. to get help. "He was pretty incoherent," Wurlitzer said. "He was slurring and having a hard time."

Theodore had tried to push his brother out on his snowboard, Wurlitzer said. He told the lodge owner, "I hope my brother makes it."

Wurlitzer and the trooper, with a spotlight, then followed Theodore's tracks and found Morgan at 9:15 p.m. He was 100 feet down a gulley, Wurlitzer said. He had no pulse and was not breathing. Medics arrived and tried to revive him but were unable to.

Wurlitzer said he didn't know how the teen died but said it's possible he fell and injured himself.

Eldorado is a steep bowl that has become popular with snowboarders, Wurlitzer said. It used to be a place that only extreme athletes would attempt. "Now it's getting to be commonplace," he said.

He said there are several signs in the area warning recreational skiers and snowboarders to stay away. The bowl is also avalanche-prone.

Lodge was near, but rescuers got to snowboarder too late
ELDORADO: Lodge was close, but rescuers got to him too late.

By MEGAN HOLLAND, Published: February 26th, 2009

Matt Theodore gave his younger brother one last hug before he left him, hurt and unable to move, in a ravine at Hatcher Pass and told him he'd be right back with help.

By the time rescuers got to the snowboarder, though, the teenager was dead.

"I thought he had more time," Theodore said Thursday, the day after his brother died on the mountain.

Royce Morgan, 18, died of undetermined causes Wednesday night after an afternoon of snowboarding at one of the brothers' favorite spots in the park, in a bowl called Eldorado, just west of the Hatcher Pass Lodge.

"I don't know that we are truly going to know what happened until we get the autopsy report," said Dan Amyot, chief park ranger of the Matanuska district.

Alaska State Troopers involved in the rescue did not return phone calls and their spokeswoman, Megan Peters, would say little about what happened.

Theodore, though, said in a phone interview from his Wasilla home that the brothers began their trek up the mountain in the early afternoon. They wore minimal clothing because they knew they'd be warm from the exercise, Theodore said. "That's the way it is with snowboarding," he said. "Two to three hours up and a five-minute run down to the car."

Morgan was wearing shorts under his snow pants and had no insulated winter top, just his shell jacket. Neither brother was wearing a helmet, Theodore said.

He believes his brother froze to death.


Morgan, whom everyone called "Bugsy," was a student in and out of the alternative Burchell High in Wasilla. Most recently, though, he had been working at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Theodore, 25, and a heavy equipment operator, hadn't been working at all lately, he said.

After the brothers hiked up a ridge, they turned to ride their snowboards down the bowl.

Theodore launched his board and his brother was supposed to follow.

"I looked back and he wasn't there," Theodore said. "Like he changed his mind in a split second and went down another way."

Theodore called out but got no response. He tried to climb back up but the powder was too thick. He kept sinking up to his waist. He could see where his brother was supposed to be but he wasn't there.

Theodore raced down to the bottom of the bowl and to the nearby lodge where he hoped someone could help him, he said.

Only Nick Nickoli, the cook at the lodge, was there. He was closing up for the day. It was after 6 p.m. and the park rangers -- who in years past had had a caretaker at Hatcher Pass but this year do not -- had also left for the day. He told Theodore the best thing to do was to call the troopers.

"I wasn't dressed to go up," Nickoli said.

It was getting dark, and the winds were howling and the snow was coming down. The air temperature was about 20 degrees.

Theodore made the 911 call at 6:22 p.m., according to a trooper statement.

The dispatcher wanted Theodore to stay on the line but he couldn't just wait, he said. "It's like no one was alarmed," he said.

He went back to the mountain, slugging up in the deep snow, calling his little brother's name.

Finally he heard a reply. It was his brother yelling something unintelligible, he said.

When he got to him, Morgan had no hat, had lost his board, and had snow in the collar of his jacket.

The teen had no obvious signs of trauma. He just looked very, very cold, the older brother said.

"You got to get up, man. You got to get up," Theodore told him.

But it wasn't registering, Theodore said. "He could speak but he wasn't comprehending anything I was saying."

Morgan kept pointing his finger at the lights of the Hatcher Pass Lodge just below. "Yeah we got to go there, but you got to get up," Theodore said.

Theodore tried to sit his brother on his snowboard and push him down. The pair got about 300 yards, Theodore guesses, before the bowl turned upwards at a gully and he couldn't muster the strength, through the snow to push any further. He worked for maybe an hour. It seemed like forever, he said. "I couldn't drag him up that hill," he said.

He tried carrying his younger brother, slinging him over his back but the 18-year-old was too heavy for him.

Theodore unzipped his jacket and unzipped his brother's jacket, hugging him and trying to keep him warm, he said. He called for help through the 20 mile per hour winds but no one responded.

He knew that he wasn't going to be able to get his brother out of there and that his brother was just getting worse. He decided to go back to the lodge for help, he said.

He gave his brother one last hug.


By the time Theodore got to Hatcher Pass Lodge, the owner, Hap Wurlitzer, was back. "I never thought there were any big problems, because people get lost all the time," Wurlitzer said Wednesday by phone.

"He was pretty incoherent," Wurlitzer said of Theodore. "He was slurring and having a hard time."

Hours had passed since Theodore first called 911 at 6:22 p.m. The trooper report says he got back to the lodge around 8:52 p.m., a time that Theodore and Wurlitzer say is probably right.

While Theodore thawed himself in front of the wood-burning stove, he waited for help. He told the lodge owner, "I hope my brother makes it."

Theodore said the first trooper arrived about 10 minutes later.

Amyot, the park ranger, said troopers were probably slowed by the weather. "People make the assumption, 'We are close to the road. We have a cell. They can send a helicopter.'" Amyot said. "It's not that quick. The response isn't going to be instantaneous. It takes time for responders to get up there."

Wurlitzer and the trooper, with a spotlight, followed Theodore's tracks and found Morgan at 9:15 p.m. He was 100 feet down a gully, Wurlitzer said. He had no pulse and was not breathing.

Medics arrived and tried to revive him but were unable to. He was pronounced dead just before 10 p.m.

Wurlitzer said he didn't know how the teen died but said it's possible he hit his head and injured himself. Theodore says he believed his brother froze to death.

"Anywhere in that country is hazardous," Amyot said, "even if you are just a short distance from the bowl parking lot."

Clues hint at hypothermia in teenager's sudden death


Published: March 2nd, 2009

From the Talkeetna Mountain slopes just above the Independence Mine State Historic Park, the lights that brighten the Hatcher Pass lodge at night looks so close you could almost reach out and touch them.

It was within sight of these lights and the comfort they promise that 18-year-old snowboarder Royce Morgan from Wasilla died Wednesday.

What killed him remains unknown. Alaska State Troopers say state medical examiners are still awaiting toxicology tests and won't say anything until after they have those in hand.

Morgan's half brother, 25-year-old Matt Theodore, started out thinking the cause was hypothermia, but now he is not so sure.

Precious little time passed between when he and Morgan split to ride a slope and then reunited for the first time on this fateful night. Morgan was fine when Theodore left him. He was on a spiral into death only an hour later.

"Forty minutes maybe,'' Theodore said. "An hour max, tops."

The two brothers had started off the end of their day of snowboarding by hiking not all that far up a slope above a place everyone calls Eldorado. They were getting ready for the last run before making the drive back down to the Valley.

"We could see the (Independence) parking lot down there," Theodore said. "We could see right to it. At that one split second, I said, like, 'follow me!' "

Theodore jumped off downhill. Morgan did, too, but he didn't follow exactly. The little knoll above which the brothers had stopped had two faces.

"I went to the right," Theodore said. "Obviously, he went to the left."

At the bottom, Theodore realized Morgan was missing. He called out for him but got not response. It was getting dark. Snow was blowing, and it was hard to see. Theodore didn't see anyone moving on the slopes above and got worried. So he went on down to the lodge to call for help. He made a quick 911 call, and then headed back to begin a search himself.

The distance to the hill from the lodge is probably less than a mile. Theodore started hiking back up toward where the day's last run had begun, yelling for Morgan as he went. He found him less than an hour after leaving.

"When I first found him, he was hollering at me," Theodore said. "I'm not sure (what), and then he progressively got worse after that.

"When I found him, he was trying to walk down the mountain, but I thought he was on his snowboard. I had to hike over to him."

Theodore was surprised to find Morgan missing the board. Where or why the younger man had taken it off, Theodore doesn't know.

"His hat was missing too," Theodore said, "but he wasn't bleeding."

Morgan generally looked OK but clearly wasn't.

"By the time I got there, he wouldn't walk or stand up anymore," Theodore said. "He said a couple sentences that made some sense when I first got to him. Then he progressively got worse after that."

Some of what Theodore describes fits with the classic symptoms of a descent into severe hypothermia. Most Alaskans are familiar with hypothermia. It's what causes us to shiver when we get cold. The shivering is the body's attempt to warm itself.

As we get colder, there are other metabolic changes. Circulation to the fingers and toes decreases as the body tries to protect its core. The result is that the extremities start to go numb. Eventually, the muscles of the arms and legs and face are also cut off from full circulation, and people start to mumble and stumble.

Somewhere between 95 and 90 degrees body temperature -- four to nine degrees lower than normal -- people also tend to begin shivering intensely, even violently, as the body makes one last, desperate attempt to shake itself warm.

At between 90 and 86 degrees, according to the medical literature, that ends and there begins a slide into something of a metabolic icebox. People lose consciousness. Their breathing slows or stops. Their heart rate may drop to one or two beats a minute.

They are, at that point, in a very sensitive state. Their heart is extremely vulnerable to shock. Move them roughly or begin CPR, and you can kill them.

And yet they are not dead.

Even beyond this, in a state at which the heart actually stops beating, they are not dead.

Some whose hearts have stopped have been revived as long as 312 hours after their bodies were rewarmed, which is why Anchorage Dr. William Mills Jr., an authority on hypothermia, has always preached that no hypothermia victim should be considered dead "until they are warm and dead."

At this point, it is unclear what attempts were made to rewarm Morgan in an effort to bring him back from near death after the accident at Hatcher last week. Equally unclear, however, is whether hypothermia is what killed him.

Though Theodore repeatedly hugged his brother to try to warm him, he never noticed any severe shivering. And the period between when the two healthy snowboarders split up and Theodore returned to find his half-brother in dire straights is frighteningly short, as is Morgan's subsequently slide into unconsciousness.

It's not impossible to go from mild to moderate to severe hypothermia in a little more than an hour, but the speed at which things spiraled downward at Hatcher does make one wonder if maybe there was something else going on.

"He was walking toward the lights when I met him," Theodore said. "He pointed at them and referred to them or something like that. I told him, 'Yeah, that's where we need to go.' "

Morgan stumbling in confusion toward the lights would fit well with someone in a state of moderate hypothermia, but in Theodore's telling, Morgan slides into the next stage of hypothermia almost within minutes.

"He was sort of delusional," Theodore said. "I was trying to talk to him, and he didn't really talk back. He'd look at me, and sort of focus, and then he'd stare back at the lights.

"He wouldn't follow directions."

Theodore tried to get Morgan to sit on a snowboard to be dragged down the mountain. Morgan wouldn't keep his feet in.

Hypothermia will cause people to act like this. So will traumatic brain injury, or what we all used to call "concussion."

Morgan might have taken off his hat because he was hypothermic and suffering a symptom known as "paradoxial undressing," although what people usually take off is their pants. Morgan might also have fallen, hit his head and lost his hat.

Any sort of trauma could, in turn, increase the risks of deadly hypothermia, as could any number of other things from hypothyroidism to dehydration to various kinds of drugs. It may be sometime yet before anyone knows what, if any of these factors, might have played a role in Morgan's death.

In the meantime, it is a reminder of how fragile life is here in the land of cold and the snow -- even if civilization seems so close.

"When we were about halfway (down), a truck left the parking lot," Theodore said. "Its lights were shining right up at us. I waved my arms and screamed for help, but he just turned around. It was just kind of a sinking feeling."

The driver of the truck probably never saw the snowboarders. He or she would have had to look up the mountain. People seldom do that. They are focused, and rightly so, on the road.

Morgan's death is not the driver's fault, nor is it Theodore's, though he is haunted by his half brother's passing.

There are things now that he wishes he had done differently. He wishes he hadn't spent so much time in a futile effort to drag Morgan back to safety after first finding him. He wishes he would have gone back to the lodge immediately to get help. He wishes that when he first went there he'd have grabbed some extra warm clothes, maybe even a sleeping bag in which to put Morgan, and some hot fluids.

He wishes, as all of us who have been in crisis situations wish, that he had been thinking more clearly. But the reality is that unless you train for these scenarios, you seldom think clearly.

Mainly, Theodore wishes that Morgan were still alive.

"I can't help but feel like in some way I could have done more," he said. "It's a pretty helpless feeling too."

Find Craig Medred online at or call 257-4588.