Joel Schihl, 01-03-06

Avalanche claims backcountry skier

GIRDWOOD: Joel Schihl died, a friend was not injured descending Raggedtop.

By MEGAN HOLLAND Anchorage Daily News

Published: January 4, 2006

An avalanche near Girdwood killed one experienced backcountry skier while his partner escaped uninjured Tuesday afternoon, Alaska State Troopers said.

Joel Schihl, 30, died when a sheet of snow 100 feet across collapsed under his skis, tumbling him 1,600 feet down Raggedtop Mountain and burying him in 5 feet of snow. Friend Bradley Cosgrove, 28, was able to avoid getting trapped and was not injured, troopers said.

They were apparently the only ones on the steep mountain at the time. Raggedtop is in the Chugach National Forest, about four miles north of Girdwood.

Across Girdwood Valley, Cosgrove's girlfriend, who works with the Alyeska Ski Patrol, watched as the avalanche came down and called for help, troopers said. They did not identify her.

Schihl and Cosgrove drove to the area Tuesday morning and parked near Crow Creek Mine, northeast of Girdwood. Family and friends said both men were experienced mountaineers and skiers, sensitive to avalanche hazards.

The pair climbed to the top of the 5,200-foot mountain using all-terrain gear. After Cosgrove skied about a third of the way down the mountain, Schihl began to descend. He was just two ski turns down from the top when he triggered the avalanche at about 1:30 p.m., said Carl Skustad, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

"You can't have 3-D vision and look inside the snowpack. It's just very unfortunate," Skustad said. "They didn't ski in the exact same spot and the second skier happened to hit a weakness in the snowpack."

Cosgrove was able to locate the buried Schihl, using an emergency beacon, but he was already dead. Authorities did not immediately know if he died of suffocation or the trauma of the fall.

A helicopter was launched from Anchorage and made it to the mountain about 3 p.m., said Chris Owens, owner of Chugach Powder Guides, a heli-ski service that helped with the rescue.

"It's tragic," Owens said. "It's always horrible when nature gets the best of you."

A relative, Vasilios Gialopsos, said Schihl was an extreme skier who loved the outdoors, taking every opportunity to go explore and play in the mountains. He lived near Jewel Lake and was a waiter at Little Italy in South Anchorage.

Schihl came up to Alaska from Virginia for the outdoors experiences here, Gialopsos said. Just a few weeks ago, Schihl and his new wife found out she was pregnant, he said.

"He and (his wife) were such a happy couple, life couldn't have been much better for them," he said. "They had a wonderful lifestyle."

"It's a double-edged sword that we live here," Gialopsos said. "The same elements that took Joel are the same reason he came here."

Raggedtop is popular among backcountry skiers, although few climb all the way to the top, Skustad said. Most ski down from just above halfway, or around 3,000 feet. He said this early in the season he wouldn't be surprised if the pair were the first ones at the top.

Skustad said the snow above 3,000 feet is tricky. "It's very cold, shallow, weak and unstable snow up there."

"This was a bluebird day. The visibility was really nice and these were some of the best skiers in the area and they were going to go for some of the best areas around," Skustad said.

Trooper Jeff Evanoff said the avalanche left a clear pockmark on the mountain, visible from his office near the turnoff to Girdwood on the Seward Highway.

"It's the real world out there," Owens said. "The mountains, open water, white water, the desert -- whatever it is, Mother Nature can take your life."

Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at Daily News reporter Craig Medred contributed to this story.

One skier killed in Alaska avalanche

By RACHEL D'ORO, Associated Press Writer

Published: January 3, 2006 Last Modified: January 3, 2006 at 07:06 PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A skier was killed Tuesday afternoon by an avalanche that plunged him down a mountain near Girdwood, about 35 miles south of Anchorage.

Joel Schihl, 30, of Anchorage was found dead, buried under at least four feet of snow at Raggedtop Mountain, about a mile from the Crow Creek trail head. The mountain is a common destination for backcountry skiers, rescuers said.

Schihl had been skiing with another man, 28-year-old Bradley Cosgrove of Bird, when the two were caught in the 100-foot-wide avalanche that fell about 2,000 feet, Alaska State Troopers said.

"That's a massive amount of snow," troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson said. "It's like having concrete fall on you."

Members of the adjacent Alyeska Resort ski patrol witnessed the avalanche through binoculars shortly after 1:30 p.m. while conducting a routine scan of the area from a patrol station on Mount Alyeska, said resort spokesman Todd Clarke. The ski patrol then contacted troopers.

"Basically, they watched across the Girdwood valley as the avalanche came down," Clarke said. "It's part of their snow safety work to constantly watch our terrain and the surrounding terrain."

Cosgrove managed to free himself and activated an emergency beacon. He found Schihl's body soon after rescuers arrived in a helicopter.

Rescuers were able to reach the backcountry area about two hours after the avalanche was reported, Wilkinson said.

Cosgrove was taken to his vehicle and released.

Members of the ski patrol and guides with Chugach Powder Guides, a local heli-skiing company, assisted in the search effort.

Chris Owens, owner of the company, said he knew Schihl socially but had never skied with him. Schihl was known as a regular backcountry skier, however, he said.

Raggedtop Mountain is steep but not particularly treacherous, according to Owens. He said the avalanche could have been triggered by the skiers, but stressed it was too early to say exactly what caused it.

"Any snow can turn into an avalanche if the conditions are right. There are a thousand variations," Owens said. "The X-factor can get you - and you've got a tragic set of circumstances."

Statistically, 95 percent of backcounrty avalanches involving people are human-triggered, said Doug Fesler, a longtime avalanche expert based in Anchorage. The weight of a person can tip the balance of unstable snow layers on steep slopes such as those of Raggedtop, which increasingly attracts experienced skiers and snowboarders, according to Fesler.

"I think lot of these skiers and snowboarders have travel skills that are way ahead of their avalanche hazard evaluation skills," he said.