Kimberly Shupe 10/31/98 Falls Creek Hiker Fall

Rangers absolve hikers in fatal fall; Duo not reckless at Falls Creek
By Elizabeth Manning, ADN 11/16/98

No one walks around thinking the ground beneath them is about to crumble.

But in essence, that's what happened to Kimberly Shupe when she fell to her death Halloween day near Falls Creek trail, just a few miles from the Seward Highway.  Shupe, 25, and one of her best friends, Dara Lively, 28, were descending a ridge above Turnagain Arm when Shupe stepped onto soil that disintegrated.

The mountain was free of snow and ice at the time.

According to Lively, who was just above Shupe and watching her descend, Shupe was climbing down backward - for better balance - and stumbled when the soil gave way. She fell back and tumbled down the slope, landing 500 feet below in alders. All Lively could do was scream.

"I'm constantly seeing this picture in my head, every time," Lively said. "Her footing slipped, she went back and started rolling. She made no noise. She didn't grab anything."

Lively quickly scrambled down the slope, stepping around the patch of disturbed earth where Shupe fell, but by the time she reached her friend, it was too late. She performed CPR anyway, then ran as fast as she could to get help.

Lively knows she couldn't have done anything to save Shupe, but that hasn't made losing her easier. She said Shupe was a kind and wise friend who inspired and uplifted those around her.

"She had so much positive energy," Lively said. "And she loved being outside. It was one of her favorite things in the world. It gave her energy."

Chugach State Park rangers who investigated the accident don't blame Lively or Shupe for the accident. In hindsight, they say the women might have used ropes or at least worn helmets and had ice axes ready, to self-arrest during a fall. But the risks they took weren't unusual, rangers said.

"The area where she was hiking was pretty gnarly, but nine times out of 10, you'd get out fine," said ranger Bruce Bigelow. "But the 10th time, the repercussions were huge."

The trail spur where Shupe fell was temporarily closed following the accident but is now open. Chugach State Park superintendent Al Meiners said the park isn't planning to install a permanent warning sign but will instead put up a directional sign to keep people on the main Falls Creek trail and off the spur.

In Shupe's case, the greatest problem was the exposed nature of the slope where she fell, known as runout among climbers. The area was steep and rocky and had almost no vegetation to stop or slow a fall.

Shupe and Lively had warm clothes, food and water, and even carried flares and ice axes in their backpacks. Bigelow said an experienced climber might have been able to self-arrest on the slope even without snow or ice, but Shupe would have had a difficult time given her experience level and the way she fell.

Lively said Shupe was an avid hiker but had only recently started learning mountaineering skills. She had given Shupe an ice ax for her birthday, and Shupe's boyfriend, Chris Opitz, had bought her "Freedom of the Hills," a popular mountaineering book.

Opitz, who had known Shupe since middle school, had planned to ask her to marry him this month, Lively said. The pair moved together to Alaska from Wisconsin two years ago. Her brother Brad, 22, had followed.

When Shupe first moved to Anchorage, she worked as a social worker at Alaska's Children Services, which is where she met Lively. Last year, she was hired by Educational Talent Search at the University of Alaska Anchorage to work with disadvantaged high school students and help them get into college.

Shupe also took high school students on outdoor trips and through ropes courses and had recently been hired as a field assistant for the Alaska Wilderness Studies Program. As an assistant, Shupe would have helped the main instructors on camping and backpacking trips, said AWS director Deb Ajango.

Shupe loved to bike, ski, canoe, kayak, camp and backpack in her free time, and had recently taken up kickboxing, Lively said. She also volunteered at Kid's Kitchen, a charity that serves hot meals to children, and cofounded with Lively a women's outdoor group called Women in Spirit and Health, or WISH.

"Kim loved to connect people and made sure everyone was happy," said another friend, Sharon Girouard. "She was a ray of light. This is really sad."

On Halloween, Lively said, she and Shupe had planned at first to climb South Suicide Peak, accessible from the Falls Creek trail, but changed their minds after accidentally taking a trail spur off to the right. They quickly realized it wasn't the main trail, but decided to go ahead and explore the area.

Lively said she, her dog, Kiska, and Shupe hiked about another hour up to a rock wall, and then followed a trail to the left. Lively said she and Shupe felt uncomfortable with the route, so they climbed back down to have lunch.

After lunch, they climbed up to the right, which was less steep. Lively said they climbed for a while and then decided to come back down, in part because Shupe had plans to go to a Halloween concert. She said the climbing didn't seem particularly dangerous, but they were descending cautiously.

Shupe fell on the way down. Rangers estimated the altitude at about 3,000 feet.

Several serious accidents have happened around the Falls Creek area in the past decade, including one three years ago when an injured hiker had to be airlifted from the area. On average, two people die annually in accidents throughout Chugach State Park, said chief park ranger Jerry Lewanski said.

But despite those accidents, Lewanski said he doesn't see any reason to permanently close the area. Rangers removed the rope and sign on Friday. Posting a warning sign at Falls

Creek, Lewanski said, eventually would mean rangers should post similar signs in hundreds of other areas throughout the park.

Lewanski said the dangers are obvious. "We're not talking about a common hiking trail," he said. "There's nothing inviting about it, and there are no dangers you can't see ahead of time."

Most accidents happen when hikers overestimate their abilities or underestimate the challenge, Lewanski said. And Chugach State Park can be particularly deceiving because people leave Anchorage and can suddenly be in rugged wilderness in less than an hour.

Besides having the proper gear and training, Lewanski said, people should prepare themselves mentally for the worst possible situations. "You almost have to re-create with this small black cloud over you," he said. "Never take it for granted that you're safe."

Shupe's friends say she was always cautious. But at the same time, Girouard said she can't imagine hiking with Shupe and thinking the worst. Shupe was so positive their outings seemed blessed, she said.

"A black cloud," Girouard said. "That just wasn't in her personality."

* A memorial fund for low-income, first-generation college students has been established in Kimberly Shupe's name. Donations can be sent to the Kim Shupe Memorial Fund, c/o Eric Peterson, 2221 E. Northern Lights Blvd., Suite 106, Anchorage, AK 99508. For more information, contact Eric Peterson or Becky Jackson at 258-0487. Reporter Elizabeth Manning can be reached at