Johnny Soderstrom, 02-16-05

Climber lost in avalanche on Mount Huntington

DENALI: Talkeetna man known for experience on state's mountains.

By KYLE HOPKINS Anchorage Daily News

Published: February 17th, 2005 Last Modified: February 17th, 2005 at 04:18 AM

Hope was fading fast Wednesday for a 26-year-old Trapper Creek climber missing in an avalanche that put an end to an attempt at the first-ever winter ascent of Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range.

By nightfall Wednesday, Johnny Soderstrom had been missing for more than 30 hours. Climbing partner Joe Reichert said he last saw Soderstrom go over a bench at about 8,000 feet west of the 12,240-foot peak.

By the time Reichert reached the top of the same bench, the slope on the other side was littered with avalanche debris and Soderstrom was missing. Reichert, a 37-year-old National Park Service mountaineering ranger, spent several hours searching for his climbing partner before returning to base camp to call for help on a satellite phone.

A search is vital within the first hour of an avalanche if there is to be any hope of saving someone who is buried. After an hour, the chances of finding someone alive quickly drop to zero.

An airborne search for Soderstrom on Wednesday found no sign of him. That search is expected to resume today. National Park Service officials are still trying to assess whether the snow in the area is stable enough to permit a ground search.

Huntington is a sheer-sided peak about 71/2 miles due south of Mount McKinley. Its spectacular west face seems to climb almost straight up for a mile.

Soderstrom is an experienced climber who worked as a guide for Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna when he wasn't making money as a carpenter. He and Reichert began their Huntington climb Feb. 1 by driving snowmachines up through the foothills of the Alaska Range from Talkeetna and then skiing into the mountains, said Maureen McLaughlin, a public information officer for Denali National Park and Preserve.

Tuesday morning, according to McLaughlin, the two climbers left a base camp they had established on a glacier near 8,000 feet. Sometime between 10 and 10:30 a.m., Soderstrom was leading the route over the bench, or plateau, when he disappeared from sight, McLaughlin said.

Though the pair had been within shouting distance of one another, Reichert reported hearing no avalanche. He simply got to the top of the bench and discovered Soderstrom gone and his ski tracks wiped out by avalanche rubble.

After searching for Soderstrom, Reichert returned to base camp and called for help, but heavy snow, dwindling sunlight and poor visibility kept helicopters grounded until Wednesday, when an HH-60 Pave Hawk was launched from Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage.

It picked up Reichert and began a search for Soderstrom. An Alaska State Troopers helicopter later joined the search, but crews found no sign of Soderstrom. The avalanche in which he was buried, according to National Park Service officials, appears to cover an area somewhat smaller than a football field.

The terrain on which the snow slid was described as relatively flat. The climbers weren't wearing avalanche beacons, having judged the terrain safe to cross without them and as part of an effort to keep weight to a minimum, McLaughlin said.

Such decisions are not unusual for experienced climbers. Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the American Alpine Club, said that mountaineers needing to travel fast and light often make difficult decisions on what safety equipment to carry.

"You're constantly on this balancing act between what's appropriate, what's needed and what's overkill," he said.

Reichert, who was back in Talkeetna Wednesday, said he wasn't up to talking about the accident.

New Hampshire photographer Thom Pollard said he climbed with Soderstrom in 2001 while shooting a documentary on cold weather and high altitudes for NOVA, a science program on public television. Soderstrom worked as a guide on that trip. Pollard remembers him spending a week at 17,000 feet on Mount McKinley before heading to the summit a few days later.

"It would be a terrible loss to lose such a nice person ... a talented climber," Pollard said in a phone interview

Reichert was on a furlough from the Park Service. During the traditional May-June climbing season, he delivers safety talks to McKinley climbers and sometimes patrols in the McKinley-Huntington area.

Reichert is known both for his easygoing nature and his toughness. Just last month he and Soderstrom presented a slide show to the Alaska section of the American Alpine Club detailing an expedition last February to the summit of Mount Marcus Baker, the highest peak in the Chugach Mountains.

"He's a very prolific and well-respected climber,'' said the club's Harry Hunt.

Soderstrom's father, Gary, said his son has spent most of his life in the wilderness or living on the edge of it. Friends described the younger Soderstrom as warm, kind and tireless.

"I think anybody will tell you that's Johnny's about the best man they ever met," his father said.

Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins can be reached at or (907) 352-6710. Reporter Craig Medred contributed to this story.

Hazards force Park Service to end search for climber

MISSING: Avalanche dangers make efforts too risky.

By JOSEPH DITZLER Anchorage Daily News

Published: February 18th, 2005

The U.S. Park Service suspended the search Thursday for missing Trapper Creek mountain climber Johnny Soderstrom, who is presumed dead inside Denali National Park and Preserve.

Soderstrom, 26, disappeared in an apparent avalanche without a sound or a trace as he and climbing partner Joe Reichert, 37, a Park Service mountaineering ranger, attempted the first-ever winter summit of 12,240-foot Mount Huntington.

Increasing avalanche hazards ruled out a ground search Thursday, said Maureen McLaughlin, a public information officer with Denali National Park and Preserve.

An Alaska State Troopers helicopter with search-and-rescue coordinator Craig MacDonald and avalanche expert Blaine Smith aboard left Talkeenta about 11 a.m. to survey the scene where Soderstrom disappeared, McLaughlin said. She said they reported no safe landing area near the avalanche site.

She said Reichert searched for Soderstrom in a crevasse at the bottom of the avalanche slide path. Reichert probed the crevasse, which had collected the ice and snow debris, and lowered himself into it Tuesday while searching for his missing partner, McLaughlin said.

Neither Reichert nor Soderstrom's father, Gary Soderstrom of Talkeetna, could be reached by telephone Thursday.

Reichert told authorities that Soderstrom, just ahead on skis and within hailing distance, left Reichert's sight on a small plateau or bench between 10 and 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. Reichert described finding evidence of an avalanche when reached the same bench, but found no sign of Soderstrom.

After searching several hours for Soderstrom, Reichert returned to their base camp at 8,000 feet and called the Park Service for help on a satellite phone. An Alaska Air National Guard Pavehawk helicopter retrieved him and searched for Soderstrom.

Concern for rotor clearance and avalanche danger prevented any helicopter landing Thursday near the crevasse, and nearby possible landing sites were deemed unsafe, McLaughlin said. Overnight snows had increased the likelihood of an avalanche in the vicinity, she said.

The site where the avalanche may have swept Soderstrom away is the size of a football field, McLaughlin said. Getting there is the problem.

Many of the missing climber's friends had made it known they were available to serve on a search party, she added.

Reichert and Soderstrom left Feb. 1 for the mountain, a journey they made by snowmachine and by ski. They were approaching the summit by the West Face Couloir route, according to the Park Service.

Soderstrom was a carpenter and a guide for Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna.

"We would like to thank everyone who assisted in this search effort," Park Service incident commander Meg Perdue said in a prepared statement. "Our thoughts are with Johnny's family and friends."

Daily News Mat-Su editor Joseph Ditzler can be reached in the Wasilla bureau at or (907) 352-6715.