James Thompson, 12/10/00, Avalanche, Snowmachine

Avalanche claims year's first victim
ADN 12/12/00

A Fairbanks snowmachiner was killed this weekend when he was hit by a 300-foot-wide avalanche and buried under four feet of compacted snow, according to officials of Denali National Park and Preserve, where the accident occurred.

James Thompson was buried for only about 15 minutes before his friends dug him out, but they could not revive him despite performing CPR for about an hour, according to the Alaska State Troopers.

Thompson's death is the first avalanche fatality reported in Alaska this winter, though three snowmachine riders have died in other kinds of accidents. Two went through ice and drowned, and a third was killed in a collision with another snowmachiner near Tetlin.

Thompson, 44, was riding with a group of eight friends near Dunkle Mine, west of Cantwell, said Trooper Rod Johnson.

They were near the wilderness area of the park but not in the area closed to riding, said Johnson, who visited the site Sunday. The group was about 20 miles from the highway and had broken into small groups and were exploring the terrain.

One of Thompson's friends rode up a narrow ravine and got stuck, Johnson said. "The other person (Thompson) came up, and they were thinking about riding through the ravine," Johnson said.

Thompson helped his friend dig out the machine and get headed back down. But as he followed, an avalanche came loose from an adjacent slope and carried Thompson down the ravine.

The avalanche occurred sometime between 1:30 and 2 p.m., according to troopers.

Thompson wasn't carrying an avalanche beacon, but others in the group had probes and shovels. They found him buried face-down after about 15 minutes, but could not revive him.

A member of the group rode out to the Parks Highway to reach an area in cell phone range, and called troopers about 2:30 p.m.

A military helicopter and rescue workers were unable to locate the group. Thompson was brought out to the highway by others in his group, and was later pronounced dead.

The southern part of the national park had been opened to snowmachining only the day before, but park officials had warned that conditions were ripe for avalanches because of alternating rain and snow, especially in narrow valleys and ravines.

Temperatures in the area Monday were topping 30 degrees, he said. Many creeks and lakes have yet to freeze.

"We've had rain. We've had snow. We've had wind," warned National Park Service Ranger Tom Habecker. "All together that contributes to dangerous conditions."

Daily News Reporter S.J. Komarnitsky contributed to this report.