Brian R. Zelenka

Pioneer Peak climber dies in fall
By Marilee Enge,  ADN 3/16/87

A student in an Anchorage Community College mountaineering class was killed Sunday evening when he fell about 1,500 feet during a climb on Pioneer Peak.

Rescuers said 28-year-old Brian R. Zelenka lost control while descending on a treacherous stretch of ice and tumbled down the mountain where state troopers spotted him from a helicopter early Monday morning. A rescue team recovered the body after daylight.Zelenka and a climbing partner, Bernard Bensen of Anchorage, had left the rest of the class behind, had reached the summit and were on the way back, rescuers said. Bensen could not be  reached for comment Monday.

Pioneer Peak is a 6,500-foot mountain which rises dramatically from the Knik River flats to dominate the view of the Chugach Mountains in the Matanuska Valley. According to Chugach State Park officials, it is a challenging climb, popular with mountaineering enthusiasts.

The group that climbed the peak Sunday was the Expedition Planning and Techniques class led by ACC instructor Todd Miner.  The seven students were experienced and had completed beginning and intermediate mountaineering courses offered by the community college, a college spokeswoman said.

Miner, reached at his ACC office Mondays, refused to discuss the incident.  "I'm still in shock," he said.

Pete Panarese, chairman of Alaska Mountain Rescue Group which recovered the body, said
the class together ascended the Goat Creek avalanche path, practicing traversing frozen waterfalls and steep slopes.

They began the expedition at 5 a.m. and spent the day climbing on difficult terrain - a mixture of snow, ice and rocks.

"It got to a point where everyone was bushed and daylight was waning," said Panarese.

Bensen and Zelenka were anxious to reach the summit, but Miner and the rest of the class tried to dissuade them, according to Mike Goodwin, District Ranger with Chugach State Park, who interviewed Bensen at length. The pair went on alone and the class descended.

Bensen told Goodwin that as they climbed the upper mountain they realized the descent would be difficult and fixed a rope in a particularly icy spot to help them on the way down.

Coming down they glissaded, a method of sliding using an ice ax for control.  Bensen came to a stop on a steep snow slope and waited for Zelenka, who was about 100 feet above him, he told Goodwin

Zelenka chose to continue  glissading down the hill and  the snow changed from soft to very hard and fast.

"When he slid by Bensen, they both realized he was out of control," said Goodwin.  "He catapulted over the ice fall and out of sight. Ben told me he slid right over the rope they had fixed earlier."

Bensen looked for him but only found his helmet at the bottom of the mountain.

The accident occurred about 7:30 p.m. at 4,500 feet and Bensen reached the bottom and called the troopers about 11:30 p.m.  Troopers spotted the body about 3 a.m. Monday at 3,000 feet.

Goodwin said both men had climbed other peaks in Alaska and the victim was planning a serious climb in the Alaska Range.