Eagle River avalanche traps man for 30 minutes

Posted: Friday, March 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An avalanche in Eagle River buried a skier for about 30 minutes Thursday evening before his companion was able to dig him out. Two dogs with the pair died.

The snow let loose about 5:15 p.m. east of Mile 6.6 Hiland Road, burying John Stroud in about 3 feet of snow. Skip Repetto, who was telemark skiing with Stroud near the 2,000-foot level, used an avalanche beacon and probe to find Stroud and dug him out with a shovel, said Kip Melling, an avalanche instructor for the Alaska Mountain Safety Center.

Melling said he was in his house near Mile 5.3 Hiland Road when he looked out his kitchen window at about 5:45 p.m. and saw a fresh slide. Melling had been skiing on the west side of the valley earlier in the afternoon and had seen two men on the east side.

He gathered his gear, drove up the road and found the men's vehicle. He could see ski tracks that disappeared into the 500-yard-long avalanche area and began skiing up toward them.

Another area resident also saw the slide and called 911 at 6:22 p.m. Anchorage police and firefighters responded along with local volunteers. An airplane flying near the area volunteered to look for victims.

By the time Melling reached the slide area and rescuers began assembling, Stroud had been freed and the two had started down the mountain.

''I was glad to see two people moving around there,'' he said. ''The rescuer, much to his credit, had the right gear and knew how to use it, and that was the difference between having a good outcome and a bad outcome.''

Melling said it took Repetto another 20 minutes to dig Stroud free after he cleared an airway. Two malamutes that the pair brought along were also buried but not found.

Melling described the incident as a close call and said Stroud believed he would die. The odds of surviving under snow for 30 minutes are only 40 percent, he said.

''The guy actually resigned himself to the fact he wasn't going to make it,'' Melling said. ''He had made his peace, but his partner found him with the transceiver and hit him with the probe.''

Melling took the two back to his house to recuperate. Stroud ''wouldn't take his beacon off. That's how freaked out he was,'' Melling said.

Stroud and Repetto could not be reached Thursday night.

Doug Fesler, director of the mountain safety center, said it appears the two skiers triggered the avalanche as they traveled together down into a bowl after having skied up on a ridge. The area has recently received two heavy dumps of snow, he said.

''Two skiers and two dogs come on out, and bingo: It's just not strong enough to hold the weight,'' he said.

Mountain safety experts expressed concerned about the potential for more avalanches this weekend.

''There's a lot of ticking time bombs in this park around Anchorage,'' Fesler said. ''People need to be smart about the routes they choose. That means picking low-angle slopes and traveling one person at a time.''

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