Anchorage woman critically hurt in Hatcher Pass avalanche

Posted: Monday, November 12, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An Anchorage woman was in critical condition Monday, a day after she was caught in an avalanche.

State park rangers and witnesses said the 35-year-old woman was snowshoeing with a male friend at 3 p.m. Sunday when a small wind-slab avalanche moved beneath them. The woman's name has not been released.

Rescuer Kip Melling said the slide carried the two about 100 yards down the slope. The man came to rest on top of the snow but the woman was buried, head-down, three feet beneath the surface.

The woman was under the snow for 40 minutes. Melling said rescuers then immediately began CPR then took the woman to Hatcher Pass Lodge by snowmobile. An ambulance picked her up there at 3:50 p.m. and took her to Valley Hospital in Palmer.

The woman, the first avalanche casualty of the season, was later transferred to Providence Alaska Medical Center. A nursing supervisor there said Monday morning the woman remained in critical condition.

The woman and her friend left their car at Hatcher Pass Lodge on Sunday afternoon and followed the road up past Summit Lake to Hatcher Pass, said state park ranger Dennis Heikes. They and their dogs were traversing a north-facing 32-degree slope high on the Willow side of the pass when the slab, 120-feet wide and 12 inches deep, cut loose beneath them, Heikes said.

Moments before the slide, the man had become concerned about snow conditions and the pair had turned around, Melling said. They were about five feet apart on the slope, he said.

Melling, who teaches avalanche safety with the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, described the pitch as a perfect avalanche trap: a wind-loaded slab on top of a thin, unconsolidated layer that was on top of a firm bottom layer. At the top, the slope was 38 degrees -- optimum steepness for a slide.

The pair were in the middle of the slope when the avalanche was released, Melling said. The snow traveled about 100 yards before piling up at the base of the slope. The woman slid on her belly, facing uphill, Melling said, but was quickly buried in debris. The man stopped on top of the debris, he said.

Melling and his girlfriend, Terri Pauls, were ascending on the other side of the pass when they heard yelling.

The man ''was just frantically waving his hands, yelling Avalanche!' Help, avalanche!' It didn't seem real,'' Melling told the Anchorage Daily News.

The victims had no avalanche rescue gear except for one probe, which was buried with the woman, Melling said. He told two snowboarders in the area to go to Hatcher Pass Lodge for help.

Then Melling and Pauls pulled out their probes and began a random search in the debris. Forty minutes after the slide they found the woman.

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