Avid snowmachiner has seen his share of slides

Posted: Friday, December 08, 2000

There aren't many things that will keep George Derkevorkian off his snowmachine. Especially on a Saturday in December.

However, he and his son, Richard, were with some 200 snowmachiners, skiers, snowboarders and other winter recreationists at Saturday's Avalanche Hazard Recognition workshop offered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and taught by Jill Fredston, co-director of Alaska Mountain Safety Center (See related story, this page).

The reason he was there was simple.

"My wife made me do it," Derkevorkian said.

The reason she made him attend was just as simple.

"I've been trying to get him to do this for three or four years, ever since I heard about the class," said Derkevorkian's wife, Julie. "The first year he said it was a waste of time, but he just didn't want to do it. He had more important things to do. Last year he agreed to go, but it was full.

"So when it came up this year, I encouraged him to sign up," she said.

Lurking behind all that was Derkevorkian's real motivation: coming face to face with more than one avalanche.

"The thing that really changed his mind is the time the group he was riding with got caught in an avalanche," Julie Derkevorkian said.

In 1996, her husband and three of his friends were in the same part of Turnagain Pass where an avalanche took the lives of six snowmachiners in 1999. One person in his group went off the top of a hill, reached the bottom of the valley and couldn't climb back out.

"I was going to follow his track," Derkevorkian said. "I started off the top, and the top just let loose."

Trapped as a 4-foot-thick slab of snow slid down the mountainside, Derkevorkian struggled to stay with the slide.

"I was afraid that I'd create more of an avalanche if I tried to outrun it," he said.

At the bottom of the slope, unable to move, was his friend.

"The snow hit him and knocked him off the snowmachine, kind of burying the machine. But it stopped right where it hit him," Derkevorkian said. "That was our lucky day."

Taking it as a sign to get out of the area, the friends headed for a safer, flatter area. A couple of weeks later, they found themselves in a similar situation.

"We buried a machine in the Lost Lake area," he said. "There's a big lake with a 200-foot high rolling hill on the other side of it. It's one of the most dangerous hills I've ever seen. The snow just rolls in there and then comes off."

Derkevorkian said he and his friends "were doing the no-no" -- having more than one person at a time on a slope.

"All three of us were climbing at the same time," he said. "The guy furthest behind got hit with the snow and managed to swim his way out of it."

When the snow finally stopped sliding a quarter-mile later, they were able to find their friend's machine by the ski tip sticking out of the snow.

Derkevorkian's no stranger to snowmachines. His father, the late Alfred Derkevorkian, started the first snowmachine dealership on the Kenai Peninsula in 1963. Riding since he was 7 years old, the snowmachine enthusiast has left his tracks on slopes all over Alaska, including Petersville, Eureka, Paxton, Valdez, Tok, Glennallen and Cantwell. So far this year, while others are waiting for more snow, he has logged 400 miles on his Arctic Cat.

All the hours and miles on a snowmachine have developed some safety rules for this father of three.

"Watching out for the other person is the number one rule," he said. "And when you're riding, make sure that you keep track of the kids. If they leave your sight, they have to stop. It scares me to death to think that people might lose someone. You lose a little kid up there in the Caribou Hills when it's minus-30 -- that's scary.

"I was on a search four or five years ago when a child was lost in the Caribou Hills," he said. "They found her, but the thing is, if you take an inexperienced rider out there, they have to know that if they can't see someone, they have to stop. They can't just keep going. You can follow a trail 15 miles and it might not go anywhere. And you can get into some places where you can't turn around.

"If I take a new kid with me, I tell them, 'Hey, do not go if you don't see us. Stop.' There's so many miles of wilderness up there, you'd never find them."

Derkevorkian said other safety tips include staying on the right side of the trail, using common sense, and stopping where trails intersect.

After helping find a missing snowmachiner on Sunday, he said, "We've been awfully lucky up there in the Caribou Hills."

All of the Derkevorkian family are avid snowmachiners, including Julie and the couple's three children, Richard, 13, Mariesha, 10, and Makayla, 4.

"I knew he could gain some information from the class," said Julie, of her husband. "He's a very avid outdoorsman and really good about direction. I never worry about him getting lost.

"The only thing that scares me is him getting hit in an avalanche or losing my son."

Safety isn't just for adults, either, said Julie, who prefers trail riding and said if it isn't safe, it isn't fun for her.

"Accidents happen," she said. "We've always drilled that into the kids. There's more than the fun side of it. There's the dangerous side."

Her husband and son's participation in the Saturday workshop have eased Julie's concerns.

"I was so glad they went," she said. "It meant so much to me. It just relieved a big burden off my mind."

Both Derkevorkians praised the Kenai Peninsula Borough for sponsoring the workshop, which was free to the community.

"It's a wonderful thing for them to do for the public," Julie said. "It took a whole day, but it was definitely worth their time. If George said he learned something from it, then it was good."

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