Fairbanks snowmachiner killed by avalanche

Posted: Monday, December 11, 2000

CANTWELL (AP) -- A Fairbanks snowmachiner died Saturday 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 Alaska State Troopers.

Thompson, 44, was riding with a group near Easy Pass, west of Cantwell, and was well into the wilderness area of the park that's closed to snowmachines, according to Jane Tranel, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service.

One of his friends went highmarking up a narrow ravine and got bogged down, Tranel said. Thompson followed and helped his friend dig out the machine and get headed back down.

But as Thompson started to follow, a huge ''climax avalanche'' came loose from the slope and swept down on him, carrying 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 Thompson buried face-down after about 15 minutes of probing. But they were unable to revive him.

A member of the group rode out about 20 miles 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 called, but 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 past of the national park had been opened to snowmachining only the day before, but park officials had warned then that conditions were ripe for avalanches because of alternating rain and snow, especially in narrow valleys and ravines.

''The snowpack on the south side of the park is very unstable right now,'' warned National Park Service Ranger Tom Habecker Sunday. 'I advise riders to avoid traveling into hazardous terrain.''

Three rangers were heading out to the scene of the accident to investigate Sunday, Tranel said.

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.

Snowmachiners have increasingly been caught in avalanches as the machines have become more powerful and able to climb steeper slopes. In 1999, a dozen snowmachiners died in avalanches, including six who were caught in a massive mile-wide slide in Turnagain Pass in March of that year.

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