Nathan Chavez    04/07/92   Hiker    Fall

Hiker Dies After Fall Near Trail - Authorities Believe Man Lost His Footing On Scree

By Craig Medred, ADN 04/07/92

A sunny, evening hike that started on a well-traveled trail along Turnagain Arm ended in death for 22-year-old Nathan Chavez on Sunday.

Searchers on Monday found the Anchorage man's body on the Turnagain Arm Trail approximately three-quarters of a mile south of the McHugh Creek wayside.  Chavez apparently left the trail to scramble up a sun-kissed slope of loose rock, lost his footing and tumbled 20 to 40 feet to his death.

Chugach State Park Superintendent Ron Crenshaw described the accident as the kind of slip that happens often in the wilderness, but seldom results in death.

"It's happened to all of us to some degree," he said.

This accident was particularly sad because Chavez left a 9-month-old baby and his pregnant wife, Tometria, said Jill Fredston of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group.

A hard-working young man, Chavez had been holding down two jobs to support his family.

He was described by co-workers and acquaintances as a moderately experienced and active outdoorsman with a strong interest in backcountry recreation.  He'd spent the past year-and-a-half selling outdoor equipment at Recreational Equipment Inc.  A considerable portion of his limited free time was given over to scrambling around in the Chugach Mountains near the city.

"He was a hell of a nice guy," said REI manager Kevin House, "hard- working, conscientious, fun.  It's got everyone around here freaked out."  Chavez was the second REI employee to die in the Chugach Mountains in the past four years.  An avalanche at Tincan Mountain in Turnagain Pass killed 35-year-old Todd Frankiewicz in December 1988.

Frankiewicz was gambling on an unstable snow slope when he died. Chavez apparently just ran into bad luck.

"It's one of those things," House said.  "Anyone who gets out could have been in the same place."

The accident investigation was not yet complete Monday and an autopsy has yet to be performed, but rescuers said it appeared Chavez slipped and then tumbled.

"It just looks like he fell," said Doug Fesler, Fredston's husband and another member of the mountain rescue group.

Fredston and Fesler were among those who found Chavez's body in the trail about noon, approximately three hours after the search began.  The fatal accident hit close to home for them.

"You know, Doug had a near fatal fall five weeks ago," Fredston said. "The line between living and dying is fairly thin."

Authorities were notified that Chavez was missing after he failed to report to work at his second job as a Daily News motor-route carrier early Monday morning. Motor route manager Bruce Hinson became worried because Chavez had always been punctual and reliable.

By daybreak Monday, Alaska State Troopers had been alerted. The mountain rescue group was called out at about 9 a.m. and began searching the south flank of McHugh Peak, thinking Chavez had gotten lost or injured hiking there.

A friend called Chugach Park rangers later in the morning to suggest they search along the Turnagain Arm trail where Chavez and the friend had gone hiking last week. About noon, his body was found just below a steep slope. "It just looks like he was climbing on those (slopes) and fell there," Fredston said. "It's just really rotten rock in there."

Much of the hillside is made up of scree loose and broken rock, Crenshaw said.

Fredston said searchers found a pair of snow shoes Chavez had apparently cached above the slope. A pair of ski poles he'd been using were found in a nearby draw.

Chavez's death was the second in as many years in the 500,000-acre Chugach Park at Anchorage's back door. Nine-year-old Christopher Flood of Anchorage fell to his death descending 3,510-foot Flattop Mountain in June of last year.

After that fatal accident, park officials posted signs along the Flattop trail and began a public-education campaign to warn about the dangers of the mountains. Crenshaw said park officials are unsure of how to respond to the latest death.

The Turnagain trail is an easy hike along the slopes above the Seward Highway south of the city, and there is no danger to people hiking on the trail. But the surrounding mountains always pose inherent risks. "This wasn't like Flattop where you get a lot of novices going up there," Crenshaw said. "I don't know what we could do to warn people. In this case, there really isn't anything you can do."