Walter J. Coty III 4/8/2000
Craig Demoski 4/7/2000

Rider lost in slide near race

Another avalanche kills 1 near Talkeetna

By DOUG O'HARRA, 4/9/2000, ADN

A recreational snowmachiner was missing in an avalanche and presumed dead Saturday on a mountain near the Arctic Man Ski & Snow Go Classic encampment, where troopers and race organizers repeatedly warned snowmachiners to stay away from the slide-prone slopes.

In a separate incident, a backcountry skier died Saturday in an avalanche on a mountain northwest of Talkeetna that injured a second skier, Alaska State Troopers said.

The tragedy at Arctic Man was the second to mar the weekend event, where 15,000 to 18,000 people gather in an ad hoc city of motor homes and campers to party and watch the extreme sporting event.

On Friday night, a snowmachiner headed down the access road to the encampment, off the Richardson Highway about 12 miles north of Paxson, was killed when he crashed into a trailer parked along the road, troopers said.

The avalanche threat in the Alaska Range several miles from the Arctic Man race site prompted troopers to call off the search for the missing man. His name was not released because family members had not been notified.

Two troopers helicopters, from Anchorage and Fairbanks, were flying in the area Saturday night to assess the danger before allowing a search to resume, trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said.

"It's an avalanche happening up there. It's all over. We've just had so many slides," trooper Sgt. Ronald Wall said.

The race, which combines high-speed skiing and snowmachining, went on as scheduled.

Troopers said the missing man had escaped a snow slide Saturday morning.

"He swam out of an avalanche earlier today," trooper Sgt. Ronald Wall said. "Three of us went up there and met him and a few others at a bottom of a slide. He was in shock."

After troopers determined the man was OK, they parted ways.

The man had been highmarking before he was buried by snow about 2:30 p.m., Wall said.

"It's believed that the same individual who caused the avalanche is the same person who's currently missing," he added.

About five companions saw the man covered by the avalanche, Wilkinson said.

Wall ordered troopers and other searchers back to camp at 7 p.m. because of instability in the area.

Wall said event organizers and troopers warned snowmachiners to stay away from the unstable steep terrain. Saturday's slides were not the first.

On Friday, one person was buried in an avalanche near the start of the Arctic Man course, Wilkinson said. Troopers and volunteers responded and uncovered the person at 6:45 p.m., 20 minutes after the slide.

A second avalanche in that area also buried a person, who also was removed without injury, Wilkinson said.

"We've been stressing it all over, all day long, time and time again," Wall said. "We've done everything we can think of here to try to protect people."

He added: "We've got people actually driving their sleds over debris fields. We can't protect people from themselves."

A decision about when the search would resume was to be made after Anchorage avalanche expert Jill Fredston, who was flown to the scene, analyzed the danger.

In Friday night's crash on the Arctic Man road, Craig Demoski, 26, of Fairbanks was pronounced dead shortly after the 10:15 p.m. accident, probably from massive chest trauma, Wall said.

Demoski had been driving his 1997 Arctic Cat snowmachine at "excessive speed" at Mile 1.1 of Arctic Man road, which was clearly marked with numerous 5 mph signs, Wall said.

A snow slide on Snowshoe Mountain northwest of Talkeetna killed a skier participating in a wilderness survival course, Wilkinson said. The incident was reported to troopers at 3:22 p.m. Saturday. The Rescue Coordination Center sent a helicopter to the scene.

The identities of the skier and a companion, who was flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center with back injuries, were not available late Saturday.

Body of avalanche victim found

Fairbanks man killed after highmarking near Arctic Man competition

By DOUG O'HARRA, ADN 4/10/2000

Searchers early Sunday morning found the body of a recreational snowmachiner who was buried and killed in a weekend avalanche about two miles from the Arctic Man Ski & Sno Go Classic.

Alaska State Troopers identified the victim as Walter J. Coty III, 43, of Fairbanks. Searchers found his body using trained dogs and avalanche probes.

Coty's body was found under about 41/2 feet of snow, lying face up, about 40 feet downhill from where his helmet was found after the slide hit him about 1 p.m. Saturday, said trooper Sgt. Paul Burke. His body was flown to Fairbanks in a trooper helicopter Sunday morning.

Coty was among an estimated 15,000 to 18,000 people who had gone to the Summit Lake area north of Paxson to watch the annual snowmachine-ski race, camp out, explore the mountains and generally play on snowmachines.

The avalanche occurred in a bowl in the mountains several miles from the groomed race course.

Troopers said Coty had been caught in an avalanche earlier the same day while trying to highmark in the bowl. The practice, which has figured in several snowmachine deaths in recent years, involves snowmachiners trying to drive as high as possible on slopes, Burke said.

Coty pulled himself out of that one, but troopers asked him to carry an avalanche beacon if he was going to continue.

Coty was reportedly camping off the Richardson Highway near the Arctic Man gathering with a large group of family members and friends. He was an experienced snowmachiner who often rode in the area, said Arctic Man race organizer Howard Thies.

Away from the race corridor and the rolling hills crisscrossed with thousands of tracks, people had reported seeing several dozen avalanches Saturday on steep, unstable slopes as the sun baked the area.

Troopers and Arctic Man organizers had been urging the recreational snowmachiners to stay off the steep slopes all day Saturday. Though thousands of people cruised the flats and hills, Burke expressed frustration that a few people ignored the message, their tracks visible on avalanche chutes and extreme slopes overlooking the valley.

"Highmarking was the activity," he said. "It's pretty amazing where they go.

"How many of these things have we been on?" he added, talking about the search. "It's the same conditions, the same thing. You'd think people would have more prudence."

The avalanche was composed of a slab of wind-deposited snow on an ice crust resting on a layer of weak, temperature-altered snow, said avalanche expert Jill Fredston, who went to the area from Anchorage to analyze the scene and help find the victim. The slab ranged from 10 inches to 51/2 feet thick. It had slid on a slope ranging from 27 degrees to 35 degrees - a relatively moderate angle.

"The biggest clue available were the numerous slides in the area," she said. "It's a very sensitive snowpack now, both in Thompson Pass and here."

Troopers had called off a search Saturday evening, awaiting Fredston's analysis of additional danger. Two Alaska Search and Rescue Group dogs, an Australian shepherd named Chili and a yellow Lab named Bean, arrived after a drive from Anchorage with owners Paul Brusseau and Corey Aist.

Once on the avalanche debris, Chili found the victim quickly, Brusseau said, trying to dig in the snow. Bean confirmed the location by also trying to dig, and searchers found the body with probes about 8:30 a.m.

"We kind of figured out what we thought would be the best place to start," Brusseau said. "We got a pretty good alert pretty fast."

Coty's was the second snowmachine death of the weekend near the sports event. Friday night, Craig Demoski, 26, of Fairbanks was killed after driving his Arctic Cat machine into a parked trailer at Mile 1.1 of Arctic Man road. Troopers said it appeared he was moving with excessive speed.