Snow rips off slope, kills man
By S.J. Komarnitsky, Daily News Mat-Su Bureau
PALMER - Andrew George's friends heard the avalanche before they saw it tear loose a slab of snow 1,000 feet wide and up to 7 feet deep.
"It was just 'Whump,' and then a crack formed 50 yards in either direction," said Chris Larson. He was one of seven snowboarders who watched helplessly Sunday afternoon as George and another man, Pat McManus of Anchorage, were swept down a slope at Hatcher Pass.
McManus rode free of the tumbling snow, managing to stay on the surface as the slide roared down April Bowl. George did not.
Caught in the avalanche, the 25-year-old Girdwood man tumbled several hundred feet before being buried under 4 feet of wet, heavy snow. By the time his friends reached him 20 minutes later, it was too late. He had suffocated.
The bowl was dangerous, state park ranger Pat Murphy said. "They just made an error in judgment.."
High winds had piled tons of snow at the top of the steep, roughly 35-degree slope. The huge load rested a base of old snow with the consistency of fine-grained sugar. Called corn snow, the grains act almost like ball bearings, said Murphy, who dug a snow pit at the scene to check for weak layers in the snowpack.
"It's set up like a hair trigger," he said. "All it needed was just a little more weight."
That weight was George and McManus.
At 2:30 p.m. they were standing at the top of the bowl, a popular snowboarding run near Summit Lake, about two miles from the Hatcher Pass Lodge. They jumped off the lip at about the same time.
Larson said he didn't see George, but he heard the whump as soon as McManus hit the snow. A second later, a crack appeared.
The avalanche was actually four separate slides that stretched about 1,000 feet across the slope, Murphy said. In some places, the snow slab broke all the way down to the ground, exposing the rocks and grass underneath, he said.
Larson said it looked to him like the entire slope was sliding downhill.
"It broke off the whole slab and then broke into chunks and into smaller chunks," he said.
When it stopped, the group could see McManus had made it out. But then George's girlfriend started yelling that George was caught under the snow, Larson said.
The group immediately headed down, some hiking and some snowboarding.
Larson said he figures it took about 20 minutes for the group to reach George and dig him out. They found him upright with his hand in front of face, like he was trying to create an air pocket to breathe, he said.
The group immediately started CPR. Three Anchorage men, including a registered nurse, who were setting up a camp in the area, helped.
For the next 2-1/2 hours, the group took turns doing mouth to mouth resuscitation to try to revive George, but Murphy said the most they ever got was a faint slow pulse. The snowboarder was pronounced dead just before 7 p.m. after being flown by helicopter to Valley Hospital.
Larson said he and George frequently skied at Hatcher Pass in the past 10 years, often at April Bowl. In fact, they had been there twice this winter, on each of the past two weekends. Never before had they had a problem, he said.
He said the group knew conditions were dangerous when they arrived at Hatcher Pass about 2 p.m. The group was carrying locator beacons and snow shovels. George dug two snow pits to check the stability of the snow, Larson said. In retrospect, he wished other members of the group had dug their own pits to get second and third opinions.
State parks rangers say the snowboarder's death is another reminder of how dangerous the snow-covered slopes can be.
Avalanche danger at Hatcher Pass remains extreme because of the high winds over the weekend, Murphy said. Chugach State Park officials are also warning those who venture into the back country to be cautious because of the wind-loaded snowslopes.