Mike O'Leary, 03-08-08

Avalanche forecaster killed in Cordova slide
VETERAN: Backcountry expert Mike O'Leary is third fatality on Alaska's slopes this year.

By BETH BRAGG, bbragg@adn.com

Published: March 10th, 2008

A snow safety expert who warned that avalanche conditions in the mountains around Cordova over the weekend were "considerable" was swept to his death Saturday on Mount Eyak.

Mike O'Leary, 56, was a lifelong Alaskan respected for his backcountry expertise, a member of the town council and one of Cordova's premier snow safety experts. His avalanche forecasts appeared routinely on the city's Web site, including the one he wrote the day before a giant slide buried him under 18 feet of snow.

"He was the local avalanche snow guru," said Kevin Quinn of Points North Heli-Adventures, who helped recover O'Leary's body Saturday evening.

"He basically ran the local ski hill here. ... He was an extremely big asset locally."

O'Leary is the third person in Alaska to be killed by an avalanche since the beginning of the year.

The slide -- which Quinn said measured 1,800 feet long and 70 to 100 feet wide -- happened on a 45-degree slope that was soaked by three inches of rain a couple of days earlier, according to the report O'Leary wrote the day before he died.

The slopes of Mount Eyak begin right at the edge of Cordova.

Saturday's avalanche injured another Cordova man, while two people skied away safely, according to Quinn and an Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman.

Tully Devine, 31, broke his leg and was flown to an Anchorage hospital. Kirsti Jurica, 33, of Cordova called for help after skiing away safely; Stephen Witsoe, 36, of Cordova also skied to safety and then hiked back up the mountain and started digging for O'Leary.

According to Quinn and trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters, the four were skiing and checking snow conditions on a gray day.

The group had skied Mount Eyak from top to bottom, stopping halfway to dig a hole and check the snow, Peters said. When the four reached the bottom, they realized the dogs they had brought with them were still on the slope.

"So O'Leary and Tully hiked back up," Peters said. "Apparently they were about halfway up when they heard the snow crack."

Jurica's call for help reached Quinn at Points North Heli-Adventures, a ski-adventure business that is part of the town's search-and-rescue response team.

Volunteers searched the slope by air and spotted Devine, but no one else. They focused their efforts on Devine.

"We realized he was in an extremely hazardous area due to the amount of snow above him," Quinn said. "We knew we had to get that guy off the slope."

After landing the chopper under dangerous conditions, they plucked Devine off the mountain and delivered him to an ambulance waiting at the bottom of the slope. Quinn then loaded four rescuers and their shovels into the helicopter and went back to look for O'Leary and Witsoe.

"We had 20 people standing by to dig," he said. "I grabbed four of them, and I was skeptical about even bringing four people onto the slope due to how much snow there was. It was an extremely hazardous situation."

The crew relieved Witsoe, who was exhausted from digging for O'Leary by himself.

Their task was formidable. O'Leary was buried under 18 feet of snow. To reach him, Quinn said, they needed to bring in a chain saw to get through a tree that had been swept away along with O'Leary.

"We were able to remove the tree only to find more snow," Quinn said. "Time's ticking, daylight's going by, and finally we made a probe strike. We got to him only to find his legs are trapped by more trees."

Using shovels to break branches, the volunteers freed O'Leary and put his body aboard the helicopter.

Peters said troopers who responded to the avalanche credited Points North for rescuing Devine and recovering O'Leary.

"I was told that if they hadn't showed up, we'd still be doing body recovery," she said.

Only one of the dogs was known to have survived Sunday evening.

O'Leary, a commercial fisherman, is survived by his wife, Michelle. The couple had no children, Quinn said.

Checking and reporting on avalanche conditions was just one of many services O'Leary performed in Cordova.

"More than once he was voted citizen of the year," said Quinn, who has lived and owned a business in Cordova for 11 years. "He's spent so much of his time donating time and energy to things. He's that guy, if there's a pothole and the town doesn't fix it, he's out there with a sand truck fixing it. He'd give you the shirt off his back.

"Everyone wants their obituary to say what a great guy they were, but Mike O'Leary honestly was one of those guys. There wasn't a bad bone in that guy's body."

Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4309.