Unknown 05-07-05

Hiker dies in Chugach fall

ALCOHOL: Police say drinking was involved; another man was injured.

By PETER PORCO Anchorage Daily News , Published: May 8th, 2005

One man was killed and another seriously injured early Saturday when they plunged to the bottom of a canyon while on a nighttime walk in the Chugach Mountains northeast of Anchorage, authorities said.

The men had been drinking, said Anchorage police spokesman Ron McGee.

The dead man was 33 and living in Anchorage, McGee said. By late afternoon Saturday, police had not been able to notify his nearest kin, who apparently live in Greece, and the man's name was withheld, he said.

The name of the injured man, who lives in Anchorage, was also unavailable, McGee said.

The incident happened sometime before 4 a.m. beside the trail to Thunderbird Falls, about 26 miles up the Glenn Highway from Anchorage.

The two victims were in a party that included several others. Police dispatchers said the group numbered five, according to McGee. The chief of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department, whose members were first at the scene after an emergency call was placed, said it appeared there were four men on the trail.

The reason for the discrepancy was unclear Saturday.

The group had been drinking and were driving to Palmer when they apparently decided to stop and walk through the woods toward a viewing deck at the falls in Chugach State Park, McGee said.

The trail to the viewing platform is about a mile, according to the guidebook "55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska." Before that, about halfway to the falls, is another viewing deck. Both platforms overlook the creek as it tumbles through the gorge.

The trail runs from the parking lot, which is outside the park boundary, up along the south rim of the canyon. It's separated from the rim by a buffer of trees and brush, said Dan Amyot, the north-area ranger for Chugach State Park.

From the top of the canyon to its bottom is, in most places, a precipitous cliff. Signs warn of the steep drop and advise visitors to stay on the trail, Amyot said.

The group got out of the car and headed up.

"It was not real clear what they were doing," said Chugiak volunteer fire chief Bruce Bartley. "At any rate, they raced (about 100 yards) up the trail, and two of them went over the side."

"Alcohol was involved," Bartley added. "That was the root of the problem."

According to McGee, the man who died fell about 80 feet to the gravel bottom of the canyon, and the other man fell trying to help him.

The slope was 75 to 80 degrees, said Bartley.

"First, they hit a ledge of ice which accelerated their descent, and then they hit the creek bottom," he said. "Once they go off the snow field, it's straight down from there. It's as close as you want to going off an eight-story building."

Anchorage dispatchers received a 911 call just before 4 a.m., McGee said.

A former chief of the Chugiak Volunteer department who lives in the community of Thunderbird Falls got to the scene within minutes. Soon after that, another 19 firefighters and paramedics from the department, including Bartley, arrived.

While still dark, two paramedics waded up the creek to the victims. "We found the first guy dead on arrival," Bartley said. He had suffered multiple injuries. The other man was critically hurt with broken legs and arms and internal injuries, and the paramedics stabilized him.

Members of Station 11 of the Anchorage Fire Department in Eagle River responded, and a large litter was lowered to the creek. The injured man was placed in it and carried about 100 yards downstream to where rescuers had set up a mechanical recovery system with rope and pulleys.

"They were able to just muscle him up," Bartley said. The man was conscious the whole time, he said.

Rescue commanders had called the Alaska Air National Guard for assistance. A Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron was launched from Kulis Air Guard Base in Anchorage with at least four pararescue jumpers from the 212th Rescue Squadron aboard, according to Bartley. By the time the Pave Hawk arrived, however, the injured man had been brought to the parking lot where a LifeGuard helicopter was to fly him to a local hospital, he said.

The LifeGuard took off about 7:30 a.m.

Members of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group also responded, said Bartley, and they brought the body of the other man out.

In total, more than 40 rescuers, including fire battalion chiefs, several police officers and a Chugach State Park ranger, showed up to help, he said.

The cliffs along Thunderbird Creek are no stranger to death, according to "55 Ways." The guidebook, however, does not say how many have died over the years.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at pporco@adn.com or 257-4582.