Avalanche tragedy can serve as lesson

April 13, 2009 

Yancy Flair lived fast and happy until his death beneath an avalanche in Johnson Pass on the Kenai Peninsula March 28.

Friends say the 35-year-old Flair was a great guy who took pleasure in the big, wild life of Alaska. Others paint a somewhat different picture, a portrait of man who thought a lot of rules didn't really apply to him.

Court records show Flair had a lengthy history of citations for reckless driving, speeding, driving while intoxicated, driving without a license, driving unregistered vehicles, driving without insurance, running red lights, failing to yield and more.

A graduate of Bartlett High School, he spent almost his whole life in Anchorage, and this pattern of living life on the edge goes back almost to the beginning.

Some could easily criticize the behavior. Others might see something uniquely American in it.

This country was built by people who took risks. Economically, the country still depends to a great extent on people who takes risks.

Flair's behavior was in some ways reflective of these people. Who knows that the sort of devil-may-care attitude that got him killed might not have been the same attitude that made him a successful local businessman.

And maybe, if Flair had lived, he would have outgrown the wild streak.

"I know that Yancy didn't have necessarily the greatest record in the world,'' said good friend Lew Ulmer, "(but) he was an extremely good guy. The last two years, the guy has been trying to get his mental state focused on what's important."

Two weeks before his death, Ulmer said, Flair spoke of settling down and confessed "he was finally completely at peace with himself."

Then Flair rode his snowmachine into a closed area of the Chugach National Forest at a time when the signs were everywhere that avalanche danger was extreme.

This time, Flair broke Mother Nature's rules, and she is not nearly as lenient as humans in offering second chances. It took searchers a week to find his body.

When the Chugach National Forest posted a photograph online of the site of the avalanche that killed Flair, I felt sick to my stomach. It was pretty obvious from the photo that Flair either didn't understand the risks of where he was riding, or understood the risks and chose to ignore them.

To understand what happened in Johnson Pass, you must first understand a bit about snow. It is a substance constantly at war with itself. Temperature and pressure try to bond it into ice while gravity steadily tries to pull it downhill.

Certain mountain terrain tends to stabilize snow; other terrain helps to destabilize it.

Take your hand and form a cup. Think about a pile of snow inside that cup. The forces of gravity are trying to push that snow together. Natural forces are trying to stabilize that snow.

Now, take your hand and bring all four fingers and your thumb together to form a point and imagine what happens to snow sitting on top of that pyramid.

Because snow acts more like a plastic than a fluid in many situations, it can cap the tops of those fingers and hang down the sides. But the forces of gravity working on the snow hanging off the sides are huge.

Wherever convex little outcrops like those fingers exist in the mountains, there is danger. The less stable the snow, the greater the danger.

Yancy Flair took his snowmobile and cut across one of these convex slopes at a time when the snow was highly unstable. That act was like taking a knife to a piece of cake smashed down over the tops of your fingers. The track of the snowmachine sliced away the lowest layer.

And when it dropped, everything went. In this case, when the snow below went, it triggered the movement of so much snow above that not only the slope immediately above Flair came down, but adjacent slopes avalanched as well.

Still, with a little luck, Flair might have survived. If he'd had a long, open slope below him, he might have escaped burial or even been able to ride out the slide. A lot of snowmobilers, myself included, have gotten away with this dangerous stunt.

The problem in this case was that Flair had put himself in a position with no out. He had nowhere to run. There was a gully below him -- what the avalanche experts call a "terrain trap."

It was like that cupped hand, a bowl just waiting to be filled with snow.

I've thought for a long time about what to write about Flair. I know there will be those who criticize this as writing unkindly about the dead. I talked about this several times with Debra McGhan, who teaches avalanche safety for the North America Outdoor Institute in the Susitna Valley.

Something she said in an e-mail is what finally hit home:

"I think the stories we share to make a real difference are the real-life ones that hurt. The lesson here is breaking the rules doesn't work in this game.

"Know the rules, because in the real-life, 3D, back-country travel game, it's win or lose."

The scary thing is that there are people who just don't seem to get this. Some of them are friends of Flair who say they ride their snowmobiles in the mountains all the time.

In the days immediately after Flair was buried, one friend who had been with him when the avalanche hit, insisted nobody had done anything wrong that day. He was firmly of the opinion that it was simply bad luck that killed Flair.

"There were natural avalanches coming down all around,'' he said.

He wanted to believe it was one of those natural avalanches that caught Flair. Somehow lost in the fog was the reality that natural avalanches are nature's warning that the snow is very, very unstable.

"That's the thought process that blows my mind,'' said Carl Skustad, an avalanche forecaster at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

Mine, too. Had Flair and a dozen or so riding buddies only listened to what the mountains were saying that day, he'd be alive today, and I wouldn't have to be writing this column knowing full well the criticism sure to come from some corners.

But we can't just stick our heads in the sand and pretend that what happened here didn't happen.

Yancy Flair made a deadly mistake. Remember it. Let it serve as a lesson. Learn from it.


Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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