Celebrating 50 years of Alaska mountain search and rescue

A NECESSITY: "On any given day, someone will go missing."

November 15, 2010 

After five years of volunteering with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Girdwood ski patroller Andy Dietrick knows the drill.

A call for help arrives -- via e-mail, pager or text message. It could be 3 a.m. just as easily as mid-afternoon.

"The call can come anytime, 24/7," Dietrick said.

The expectation? Swing into action immediately because minutes could spell the difference between life and death. In his truck sits a pack with warm clothes, backcountry tools and rescue gear.

An avalanche may have buried backcountry travelers. A plane may be down in remote terrain. Hikers could be hopelessly lost in the mountains.

"On any given day in Alaska," says the 2010 Alaska State Troopers Search and Rescue Overview, "someone will go missing. Whether it is an overdue hiker unfamiliar with the terrain or a first-time visitor to Alaska unprepared for capricious weather, emergency personnel in Alaska are on constant alert."

Last year, troopers launched 331 search-and-rescue missions for 805 people. Some 609 state trooper searchers were joined by 4,176 volunteers, who put in 93 percent of the total search time.

"Without ... the very essential resource of organized volunteer search associations," the overview says, "this task would be daunting if not impossible."

FIVE DECADES

The Alaska Mountain Rescue Group is one of those volunteer organizations, and Dietrick is among some 40 volunteers able to respond to requests by Alaska State Troopers when backcountry skill and moxie is required.

Alaska Mountain Rescue Group volunteers have been doing it for decades -- five to be precise. They were offering backcountry assistance in the Alaska Range a year before the National Park Service began coordinating Mount McKinley rescues. They were doing it before Chugach State Park existed and before the Alaska Search and Rescue Association, the Anchorage Nordic Ski Patrol or Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs were organized.

On Saturday, current and past members of the group gathered at the Kincaid Chalet to toast 50 years of service and tell stories -- lots of stories.

Sadly, many of those stories end tragically.

In fact, not until 24-year-old skier Ian Wilson was pulled from beneath four feet of snowy debris on Sunburst Mountain in Turnagain Pass two years ago has a search-and-rescue operation involving the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group pulled out an avalanche survivor.

And that was a bit of a fluke.

'A BIG ONE'

Trained rescuers were nearby -- some working to recover victims of an older slide on the other side of the pass -- when the Sunburst avalanche let loose. Both Wilson and some of the rescuers carried avalanche beacons.

Chief among them was Matt Murphy, an avalanche forecaster with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center who's now a technical advisor to the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group. He was out skiing with his wife and a friend, Kris Dudley. When snow rumbled down Sunburst Mountain that February day, the trio was about a quarter-mile away.

The rumble of snow cascading down the mountain was the sound of a Class 4 (the biggest is Class 5) avalanche.

"Kris yelled my name out," Murphy said. "I could see a dust cloud of snow down in the valley. It was a big one."

On skis equipped with skins to provide grip, Murphy's group started uphill on the debris pile. Already, other skiers nearby were frantically searching, but their efforts were somewhat disorganized.

"All my training from being a professional ski patroller kicked in," said Murphy, who's been a member of the Alyeska Ski Patrol since 2002. "We practice a lot every year, so I could just flip a switch in my brain and stay collected, because I knew what we had to do."

Dig; dig fast. Murphy, the victim's friends and other skiers there to help tore into the spot the beacon pinpointed.

"It was a strange set of circumstances," said Murphy, whose efforts directing the rescue earned him the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary's Honor Award for Heroism. "A lot of things aligned to help Ian out -- a fast search, good effective probing and strategic shoveling."

TICK, TOCK

Even so, the clock kept ticking. Each passing moment meant Wilson's odds of surviving worsened. Historically, the chances of surviving burial in an avalanche slip to 85 percent within 15 minutes, to 50 percent after 30 minutes to 20 percent within one hour to near zero after two hours.

"When we were shoveling down to him, he was laying face down," Murphy said, who feared the worst. "We had to pull on his backpack to expose his airway. Drool was coming out of his mouth and his skin was blue. He was unresponsive.

"Thank God his airway wasn't clogged, but he was still sandwiched in there."

Finally, Wilson sputtered. Recovery came miraculously fast. Within five minutes, he was answering questions.

"Do you know where you are?" asked Murphy, a trained emergency medical technician.

"Avalanche," came the answer.

"That was good enough for me."

As it turned out, Wilson suffered only minor injuries. He'd been buried 25 minutes, Murphy estimates.

"It was really Matt Murphy taking control of the situation that saved his life," said Bill Romberg, chairman of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group.

"That was super lucky," noted Dietrick. "We're normally not there at a moment's notice."

Nor always with such a talented, cool-headed specialist.

"It was such a big avalanche and there were so many other skiers in the area, it was very chaotic and uncertain how many were buried," said Romberg, who was among the group working to recover the victim of an avalanche on the other side of Turnagain Pass that jumped in a helicopter to help once word of the Sunburst avalanche arrived.

THANKS

More often, members of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group perform the difficut but important work of recovering the bodies of backcountry adventurers who don't return alive.

"It's true," Deitrick said, "a lot of them are body recovery. But every experience I've had, it was hugely important to the family. The two fellows (recently) killed in (an avalanche at) Grandview. The support from family and friends was unreal."

That and the thanks of peers may be all the reward any volunteer needs.

"The Alaska Mountain Rescue Group is the single most valuable resource we have up here, along with the Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs," state park ranger Kymberly Miller said in 2006, pointing to several recreationalists in Hatcher Pass who owe their life to the group. " They're all expert skiers, climbers, mountaineers."


Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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