Two longtime friends set out Saturday on a blue-sky afternoon for what they figured would be another unforgettable day of hard skiing in Alaska's backcountry.
Jim Helling, the older of the two at 65, was experienced in checking for avalanche danger, his friend, Jerry Kallam, 54, said. Both were equipped with avalanche beacons and other specialty gear. After a three-hour climb up Hatch Ridge in the Hatcher Pass area, they started their descent, picking a well-traveled route that other skiers had made the same day.
Then a slab of snow let loose.
"It immediately swallowed me up and I went under," Kallam said Sunday.
He swam and kicked his way out. But Helling, lower on the mountain, was buried. He didn't make it. Rescuers found him Sunday under 14 to 16 feet of compacted snow.
Soren Orley, with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, was part of the team that recovered Helling's body. He said the snow pack in Hatcher Pass is deceptively unstable. Weak areas of snow are near spots where the layers are consolidated and firm, so even digging down to analyze the snow might not give an accurate indication of danger, Orley said.
On Saturday, there weren't signs of other avalanches in the area. A weak layer under wind-deposited snow collapsed and slid, Orley said. A classic avalanche. The snow pack is shallow, so even the weight of a person in just the right spot could set it off, he said.
"The thing about it is, every indication is this guy was a very careful, knowledgeable backcountry person," Orley said. "In no way do I want to imply that he was being reckless yesterday. In Alaska, anytime you go into the backcountry you are taking risk."
TUMBLING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
On Sunday at home in Palmer, Kallam talked about his struggle through the avalanche and the shock of losing Helling to it.
He said he and Helling had known each other more than 20 years. Kallam and his wife owned and ran Wilderness Nursery, a popular Mat-Su greenhouse, for 25 years. Helling was a geologist and was semi-retired, Kallam said.
A few years back, they began backcountry skiing together, Kallam said. Helling had been doing it much longer, and took the lead, he said.
On Saturday, they slogged up to the tallest point they could see, with skins on their skis for traction. They sat down and surveyed the land below for the best route down, Kallam said. It was a gorgeous Alaska day and there were a number of skiers out.
"There were people doing a lot crazier stuff than us, jumping off chutes and stuff," he said.
It was after 5 p.m. when they started their downhill runs. Helling led off. He said he'd pull over partway down in a safe spot to watch for Kallam.
"I probably only got about two or three turns into following him in when the whole mountain in that vicinity let go," Kallam said. "It just all split open. All the snow fractured."
He started yelling to his friend.
"Go! Go! Go!"
It looked like Helling saw what was happening and tried to get out of the way.
From then on things happened fast.
"It either hit me from behind or I just tumbled into it," Kallam said.
He was buried under the snow. The avalanche was dragging him down the mountain.
SWIMMING TO SAFETY
Kallam was wearing a helmet. It not only protected his head, but also made a little bubble that kept snow out of his nostrils and mouth. He was able to get his feet to the ground and push off to break through to the surface, only to be buried again.
At some point, his knee snapped.
"You're in a violent flowing stream of very heavy chunks of snow that are trying to beat you up constantly or push you under," Kallam said.
He was doing a sort of backstroke and yelling to himself: "Don't stop swimming! Don't stop swimming!" He didn't want to break the rhythm.
He started hitting ground more often and managed to swim over to the side, where he could brace himself in place as the river of snow kept moving below him.
"Eventually it all drained out from under me and left me on the tundra," Kallam said. He figures he slid maybe 600, 700 feet.
He frantically called for his friend. He heard nothing.
"I didn't know if he had been excluded from the thing," Kallam said, struggling to tell this part of the story. Helling was supposed to be waiting in a safe place. He thought maybe Helling skied his way out and was above him. He turned on his avalanche beacon but picked up no signal from Helling's, probably because he was too far away.
Kallam tried to walk uphill but his damaged right knee would support no weight. It just went in all directions. Probably ligaments and tendons tore. He assembled his snow shovel to use for a crutch but he still couldn't walk.
"I was really, really adrenalined out and wanted to get to him," Kallam said. "I finally had to throw in the towel."
He activated his personal locator beacon to let authorities know he needed help. He worried another slab would release, so he slid down the mountain to a safer spot.
RESCUE AND RECOVERY
As it turned out, all that sliding snow funneled into a narrow gully and caught Helling there, lower on the mountain, Orley said. One man was just luckier than the other, he said.
Some other backcountry skiers, including a doctor, saw the avalanche and came to help. Kallam told them to dig for his friend. They used their beacons and found the general area. They dug and dug but didn't reach Helling on Saturday.
Alaska State Troopers launched Helo 1 and dropped off supplies including a blanket and a communications radio for Kallam. The helicopter couldn't land on the steep spot where he was but could do so farther down the mountain, near where Helling was buried, troopers said.
Troopers, a Mat-Su Borough crew, an Alaska state park ranger and Alaska Mountain Rescue Group all were trying to help Saturday night.
The avalanche danger was still high. The group had to clear out before the Alaska Air National Guard 210th Rescue Squadron flew in just after 8:15 p.m. on an HH-60, which has hoist capabilities.
The goal at that point was to rescue the injured man, said Dan Amyot, the district chief ranger for the Matanuska/ Copper Basin park district, which includes the Hatcher Pass management area.
The helicopter lifted Kallam off the mountain Saturday evening. He was taken to Mat-Su Regional Hospital and was released Saturday night.
The window for survival in an avalanche is small, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, Amyot said. The chance of finding Helling alive three hours after the fact was "minimal at best."
By 9:15 or so, with the dark settling in, the rescue was called off for the night.
By 7:30 a.m. Sunday, the crews were back at it. Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs was involved. So was the Anchorage Nordic Ski Patrol. Many people were digging and they found him around 9:45 a.m.
Helling's avalanche beacon was essential to finding him, and the dogs pinpointed the location further, Orley said.
Kallam is struggling to absorb it all. His knee is wrecked but that seems like nothing.
He is thinking of Helling, who leaves behind a wife, Elaine, and grown daughter, Heidi.
"He is a gem of a guy," Kallam said.
Helling was always ready to go, always eyeing the next peak. The two men talked about skiing Mount Spur this spring, if the snow held out.
"There will never be another day like this one," Helling liked to say.