Experts say hikers prepared but bear attack was unavoidable

OTHER EXPERTS AGREE: Teens were well aware of inherent risks.

July 26, 2011 

The four young students who were mauled by a grizzly in the Alaska wilderness were well prepared in their survival training but could not have avoided the encounter, outdoors experts said Tuesday.

"I would call this incident a lightning bolt. It's something that is highly unusual. It's highly unfortunate, and they happened to be in a situation -- it sounds like -- with certain elements beyond their control," said Bill Mohrwinkel, co-owner of Fairbanks-based Arctic Wild and a former field instructor for National Outdoor Leadership School.

The teens were nearing the end of a 30-day survival course with the Lander, Wyo.-based school when they suddenly came upon the bear near a river crossing on Saturday. The students, who were rescued early Sunday, were at a stage where they could try their skills without instructors.

The school preaches safety to all those who go on such wilderness excursions, and instructors teach about the inherent risks of being in the wild, said Bruce Palmer, a spokesman for the organization that runs programs for teens and adults in 19 locations worldwide.

"We, I believe, do an exemplary job of letting people know what the risk is like," Palmer said. "Then we ask people either to accept that or not accept that. You know, no one has to do a NOLS course."

Since the organization was founded in 1965, 11 students have died, according to Palmer. The last was in 1999, when a teenager apparently fell down a deep hole in Alaska's Matanuska Glacier.

Another death occurred in Alaska in 1971 when a student fell during an expedition on Mount McKinley. NOLS participants killed outside Alaska include a student caught in an avalanche and one who fell and hit her head during a river crossing, both in Wyoming.

In an average year, about 200 students are injured, mostly sprains and injuries treated in the field by instructors, Palmer said. Last year, a similar number of injuries were reported among 3,000 students enrolled in courses, which range from 10 to 135 days long.

None of the deaths involving NOLS students were caused by animal encounters, Palmer said. Students, however, have been injured by animals, including attacks by a black bear in Utah and a hyena in Kenya.

He said no personal injury lawsuits filed against the school have succeeded. At least one lawsuit is pending.

Many in the outdoors industry said the organization has an excellent reputation for its skills training.

"The students that come out of their courses have certainly learned significant technical skills," said Steve Matous with the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colo. "I can't speak specifically about working with bears or being in the backcountry in Alaska, but I'm speaking generally in terms of their reputation as an organization. It's very good. High quality staff. High quality organization."

Mohrwinkel said NOLS has an impeccable safety record. With their intensive training, the students who were attacked were more prepared than many people who travel in the Alaska's backcountry, he said.

The students said they were calling out to alert bears to their presence, but their voices might have been muffled by the river or a rock outcropping.

The students did not have guns with them, because NOLS risk managers believe bear spray is the best way to guard against such an attack, Palmer said.

"To expect someone to shoot a charging bear with one bullet is asking quite a bit," he said. "Bear spray puts out a fog that's much more likely to hit a target."

Guns can give a person a false sense of security, said Mohrwinkel, the Alaska wilderness guide. His company's excursions often take a shotgun, but he tells his clients a gun should be a last resort.

Alaska authorities said there are no plans to hunt down the grizzly because of the remote location in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage and the likelihood it was a mother protecting a cub.

The condition of the most seriously injured teen -- Joshua Berg, 17, of New City, N.Y. -- has been upgraded to fair from serious at Providence Alaska Medical Center. A hospital spokeswoman said 17-year-old Sam Gottsegen of Denver remained in good condition.

Noah Allaire, 16, of Albuquerque, N.M., and Victor Martin, 18, of Richmond, Calif., have been released from a hospital.

Sixteen-year-old Sam Boas of Westport, Conn., who was with the group but not injured, said the experience will not stop him from returning to the wilderness.

"I don't think that should impede others who wish for adventure and for the wilderness," he said. "It's great."


Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report from Palmer.

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