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A 9-year-old Fairbanks boy was snowmachining with his father Saturday afternoon on a glacier near the Arctic Man event when he fell into a hole estimated to be 150 feet deep and was believed lost under the snow, Alaska State Troopers said Sunday.
Troopers identified the child as Sjohn Brown and said he was presumed dead.
An emergency room doctor with climbing experience was lowered into the hole, and dug for about two hours, but couldn't find him, other rescuers said.
Around 3:30 p.m. Saturday, troopers were notified of a snowmachine accident in a mountainous area about five miles northwest of Arctic Man on Gulkana Glacier. The Tesoro Arctic Man Classic, including competitions with snowmachine riders towing skiers and snowboarders, takes place in The Hoodoos at Summit Lake near Paxson. The event draws a big snowmachining crowd.
The child was riding on a "regular" snowmachine and was being supervised by his father with other riders around, troopers said. The father was watching from a hill as his child rode around a small mound. The boy did not reappear.
His father found that he had gone into the hole, troopers said. Troopers said the child was wearing a helmet and goggles that were located, though it was unclear where precisely.
The hole is known as a moulin, a round shaft that forms where melting water drains into the glacier. Such holes can be hard to spot in white vastness, said Debra McGhan, executive director of the North America Outdoor Institute, which had a safety educational station at Arctic Man.
McGhan went out cross-country skiing earlier on Saturday and spotted holes like the one that swallowed the child. Troopers originally said he had fallen into a crevasse, which is more of a long jagged break in the glacier, then described it as a moulin.
"They are basically a depression in the snow. You are going along. Everything is white. There's trails everywhere. Because there's hundreds, literally thousands, of snowmachines everywhere in this valley. So the tracks go everywhere," McGhan said. "From one angle, you cannot even see (the holes). But when you get beside it or behind it, all of a sudden you see where the snow rolls over and it just disappears into these holes."
Alaska backcountry experts say it's always risky to ride snowmachines on glaciers. Climbers will rope together to cross a glacier so that if one falls in a crevasse or a moulin, another can serve as an anchor. But that safety measure doesn't work for snowmachines, said Bryan Roerick, an instructor at North America Outdoor Institute who helped lead the rescue attempt.
"You are taking a very high level of risk to ride your snowmachine on a glacier," Roerick said. "There's not a great way to avoid those types of hazards on a glacier, other than education and experience."
Efforts to find and extract the child were continuing Sunday, troopers said.
DOCTOR LOWERED INTO HOLE
An Alaska Regional Hospital emergency room doctor and mountain climber was also out skiing in the area on Saturday. Troopers were unable to provide his name, and his identity couldn't be confirmed on Sunday.
The doctor got to the hole after the snowmachine went in but didn't have climbing gear with him so rushed back to the Arctic Man camp on skis to get help, McGhan said.
He met up with the North America Outdoor Institute group and snowmachined back to the hole, as did Roerick, who is also a mountain guide and paramedic.
The hole into the packed snow and ice was funnel shaped, maybe 20 to 30 feet wide at the top and half that at the bottom, Roerick said. It was about 150 feet deep, nearly straight down.
The team engineered an anchoring system by hooking climbing rope onto three snowmachines. Roerick stayed on the glacier, harnessed to the anchors, while the doctor, who had more climbing experience, was lowered down into the hole. They used the doctor's skis to keep the main climbing rope from becoming embedded into the edge of the hole.
Some people reported seeing the unconscious child at the bottom of the hole, but it was probably part of the snowmachine sticking up through the snow, Roerick said.
A CHILD CRASHES
The snowmachine's path into the abyss was visible. "You could see the tracks," he said. "Apparently they were coming from above."
The boy couldn't have seen the hole in time, Roerick said.
"He slammed into the other side of it and broke off a pretty big chunk of snow with him as he fell down," he said.
The falling snow became compacted and hard as rock at the bottom of the hole. The doctor got to the snowmachine and dug under it with a shovel, but there was almost no place to put the snow at the narrow bottom. Then he used an avalanche probe more than 6 feet long to check for the child. But he couldn't find him.
Around 6 p.m., authorities called off the search for the night.
"He had dug as much as he could dig and moved snow. He had probed and he had done pretty much about everything he could physically do down in that hole to recover that child," Roerick said. The doctor used a climbing device called an ascender to work his way out of the hole.
The boy's father thanked everyone. Roerick hugged him.
The U.S. Army also sent rescue personnel from the Northern Warfare Training Center at Fort Wainwright. They train at Black Rapids, south of Delta Junction.
Troopers kept the scene secure and kept other people from falling in.
Around 10 p.m. on Sunday, Peters said work at the scene was still continuing.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.