Climbers recover boy's body from glacier

Dan Joling | Associated Press
View looking down the hole in Gulkana Glacier at the snowmachine that a 9-year-old boy was driving when his disappeared on Saturday, April 13, 2013.
Photo courtesy Dr. Jeff Baurick
The 9-year-old snowmachiner was traveling in this valley. The accident site is located in the upper left, middle of photo, according to Bryan Roerick.
Bryan Roerick
View looking up the hole in Gulkana Glacier where a 9-year-old boy disappeared while snowmobiling with his father on Saturday, April 13, 2013.
Photo courtesy Dr. Jeff Baurick
View of the hole in Gulkana Glacier where a 9-year-old boy disappeared while snowmobiling with his father on Saturday, April 13, 2013.
Photo courtesy Dr. Jeff Baurick

Soldiers from the Army's Alaska Northern Warfare Training Center helped recover the body of a 9-year-old boy whose snowmachine fell an estimated 200 feet into a glacier hole.

A recovery team Sunday night and Monday morning lifted the body of Shjon Brown from the glacier in the Hoodoo Mountains.

They reached an Alaska State Trooper command center set up at the site of the Arctic Man Classic, a race involving snowmobiles and either skiers or snowboarders, at 12:40 a.m. Monday, said trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters.

The boy Saturday afternoon was on a snowmobile outing with his father and others in the mountains south of Delta Junction.

They were riding about five miles northwest of the site of the Arctic Man event, in which a skier descends a run, grabs a tow line pulled by a snowmobile, ascends a second hill and skis down to the finish line.

As his father took a break on the side of a hill, Shjon drove around a small mound and did not reappear.

His father traced the boy's tracks and discovered that he had fallen through a moulin, a hole formed when water on the glacier's surface melts ice to form a cavern below.

An Alaska Regional Hospital emergency room doctor, Jeff Baurick, first reached the bottom of the hole on Saturday, working with climbers from the North America Outdoor Institute and using some makeshift equipment. Baurick, who turned 50 on Monday, said in an interview Monday that he has been climbing since he was a teenager. He fell into a crevasse while climbing Mount McKinley in 1997 roped to two other climbers. So he knew how hard it was to get out of one. He was in the area near Arctic Man skiing on Saturday afternoon when someone flagged him down to see if he could help rescue the child. He made a makeshift harness, tied himself off and looked down.

"This was a very intimidating hole," Baurick said. "It might be the most intimidating hole I ever looked in." He initially thought it was 200 feet deep, but it turned out to be more in the range of 120 feet, he said. He took a picture with his phone. In the dark bottom, he thought he saw an unconscious child.

Initial reports said he then skied back to the Arctic Man camp to get gear and help but he said he snowmachined there and back to the hole.

He and climber Bryan Roerick made a rope ladder and tied climbing knots to use later in his ascent.

"With that preparation, I thought I could get out again and I rappelled to the bottom. When I got to the bottom I realized what I had seen was not the boy but was the snowmachine," Roerick said.

The child's helmet and goggles were at the front of the snowmachine and didn't look heavily damaged. Neither did the machine itself.

He dug and used a probe but couldn't find the boy.

Had he known what he saw was the snowmachine and not the child, would he still have done such a risky climb deep into a glacier?

"We had to go down," Baurick said. "Because for nothing else, for the father. To have him thinking that his son was down there suffering, was too much."

And he knew they had to act fast to have any hope of saving the child. But while he was digging, he realized the child couldn't still be alive. He urged the recovery attempt halt for the night.

He struggled to get out the hole himself. His rope had dug into the ice at the top despite positioning his skis there to prevent that.

"I got to a point where I was about 3 feet below the surface, and I wasn't making any headway," Baurick said. "It's so hard to get over that lip." Other climbers had arrived by then and passed him another rope, which he clipped into his harness.

"And then they pulled me up the last bit."

Peters said a recovery team returned Sunday with 12 soldiers from the northern center, a civilian climbing expert, two wildlife troopers and the boy's father.

"They brought with them tents, saws, ropes, lights, heaters, generators, miscellaneous equipment, plenty of food and water," she said.

The climbers found Shjon's body buried in 6 to 8 feet of snow beneath his snowmobile.

Army officials did not immediately return phone calls Monday.

The Northern Warfare Training Center is based at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks and conducts training at the Black Rapids Training Site about 30 miles south of Delta Junction. The center trains soldiers to fight in cold weather and mountain environments.

Peters said it was not out of the ordinary for a 9-year-old to be riding a snowmobile in Alaska. In rural communities, children grow up riding snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles as a primary source of transportation and many Alaska children ride recreationally.

"It's a way of life around here," she said. "Hopefully they're raised to wear helmets when they do it."

The accident Saturday happened when the boy was being supervised by his father.

"A grown man could have just as easily driven into the hole," she said. "It's just tragic."


Daily News reporter Lisa Demer contributed to this story.




Associated Press