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Anchorage man critical after 1,000-foot tumble down Ptarmigan Peak snowfield

Craig Medred
Wendy Seltzer / flickr

 

Four days after taking a nasty fall in the Chugach Mountains at the doorstep of Alaska's largest city, an Anchorage attorney remained in the critical care unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center on Monday, the latest victim of a winter of record snow. Alaska State Troopers reported 62-year-old Jan Ostrovosky slid almost 1,000 feet down a snowfield on the south side of Ptarmigan Peak before crashing into rocks late last week.

He was on the opposite side of the mountain where the worst accident in the history of the half-million-acre state park took place on June 29, 1997. That day, a student in a University of Alaska Anchorage climbing class slipped near the top of the mountain and started a deadly chain reaction. His fall pulled three climbing companions off their feet. As they tumbled down the north col, they took out three more rope teams.

Fourteen people ended up tumbling down the snow slope into the rocks below. Two died. Eleven others were seriously injured. But for the efforts of the famed Alaska Air National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron and volunteers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, there might have been more dead. The university tried to whitewash the accident in the immediate aftermath, but eventually conceded the instructors leading the climb had made fundamental mountaineering errors.

Investigators noted it was particularly dangerous for students to be climbing together roped without the placement of protection to anchor the rope team if someone fell.

Fingers of snow

Ostrovosky was reportedly climbing unroped. He thus had no protection when he slipped, but his fall also posed no threat to at least two companions who were with him. They were the ones who summoned help. The group was apparently lured up the mountain by smooth fingers of snow that now offer tantalizingly easy access to many peaks in the Front Range of the Chugach Mountains.

The rocky couloirs on both the north and south sides of 4,911-foot Ptarmigan remain buried in snow. Because of the heavy snow winter, the rough and rotten rock that can make off trail hiking and scrambling difficult remains buried in many places. Snow offers a more convenient route up and down many a peak, but danger lurks as well, according to Chugach State Park rangers who've found themselves busy on an almost-daily basis with snow-related accidents.

Flattop Mountain -- a distinct, 3,510-foot summit about two miles northwest of Ptarmigan -- has become not only the most climbed mountain in the state but also the one that sees the most falls. A large snowfield along the trail to the summit has become an enticing trap for many. Tempted into sliding down on the snow, people start off slowly, quickly accelerate and find themselves rocketing toward rocks. In mid-June, chief park ranger Matt Wedeking observed it was only by luck there had as yet been no one seriously injured sliding on the late-season snow in the Front Range.

That changed with the accident on Ptarmigan. Troopers reported Ostrovosky was lifted off the mountain by helicopter with "possible life threatening'' injuries after his tumble. His daughter said Monday that he is in "stable" condition at Providence. She didn't want to talk about the accident any further.  Ostrovsky is the clerk for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Anchorage. Co-workers said they were hoping for his full recovery.

Details on what happened Thursday were a little sketchy, but it appears Ostrovsky hit a patch of ice near the top of a snowfield on the south side of the peak, slipped and then took off tumbling down slope. Experienced climbers note that a slip on steep ice above a snowfield can accelerate into a dangerous, potentially deadly, fall in milliseconds. It is unclear whether Ostrovosky was equipped with an ice ax that can help climbers control a slide, but hikers who met other members of Ostrovosky’s party on the Rabbit Creek Trail to the base of the peak said at least one of them carried an ax. 

Helicopters commonplace

Ostrovosky's hiking companions told that hiker that "they were almost to the top when he slipped on the snow and banged his head up.'' The hiker said she heard the whump-whump-whump of helicopters in the area as she headed up the trail to Rabbit Lake, but didn't pay all that much attention to them.

"This year, you're hearing helicopters all the time,'' she said. The sound of whirling rotor blades tells the tale of what has been happening.

There were at least three helicopter rescues in and around Flattop in the last week. Ranger Tom Crockett, the longest serving Chugach ranger, said rescues in the area have unfortunately become a normal and regular thing. The park's Glen Alps trailhead at the base of Flattop above Anchorage now attracts approximately 130,000 visitors a year. Many of them are physically or physiologically ill-equipped to climb any mountain. But some decide to try climbing one of the nearby peaks anyway.

Things go wrong, and a helicopter is called. On Saturday, 43-year-old Penelope Emnacon-Jones from Florida was part way up the trail to Flattop when she sat down to rest and got up to find her knee wouldn't work anymore. "This was not really a traumatic thing,'' Crockett said. "Her knee just sort of unhinged.'' A LifeMed helicopter from Providence was able to pick fly in, pick her up and take her to the hospital.

Three days earlier, the state trooper helicopter helped rescue Melanie Marasigan, 19, and Mariah Sega, 20. The two Anchorage women fell several feet into a crack in the snow while sliding down Flattop. Marasigan was able to climb out of the hole, but the troopers had to call in an Air Guard Pavehawk helicopter with a hoist to get Sega. 

Elite paramedics

The Air Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron is one of the U.S. military's most elite units. The pilots and pararescue specialists of the squadron train to go behind enemy lines to rescue pilots downed in combat. Trained paramedics, as well as professional soldiers, the PJs practice their medical skills by performing rescues throughout the 49th state. They were the men called to save Ostrovosky.

Crockett said he was on the Powerline Pass side of Ptarmigan on a four-wheeler when he heard the Guard's Pavehawk fly up the north couloir of the peak to begin its search for Ostrovsky. In a matter of minutes once on the scene, the PJs stabilized the patient, loaded him in a helicopter and had him on his way to the hospital.

Other hikers who were out in the Chugach on Thursday noted the peculiar danger of some snowfields. Although the day was warm and sunny, they said, there were still some bands of ice around the edges of most snowfields. A couple veteran hikers reported taking falls after slipping on unexpected ice. Both were equipped with ice axes and -- just as importantly -- trained in how to use them. They managed to stop their slides almost before they began. But they were reminded of the dangers of those white paths that seem to offer such an easy routes to the tops of many peaks.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com