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Unprepared glissaders sliding down Flattop begging for trouble

Craig Medred
Craig Medred photo

The summer after the winter of record snow has turned Anchorage's Flattop Mountain into the ideal place for Alaska tourists to maim themselves, according to officials with Chugach State Park.

Long the most-popular summit in the 49th state, the 3,510-foot peak named for its easily recognizable shape has over the years been the scene of many accidents. Winter avalanches killed one man and left another in a wheelchair. Falls on the descent of the rocky trail up the north face have killed several others.

And this year there is an especially deceptive attraction -- an unusually large snowfield on Flattop's west side just off the main trail to the summit. The snow has been luring lots of people into sliding down. They usually do so unequipped for a safe glissade. Many slides end with injuries.

There is a safe way to slide down snowfields, be they on Flattop or elsewhere in the Chugach Mountains above the state's largest city. With an ice ax and the knowledge on how to use it -- (see video) -- glissading can be fun and injury free. Without the tools and the knowledge, it's a crap shoot.

Most people sliding on Flattop this year have been lucky, Chugach Chief Ranger Matt Wedeking said. Most have made it down uninjured, even though they don't know that if lacking an ice ax it might at least be a good idea to grab a stout stick or maybe a ski pole with which to try to create some resistance to slow an out-of-control slide.

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Out-of-control slides have a nasty habit of ending badly.

Just ask 51-year-old Marc Sierra from Buckhead, Tenn. He had to be hoisted off the side of the mountain by helicopter last Wednesday after his fun, little slide down the snow ended with his leg all busted up. Wedeking was one of those on the mountain helping Sierra and his wife after the accident.

People "were sliding by us as we were dealing with the guy," he said. "It's that's the time of year. Everybody's up there doing it. From talking to this couple, they were watching a bunch of nuns in full habits sliding down.

"They figured, 'If they can do it, well, we can do it.' "

Anyone can. The sliding part is easy. The slope is steep and slick. It's the stopping part that causes problems.

"We had an ankle injury the week before this," Wedeking said, "and while we were up there (Wednesday) there was another knee injury that walked out."

So far, he said, it's only luck that has prevented worse, because the judgment of hikers heading up Flattop is notoriously poor.

"People go up Flattop in flip-flops," Wedeking said. "I'm not sure many of them are quite equipped for it."

The most climbed peak in Alaska, it would appear, is also the least respected. People seem unaware it can kill, but it has -- and from the way things are going, it could do so again.

Rangers are keeping their fingers crossed that the area doesn't get one of those rare, summer nights when temperatures dip below freezing at higher elevations. Who knows what could happen if the marginally dangerous snowfield on Flattop's west side turned into a really dangerous ice field?

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com