HAINES — A 38-year-old man was released from a Juneau hospital on Tuesday after being mauled by a brown bear during a backcountry ski outing near Haines last week.
Bart Pieciul’s ski partners, Graham Kraft and Jeff Moskowitz, were skinning up the mountainside above the Glory Hole Road — above Chilkoot Lake — when the trio unknowingly disturbed a bear den at about 1,600 feet elevation at around 12:30 p.m. Saturday. Kraft was above Pieciul when he heard his partners yelling about bears.
Kraft said the mauling lasted about a minute and that Pieciul played dead, which likely caused the bear to leave.
“We had the InReach out of the bag before we even got to him. I followed a trail of broken ski poles and blood to find Bart in a clump and thankfully no bear in sight. As soon as he played dead, Bart said the bear took off,” Kraft said.
All three skiers, highly experienced in the backcountry, travel with plenty of safety gear, including a Garmin InReach they used to send out an SOS and alert friends of the emergency. Moskowitz had a space blanket, warm water, bivy sack, sleeping pad, extra down layers and jackets and a first aid kit.
“He just kept pulling stuff out of his bag,” Kraft said. “It was like a clown car.”
Kraft said Pieciul’s arm was broken and he had puncture wounds in his clothes and body. Kraft made a splint from Pieciul’s backpack for his broken arm and assessed his bleeding. They then focused on keeping Pieciul warm by piling layers on him and lying next to him to provide extra warmth.
“He was getting colder and colder but staying really positive. He was in a lot of pain. The first half hour was the most stressful, just wondering if he was going to stay with us,” Kraft said. “Once it became clear he wasn’t going to die immediately we just started telling stories trying to keep it positive, keep him comfortable, keep him warm. He was wet and cold.”
A crew on a Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter arrived at around 3:30 p.m. and hoisted Pieciul off the mountainside.
“The other two members in the patient’s skiing party had the proper equipment and knowledge to assist with his injuries and communicate for help in 15-degree temperatures with sunset approaching,” said Lt. Cmdr. Will Sirokman, co-pilot for the case. “Their satellite communication device provided the precise GPS coordinates and elevation of their location. Equally important, they had brightly colored fabric to signal the helicopter as we approached. This was absolutely crucial to us finding them in a timely manner.”
Kraft created a GoFundMe account, “Bart got bit by a bear,” which on Wednesday raised more than $32,000 for medical expenses. Pieciul, who doesn’t have health insurance, had surgery on his broken arm and will need to have a second surgery to remove metal pins that doctors put in his arm, Kraft said.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Carl Koch said it’s a common misconception that bears “sleep” all winter long. “Bears go into a state of torpor and that’s not the same as true hibernation,” Koch said. “They can get very lethargic and stay in the den all winter. Other times they can exit the den and go back inside. Obviously, they’re capable of being disturbed and can arouse more quickly than true hibernators will.”
Bears typically den on slopes at moderate elevation in smooth, well-drained topography that promote vegetation and deep snow — common backcountry skiing terrain. Den locations range between 1,350 to 3,800 feet in the Chilkat Valley, Fish and Game biologist Anthony Crupi said, with average elevation at 2,500 feet.
Koch said bear spray can still work in lower temperatures, but has a shorter range.
Pieciul was unavailable for comment by press time.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Bart Pieciul’s age. He is 38 years old.