At least four people witnessed an avalanche that killed a Fairbanks woman who was heli-skiing on Saturday near the Matanuska Glacier, said a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers.
Erin Lee, 40, was rescued from the avalanche and brought to the Mat-Su Regional Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Lee was part of a group heli-skiing that day on a mountain about 7½ miles from the Glenn Highway east of the Matanuska Glacier, said Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the troopers. It wasn’t immediately clear which mountain the avalanche occurred on because troopers have not visited the exact site, said McDaniel, who noted that another group was heli-skiing in roughly the same area Saturday.
Lee was one of four guests in the Majestic Heli Ski group led by one guide that afternoon.
Majestic Heli Ski is based near Mile 115 of the Glenn Highway, about halfway between Palmer and Glennallen. The heli-ski company offers all-inclusive packages that include heli-skiing or boarding in the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains, according to their website. Majestic Heli Ski did not respond to messages for this story.
Two skiers and a guide were at the base of the mountain after finishing a run when Lee began skiing and an avalanche was triggered, McDaniel said. One other skier was at the top of the mountain. All four in the group saw the slide bury Lee, McDaniel said. No other skiers were caught in the avalanche and there were no other injuries, according to McDaniel.
Lee was equipped with a full set of avalanche safety gear, including an avalanche beacon, rescue probe, shovel, harness and avalanche airbag system, McDaniel said. Lee did not deploy the avalanche airbag system during the avalanche, he said.
All of the skiers in the group were equipped with similar safety gear and the guide had additional communication equipment, McDaniel said. According to the company’s website, all Majestic Heli Ski clients undergo safety training about hazards and how to use the safety or rescue gear.
“Based on our investigation, it sounds like witnesses, including the guide, were able to follow what was occurring and they were able to go right to the area and utilize any of the beacon technology,” McDaniel said.
Lee was recovered by the group and flown to the hospital in the Majestic Heli Ski helicopter. It was not clear exactly how long Lee may have been buried, but McDaniel said about an hour had passed from the time the avalanche was triggered to the time Lee reached the hospital.
Troopers were notified of the avalanche around 2 p.m. and a trooper from the Glennallen area responded to a nearby lodge to talk with witnesses, McDaniel said.
When avalanches occur, troopers routinely work alongside local rescue groups, military organizations, state park officials, the Department of Natural Resources and avalanche centers to perform rescues or piece together the details of what happened. Often, in-depth reports are conducted in the days following by experts at the avalanche centers to determine what may have triggered an avalanche.
It’s not clear what triggered Saturday’s avalanche and McDaniel said there is not currently a plan to investigate that.
“The availability of having witnesses see what happened is key in us making the decision on trying to track down an avalanche specialist to go out there and determine a little bit more closely what had happened,” McDaniel said.
The area where this avalanche occurred falls outside the direct forecast zones for the Hatcher Pass and Chugach National Forest avalanche centers. A forecast from the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center, which covers an area about 60 miles west of the area where the avalanche occurred, categorized the likelihood for an avalanche on Saturday as considerable at all elevations.
New snow fell in much of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough last week, which caused some instability for avalanche conditions in the Hatcher Pass area. Numerous natural, human and remotely triggered avalanches were reported Friday, including one that crossed and closed a road, the avalanche center wrote.
Guides at Majestic Heli Ski “continuously gather data and evidence, take field observations, perform snowpack tests, monitor weather conditions and evaluate and forecast the snow stability and the avalanche hazard,” the company’s website said.
All backcountry recreating has risks, McDaniel said, but avalanche deaths are typically a less common occurrence. Lee was the fourth person in Alaska to die after being involved in an avalanche this season. In early February, three climbers died when an avalanche occurred on a steep and challenging route of Bear Mountain near Chugiak.
This winter, 36 people have died in avalanches across the country, marking one of the highest numbers of fatalities in a single season in recent years. In a statement earlier this month, an avalanche forecaster at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center attributed much of the danger to unstable snowpack conditions in the Lower 48 that were much worse than in Alaska. An increase in outdoor recreation may also be contributing to the higher number of fatalities, the forecaster wrote.
Five men died Saturday during a heli-skiing trip when their helicopter crashed near the top of a high ridge above the Knik Glacier in the Chugach Mountains southeast of Palmer. One man survived the crash but was in serious condition. The group consisted of the pilot, three guests and two guides from Tordrillo Mountain Lodge.
McDaniel said he and other officials with the state troopers could not recall any deaths other than the six Saturday that were related to heli-skiing in recent years. A Southeast Alaska Backcountry Skiing Adventures heli-ski guide was buried in an avalanche near Haines in 2014, and eventually died, following the death of another guide from the same company on a Haines-area heli-ski trip in 2013. An avalanche near Haines killed an Alaska Heliskiing company guide and a snowboarder in 2012.