Alaska News

‘Local legend’ Valdez heli-ski guide killed by avalanche in Chugach Mountains

A well-known Valdez heli-ski guide died Monday in an avalanche, one of several dangerous slides to occur recently in the Chugach Mountains amid an active spring season.

Guide Michael Hamilton, 46, was identified by Alaska State Troopers on Thursday.

The Valdez Avalanche Center described Hamilton as a local legend and said his death left a “huge hole in the community.” He worked at Valdez Heli-Ski Guides.

Hamilton was guiding Monday and scouting a run for guests before 6 p.m. when he “inadvertently triggered an avalanche that carried him approximately 1,500 feet down the mountain and over a steep cliff,” troopers wrote in a statement. Hamilton deployed his avalanche airbag system and carried avalanche equipment.

He wasn’t buried in the slide, Valdez Heli-Ski Guides wrote in a social media post, but suffered traumatic injuries that resulted in his death.

He was unconscious when he was rescued by the heli-ski helicopter, troopers wrote, and brought to the Valdez hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The avalanche happened at about 5,800 feet on a northwest slope in the Pencil Glacier, according to a brief account from the Valdez Avalanche Center. The glacier is located about 35 miles southeast of Valdez. The center described the avalanche as a human-triggered storm slab near the ridgeline.

An online fundraiser started to support Hamilton’s wife Sunny — the “love of his life” — had raised nearly $134,000 by Thursday afternoon. A description on the site said Hamilton “lived life on his own terms 100% of the time. He was real, authentic. If you knew Mike, then you KNEW Mike. There was no pretension. No posturing. His honesty, love, and strength were startling, humbling, and inspiring.”

Hamilton’s outsized pursuits took him to mountains and rivers all over the world, including Argentina, Chile and Turkey.

An article published by Ski magazine in January 2021 reported that Hamilton started guiding out of the Valdez area in 2006 and “has more firsthand knowledge of these mountains than any other guide still working.”

A representative for Valdez Heli-Ski Guides declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday.

Avalanche conditions in much of Southcentral Alaska and the Copper River Basin have been increasingly dangerous this week as rising temperatures begin to melt the snow’s surface crust, making the snowpack unstable.

Several avalanches in recent days have involved people.

Two snowboarders were injured Tuesday when their group of three triggered an avalanche near Worthington Glacier in Thompson Pass, according to troopers.

The snowboarders were “standing on a cornice looking down a snowboard run when the avalanche occurred,” said Austin McDaniel, a state Department of Public Safety spokesman.

Two of the snowboarders were caught in the avalanche and one was partially buried, McDaniel said. They both sustained non-life-threatening injuries, but needed rescue from the mountain.

A large natural glide avalanche released in Turnagain Pass on Sunday and caught two snowmachiners, according to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. One of the riders was mostly buried, but others in the group were able to assist and everyone was safe, the center said.

The Chugach National Forest center on Thursday issued a warning for very dangerous avalanche conditions in Turnagain Pass and said travel in avalanche terrain was not recommended.

The spring “shed cycle” is so active now that it’s challenging to track how old individual avalanches are because so many new ones are coming down each day, according to forecasters.

Avalanches are occurring predominantly in the afternoon and evening but can happen at any time, Chugach center director Wendy Wagner said Thursday.

This season’s springtime avalanche shed cycle appears to be the biggest in the last decade, Wagner said.

Several recent large wet slab avalanches reported throughout the Chugach are believed to be connected to a buried crust that formed around late October, she said. A warm storm system last week also weakened the snowpack because it added weight and heat.

“And right after that storm, it got sunny,” Wagner said. “The snowpack was already warm from the storm, and that’s when things really start to fall apart.”

Natural avalanches are releasing so frequently that people have been able to catch them on camera, she said, including several in popular backcountry areas where people regularly recreate.

Summer hiking trails, like the Byron Glacier Trail and Crow Pass Trail, are susceptible to avalanches releasing from above even when the trails themselves appear to be clear, Wagner said. “It’s a big concern because we don’t want someone to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Troopers recommended that anyone traveling in the backcountry carry avalanche safety gear, a communication device and appropriate clothing.

“Always check weather and avalanche forecasting before you depart, and tell a trusted friend or family member where you are going and when you will be back,” they wrote.

Wagner said people should especially avoid the mountains during hot afternoons and evenings, and anytime after a spring storm.

“Really being cognizant of those warm days and any springtime stormy weather — I would say that unless you know where you’re going is outside of avalanche paths 100%, I would just avoid being in the mountains altogether,” she said.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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