An injured backcountry skier was rescued by helicopter in the Girdwood area this week after an avalanche swept him up to 1,000 feet down a steep mountain slope.
The skier was descending along the north to northwest aspect of an area called Big League, in the Virgin Creek drainage near Mount Alyeska, when he triggered the slide Wednesday afternoon, according to a firsthand account of the incident posted to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center website by another member of his group.
The skier was the third person in the group to ride down the slope. He was about halfway down the run and had veered away slightly from where his companions had skied when the slope broke about 30 feet above him, according to the post.
He was swept away by the avalanche, which carried him around 1,000 feet “over multiple cliff bands,” the friend wrote.
“We immediately lost sight of the skier after he triggered the slide,” they wrote in their account. “Once the debris stopped we quickly found him partially buried near the toe of the debris.”
Once his companions were able to partially dig him out, “it was clear he had a femur fracture,” the friend wrote. A local ski guide who happened to be in the area came over to the group and helped administer aid, according to the post.
The group used a satellite communication device to request assistance, which triggered a call to Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center just after 4 p.m. A crew from the Alaska Army National Guard’s 2-211th General Support Aviation Battalion accepted the mission and left Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in an HH-60M Black Hawk.
The helicopter crew located the skier around 5:50 p.m., loaded him into a litter to hoist up into the helicopter and brought him to an Anchorage hospital to be treated for his injuries, which troopers described as serious.
Alaska National Guard spokesman Alan Brown said that the skier was in stable condition as of Thursday morning.
“Overall this was a very spooky experience,” the skier’s friend wrote, adding that the group felt fortunate that the repercussions weren’t more serious. The crown of the avalanche was 3 to 4 feet deep in spots, they said.
Chugach National Forest avalanche forecaster John Sykes wrote in Thursday’s forecast that the slide “was definitely unexpected from our perspective,” and recommended “conservative terrain selection if you are seeking out dry snow on high elevation north aspects.”
Sykes also described the potential for human-triggered avalanches to release on deeply buried weak layers of snow, which can be difficult to assess using snow pit stability tests.
Wednesday’s slide occurred at a time when avalanche forecasters in the region are also cautioning backcountry skiers and snowboarders about the potential for warming weather to increase avalanche risk.
In an email Thursday, Wendy Wagner, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, noted that “this time of year, with the long warm days, there can be large avalanches that break in old weak layers.”
She said that warm weather in the forecast for Friday “only makes matters worse. On slopes facing the sun we are expecting a different kind of avalanche, wet avalanches, tomorrow afternoon in the heat of the day, which peaks between 3 and 6 p.m.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Alan Brown is a spokesman for the Alaska National Guard, not U.S. Army Alaska.