Alaska News

Search suspended, memorials held for backcountry skier missing at Hatcher Pass

Backcountry searches gave way this month to memorial services for Liam Walsh, the 33-year-old skier and doctor who went missing at Hatcher Pass in late November.

Walsh is presumed dead in an avalanche. Several days of aerial searching, hampered by high avalanche danger in the pass, turned up no sign of him after he went skiing alone and was last heard from at the Independence Mine parking lot Nov. 22, just before a major storm and avalanche cycle.

A large snow slide closed the road to the pass for more than a week, preventing any ground searching.

A coordinated ground search was planned for Dec. 17 through 20 by Alaska State Troopers, Alaska State Parks, Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs, troopers say. But continued avalanche hazard in the search area prompted an incident management team to suspend winter search efforts.

The team will resume search efforts when avalanche hazards in several areas accessible from the Independence Mine parking lot are eliminated, troopers said in a release Wednesday.

Walsh, described by friends and family as an experienced backcountry skier who first got on the slopes as a 3-year-old, was believed to have been wearing an avalanche transceiver.

Walsh grew up in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. His family held a celebration of life Sunday at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, according to an obituary that ran in the local paper last week. They asked donations be made either to the American Diabetes Association or to the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center "in the hope that Alaska's avalanche control capabilities can be brought into the 21st century."


For the last year, Walsh had worked as a pain medicine specialist at Algone Interventional Pain Clinic in Wasilla. That's where Tammy Rhein met him. Rhein, 47, suffers from arthritis in her back. She was out of state until last week, when she visited Algone for a follow-up appointment with Walsh and was told he was gone.

The office held a private memorial -- a bonfire -- in the beginning of December.

This week, Rhein said Walsh brought a businesslike demeanor softened by a sense of humor to his practice. She called him a phenomenal pain doctor whose youth and disdain for "pushing drugs all the time" made him stand out.

"He was just funny and smart and to the point," Rhein said.

Walsh, an avid skier, was a serious athlete as well as a scholar. He played varsity soccer at State University of New York at New Paltz until he transferred to SUNY Albany to assist in genetic research, according to his obituary. He took a year off between his undergraduate and medical studies to live in New York City and ski Utah, "among other adventures."

Walsh competed in the U.S. Freeskiing Championship in Utah, barely missing the finals, his family wrote. He was on crutches when he received his M.D. diploma from SUNY Downstate College of Medicine -- at Carnegie Hall -- because he broke his leg "hucking a cliff" at Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire just before the ceremony.

Walsh completed a four-year anesthesiology residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and then was selected for a yearlong fellowship in pain medicine.

At that point, he had many employment opportunities to choose from, his family wrote. The "opportunity for adventure" was behind his choice of Algone. Walsh drove to Alaska with his father last year.

Walsh lived life to the fullest, said Kira Boyd, the practice administrator and a friend of Walsh's.

"Everybody loved Liam. He was just very outgoing, always happy, just somebody that you couldn't help but like," Boyd said. "He will never be replaced and it will be very difficult to even partially fill his shoes here, on both a personal and a staff level."

Walsh helped create a part-time clinic in Juneau while he worked in Wasilla. He had been offered a full partnership at Algone, joining three other physicians. His partnership was scheduled to begin Jan 1.

Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at