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Friends, family hold out hope for missing Hatcher Pass skier

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 28, 2015

Don Weller had planned to join his friend Liam Walsh backcountry skiing in Hatcher Pass last weekend.

The weather forecast, however, was foreboding. On Nov. 21, after days of heavy snow and wind, the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center issued a warning about extreme avalanche conditions in the pass. Weller didn't have a beacon locator device, and Walsh, an experienced backcountry skier, discouraged his friend from going.

"He (Walsh) knew it was going to be dangerous out there," Weller said in a phone interview Saturday. "To the point that he said, 'Don't go.' "

Weller took the advice. Walsh, meanwhile, decided to ski the pass on his own. It was supposed to be a short run, Weller said: The 33-year-old Wasilla anesthesiologist was planning to fly to New York on Tuesday to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with family.

But Walsh didn't make it back. He was last heard from at 1:34 p.m. Nov. 22 at the Independence Mine parking lot at Hatcher Pass. In the six days since, weather conditions and a lack of clues have frustrated efforts to find him, though friends and family say they're holding out hope.

A weeklong storm cycle has culminated in dangerous avalanche conditions in elevations both north and south of Anchorage. In Hatcher Pass, Walsh's disappearance comes amid what forecasters are describing as one of the worst avalanche cycles seen in the area in about a decade. Allie Barker, forecaster with the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center, said heavy precipitation and rapidly shifting temperatures have created the dangerous combination of weak snow on top of an icy base layer.

On Saturday, for the third time in a week, an Alaska State Troopers helicopter set out to look for Walsh from the sky. Dangling from the helicopter was a special antenna and receiver, borrowed from the Juneau Mountain Rescue group, said Dean Knapp, incident commander with the Alaska Rescue Management Group.

Walsh was believed to have been wearing an avalanche transceiver when he left the parking lot. The equipment was designed to detect it, Knapp said.

The search for Walsh marks the first time in four years the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group has been called out to an avalanche scene, Knapp said. He said people caught in avalanches are usually wearing beacons and are with friends who can locate and dig them out quickly. In this case, Walsh was alone, Knapp said.

Searchers have been challenged by a lack of clues as to Walsh's whereabouts. It's not known which way Walsh headed from the parking lot, and tracks were covered up by fresh snow, Knapp said.

Neither a beacon signal nor any new clues surfaced Saturday, in a flight limited by flat light conditions. The search will continue Sunday, Knapp said.

At this point, a ground search is not planned, said Barker, of the avalanche center. She said search coordinators first need a pinpointed location, and would then need to do mitigation work to clear avalanche hazards.

As efforts to find some sign of Walsh continued, friends and family said they weren't giving up on the hope that Walsh would be found safe. Walsh's father, Robert Walsh, declined comment in a brief phone interview, saying family members were "still waiting for things to develop."

"You look at the odds, and it's tough to beat these odds," a longtime friend, Gary Jones, said in a phone interview from Utah. "But if anybody could do it, I know Liam could."

A native of upstate New York, Dr. Walsh moved to Alaska a little more than a year ago after finishing a medical fellowship at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. He got a job as an anesthesiologist at Algone Interventional Pain Clinic in Wasilla, against the backdrop of Hatcher Pass.

Walsh began skiing at the age of three, Robert Walsh said. Jones said Walsh's passion for backcountry skiing influenced his move to Alaska. He dreamed of someday opening a ski lodge or starting a heli-skiing company, Jones said.

Jones and other friends described Walsh as loyal, adventurous, intelligent and well-liked. And generous: He bought tickets to take his brother and sister-in-law to see the Mets play in the World Series in October, said another friend, Jordan Bancroft.

Bancroft, who has skied frequently with Walsh, said his friend was knowledgeable about avalanche dangers. He said Walsh must have thought he had a handle on the conditions last week.

"He might have thought that, maybe, I'm going to be able to out-ski stuff," Bancroft said.

Knapp, of the mountain rescue group, said the plan is to fly the trooper helicopter as long as the weather stays cooperative. He said the search team is also bringing in a member of the Juneau Mountain Rescue team who is more experienced in operating the aerial beacon-locator equipment.

When Weller didn't hear back from Walsh on Nov. 22, it was a red flag. As much as Weller wants to help search on the ground, he can't yet. An avalanche is blocking Hatcher Pass Road, and barricades have been placed at the base of the canyon. Forecasters are asking people to stay clear of the area.

Even so, the past six days have been packed with planning and organizing, Weller said.

"Everyone's hands are tied because of the weather," Weller said. "But no time has been wasted ... every minute, something has been going on."

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