Friends of missing Hatcher Pass skier plan search despite warnings of avalanche danger

Friends and family of a man missing in Hatcher Pass for nearly two weeks are planning a search for him over the weekend beginning Friday -- even as Alaska State Troopers implore them not to risk their lives in the avalanche-prone backcountry area.

Liam Walsh, 33, of Wasilla has been missing since a Nov. 23 skiing trip to Hatcher Pass. About two days after he was last heard from, about 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, a 14-foot-deep avalanche and other slides closed Hatcher Pass Road for more than a week.

Troopers have not made a ground search for Walsh, amid what the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center called one of the worst avalanche cycles for the pass in the last decade. An aerial search was temporarily suspended Tuesday, pending an opportunity to deploy ground searchers and search dogs.

Jordan Bancroft, a close friend of Walsh's, said he decided to organize a volunteer search after a Thursday meeting with troopers, Alaska Mountain Rescue Group members and the operators of a helicopter that has been conducting an aerial search for Walsh.

"Basically, they said they have no plans to continue the search for Mr. Walsh at this time," Bancroft said. "They haven't put anybody on the ground to search for him at all -- all they've tried to do is track his transponder with the helicopter."

Bancroft said searchers plan to focus on Eldorado Bowl, a slope near the parking lot at Mile 13.5 of Hatcher Pass Road where Walsh's truck was found. They say Walsh, one of only two people believed to be on Eldorado Bowl at the time, was skiing when an avalanche roared down from an adjacent peak called Skyscraper.

"Witnesses saw a lone person going up and skiing on their own," Bancroft said. "About 15 to 20 minutes later, another witness saw an avalanche trigger on (Skyscraper) near him; that skier deployed an airbag and was able to stay on top of the avalanche."


A small group of people answered Bancroft's call on Facebook groups for search volunteers. He said searchers were to convene beginning at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Hatcher Pass Road parking lot.

He asked that anyone who comes be experienced in the backcountry, "proficient in the use of a beacon and a probe, and have a shovel."

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters expressed sympathy for Walsh's loved ones Friday but urged people not to search for him on their own. She said searchers were awaiting improved weather conditions, as well as search aids including dogs, avalanche probes and shovels. Backup from observers, aircraft and medical personnel will also be necessary to monitor searchers and respond in case they encounter trouble.

"Right now we don't have any ground searchers out, but that doesn't mean we have given up," Peters said. "We're waiting for better conditions and assets to be in place."

Neither Peters nor Bancroft said they expected to find Walsh alive, a factor Peters said lessened the urgency of the search for him.

"At this point, we're looking for a body," Peters said. "It's a body-recover mission -- it's not worth someone else's life."

A special antenna mounted on the search helicopter hasn't been able to detect any signal from Walsh's avalanche beacon, or passive Recco signal reflectors he was believed to have on him. Peters said the best battery-powered active beacons typically have life-spans measured in hundreds of hours. The history of mining activity in Hatcher Pass, with abandoned metal equipment, has complicated efforts to find Walsh's reflectors, which return a radio signal.

"There's old mining gear, there's deposits of minerals," Peters said. "That can screw up the signal; you can get false positives."

Peters said the lack of a signal from Walsh's gear, as well as extensive avalanche activity in the area, has kept troopers from even defining a solid search area for him.

"There's over 150 avalanches that have been out there since, avalanches on top of avalanches," Peters said. "If he's buried, who knows how deeply he's buried."

Asked about the danger mentioned by troopers, Bancroft questioned that assessment based on state officials' decision this week to reopen Hatcher Pass Road to traffic and the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area to snowmachiners.

"They should have kept the park closed," Bancroft said. "They should have done their due diligence, because once they opened the park they knew all these people would go in and look for him."

Searchers' greatest fear, Peters said, is that one of the volunteers looking for Walsh might go missing, further complicating the situation and putting more lives at risk. She mentioned 53-year-old Gerald DeBerry, a volunteer in an October 2011 search for Utah woman Mindy Stratz after she was reported missing near the Steese Highway.

Stratz was found safe the day she was reported missing, but DeBerry was never seen again despite both an official search for him and a second search by volunteers. A miner found his four-wheeler stuck in the tundra near the Faith Creek Mine in September 2012.

"Some areas (of Hatcher Pass) might be safe but others aren't, and we're not going to put people in areas that aren't safe," Peters said. "These things take coordination, a lot more than just a bunch of people putting on backpacks and going out."

Walsh's relatives have traveled to Alaska as the days have turned into weeks, Bancroft said. The extended search has left him looking for a way both to help and to "move on with my life."

"His family's up here right now; I'd like to close the door for him a bit," Bancroft said. "I hate to think we're not doing anything -- we have stable conditions right now, and they're not doing anything."


According to Peters, who said she has personally lost friends and loved ones in backcountry accidents, troopers spoke with Walsh's family before suspending the deployment of ground searchers.

"It's Alaska; these horrible things happen, but people love being out there and doing these activities," Peters said. "There's a very big danger back in the backcountry -- there's fun and adventure, but there's also dangers and risks."

That danger, Peters said, was clearly on Walsh's mind the day he decided to ski Hatcher Pass alone.

"He was an experienced skier," Peters said. "He knew the backcountry, and he told someone (without an avalanche beacon) not to go with him."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Eldorado Bowl, a ski slope in Hatcher Pass.

Chris Klint

Chris Klint is a former ADN reporter who covered breaking news.