‘I can’t die right now’: Brothers survive avalanche near Arctic Man site with lessons to share

PALMER -- Joshua Hale’s time in the avalanche lasted maybe 10 seconds.

But that whirlwind of crushing snow, darkness and speed was long enough for Hale to prepare for death, go over memories of his wife and each of their 10 children including a newborn, then snap back to the reality of trying to survive.

Hale, 37, dug himself out of what forecasters described as a large, potentially deadly avalanche Saturday afternoon near the site of the Arctic Man snowmachine event in the Hoodoo Mountains near Paxson.

So did his brother, 32-year-old Israel Hale, who lost both legs in a 2012 accident but is a competitive snowmachiner.

[An accident took his legs, but Israel Hale found freedom on a snowmachine]

Both men want other people to learn from their near-death experience.

“I definitely am admitting to the fact that I made a mistake,” Joshua Hale said in an interview this week. “I wasn’t trying to be foolish. I did get a little overconfident."


Avalanche experts say the message is potentially lifesaving, with crowds of snowmachiners and campers set to go to Arctic Man next week. The iconic Alaska winter sports event starts April 9 for the first year in decades without skiers and snowboarders hitched to snowmachines in high-speed races -- and also without avalanche forecasters.

Riders will need to inform themselves about avalanche conditions and be prepared with gear, forecasters say. The nonprofit centers that have provided forecasting services in the past don’t have the resources to do it this year.

“Everybody kind of needs to be their own forecaster this year,” said Debra McGhan, director of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center.

She recommends people recreating in the area make conservative decisions, ask other people if they’re seeing any warning signs, and avoid terrain traps -- places where snow can pile up -- and avalanche runout zones.

Generally, the snowpack in the Summit area is a solid slab about 3 feet thick with some varied ice layers atop about 6 inches of fine, sugary snow, according to Mark Oldmixon, director of the East Alaska Range Avalanche Center in Fairbanks. He urged anybody heading out from the Arctic Man site to carry avalanche beacons, probes and shovels.

“Everybody in the party needs all three pieces of gear before they even leave the parking lot,” said Oldmixon, who interviewed one of the members of the Hale party Tuesday and said the slide measured 1,500 feet from top to bottom.

The outing last Saturday started as a backcountry getaway for the Hales, another brother and a friend, all experienced riders.

They headed from Butte to the Summit area near Paxson for a day in the mountains.

The men know the mountains. They grew up in the Wrangells at a remote family compound outside McCarthy with their mother and fundamentalist Christian father, Robert Hale, who renamed himself Papa Pilgrim and was later imprisoned on rape, assault and incest charges involving one of his daughters in a case that exposed their abusive childhood.

The Hale children mostly moved to the Palmer area. Some started their own families. Joshua Hale owns Alaska Horse Adventures. Israel owns Alaska Toy Rentals.

Israel posted a list of things his group could have done differently last weekend.

“Several mistakes were made and I am here to share them with you all for your own safety and to know how fast and tragic an avalanche can be,” Israel wrote in a Facebook post.

Mistake number one: The group had three avalanche beacons, not four. More important, they carried only two shovels and one probe between them. The group also didn’t have enough knowledge to assess the snow conditions.

After a few runs, Joshua Hale turned up the slope for another. He felt something go wrong. The snow around him was cracking. A wave formed in front of him as loose powder rushed past.

He told himself to drive faster than the snow.

At the edge of an incline, Hale expected to ride the slide down. Instead, he flew into the air -- straight out. He guesses he flew as much as 60 feet and was probably going over 100 mph.

“I was full throttle, riding an avalanche, going faster than the avalanche,” he said. “I don’t know how fast I was going, but I was going really fast.”


The machine landed nose down and the force of the landing flipped Hale into the air. He landed in a wave of snow that pressed down on him and pushed him deeper, compressing atop his body as it moved through a confined gully.

He thought of his children, who range in age from 12 to about two weeks old.

“That’s what kept going through my mind going down that hill: I can’t die right now,” Hale said. “It honestly might have saved my life because I swam so hard.”

He started hammering his arms and legs up and down to stay on top of the snow, grabbing chunks and pulling himself up. The snow fanned out so he could see light, but his body was tumbling end over end. As it slowed, he kept his hands by his chest to preserve an opening around his face.

Hale settled to a stop and realized his foot was sticking out of the snow. He moved it enough to free space around it, then emerged.

“I just kind of blew out of the snow,” he said. His brother Joseph was hugging him and crying. Joseph barely escaped the avalanche himself. Joshua said his emotions quieted to near-numbness.

“I processed a million things. I’d died twice sort of in my mind. My heart rate was down. I was calm as I could be,” he said.

Meanwhile, their brother Israel was surfacing from his own life-or-death struggle.


Before the avalanche, Israel had rolled his machine over and was about to get back on when his buddy pulled up to help him, saw the slide, yelled, and pushed away to outrun the snow, he wrote in the Facebook post detailing his story.

“I was left sitting there with no legs just about to get on my machine when I looked up and 100 foot ball of snow was coming at me at over 100 miles an hour," he wrote.

He’d just gotten it started when the avalanche hit him in the back. The impact tossed him and his machine 30 feet into the same gully before the force of the snow tore him off, Hale wrote. The valley in front of him appeared to fill with snow as he swam with his arms and legs to try to stay on top.

Then it stopped, Hale said, “and it felt like I was in concrete instantly.”

His mouth was packed with snow to the back of his throat and he couldn’t breathe. Then he realized one of his hands was sticking out of the snow. He broke enough snow loose to dig out his face. Suddenly he was free.

“I am very blessed and thankful that we are all here and it truly is a miracle that four of us escaped that slide,” he wrote.

The group rode a little more that day, Joshua Hale said, “just to get it out of our system.” He’ll probably head to Arctic Man with Israel, who plans to rent out snowmachines there.

Saturday’s avalanche was “definitely a bulls-eye clue” for people attending the event: Snowmachiners can trigger dangerous slides, said Wendy Wagner, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

“You don’t need to be an expert to know this is evidence there’s a problem in that snowpack,” Wagner said. "People need to be extra careful. That is a very, very big and deadly slide. It is really fortunate that everybody is OK.”

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 zhollander@adn.com.