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Death of 9-year-old snowmachiner on Alaska's Gulkana Glacier leaves experts saddened

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published April 15, 2013

One-time snowmachine safety advocate Rich Runser couldn't bring himself to read about the tragic death of a boy who rode into an open hole in the Gulkana Glacier about 200 miles northeast of Anchorage on Saturday and fell to his death.

The story hit too close to home.

"I could not face the article," said Runser, now 72. "It just made me sick."

Runser is a man paralyzed from the chest down. He has been that way since he rode his snowmachine into an open crevasse in the Nelchina Glacier in March 1997. He has preached safety for years afterward, including the warning that it is generally unsafe to ride on glaciers.

Similar incident a week earlier

The danger was underlined less than two weeks ago when a scientist using a snowmachine to take water samples on the Jarvis Glacier not far from Gulkana Glacier fell through a crevasse and dropped 75 feet onto a ledge. Thomas Douglas survived unscathed, but later observed that it was foolish to ride into unknown glacial terrain.

"It was all my fault," Douglas said. "I would hope that other people learn from this."

Runser once said much the same thing. He didn't get much traction.

"I don't think I ever succeeded at much of anything," he said. "I tried to get some restrictions on snowmachines for youngsters. Some other states have it, but I don't think the snowmachine community, of which I am a part, took well to that."

In Wisconsin, kids can only ride on a snowmachine with an adult. In Minnesota, they can ride their own sleds, but must be accompanied by an adult on another machine. Alaska, a freedom-loving state, has no restrictions on the use of snowmachines by youth.

Drove into open moulin

Nine-year-old Shjon Brown of Fairbanks was motoring around alone on a glacier Saturday when he drove into an open moulin, a feature that can best be described as a well shaft for water running off the glacier during the warm season.

Alaska State Troopers said Brown had driven up onto the glacier in the Hoodoo Mountains with his father and others. His father, according to trooper reports, was taking a break when Shjon left to explore around a small mound of snow. He never returned. It is unclear if the Browns knew they were on a glacier.

The valley up which they rode their snowmachines transitions pretty smoothly into the glacier in the winter, and there was a well-traveled snowmachine trail going up valley.

"I went up that valley on my first snowmachine ride the night before," emailed Christopher Constant, who was at the nearby Tesoro Arctic Man Classic over the weekend. "We were cruising up a canyon near the river that is the gateway to the valley up above. We rode in and I had no idea I was riding on a glacier until we hit an exposed crevasse that about gave me a heart attack. We turned around and went back to camp at that point."

'Motorhead Woodstock'

Arctic Man is what has been described as Alaska's "motorhead Woodstock." It revolves around a unique-to-Alaska race that involves a skier rocketing down a 1,700-foot slope, grabbing a towline attached to a snowmachine while both the machine and the skier are still going 30 or 40 mph, and then being towed 1,200 feet uphill at speeds that can reach 80 mph. At the top of that hill, the snowmachine slingshots the skier off the tow at the start of another drop of 1,200 feet.

The race attracts thousands of spectators, but thousands more come to the area just for the weekend to party and to ride their own snowmachines into the surrounding mountains. The event has become something of a focal point for tragic accidents.

At least two riders have died in snowslides at Arctic Man, and another was killed when he crashed his sled on a road at the event. A Fort Wainwright firefighter suffered two badly broken legs after a hit-and-run snowmachine driver slammed into him in the encampment along the Richardson Highway from which the event is staged. The television show "Alaska State Troopers" calls Arctic Man a "wild scene."

But thousands enjoy the event. A lot of Alaskans use Arctic Man as a great spring-time excuse to get out of the city and explore the mountains. Climbing guide Bryan Roerick from the Wasilla-based North America Outdoor Institute was there to talk to people about mountain safety when he got asked to help look for Shojn after he disappeared.

He arrived on scene, he said, to find a classic moulin.

"(The opening) was probably 20 or 30 feet across," he said. "The top was totally open. His (snowmachine) tracks came from above. It was just right below a little roll-over." Shojn, Roerick said, clearly came over the little hill and saw the hole in the glacier too late to stop.

"You could see where he smashed into the other side of it," Roerick said. "He knocked down a down a chunk of snow about the size of a snowmachine. It was, however, very confounding to see how he became so buried."

Shojn ended up beneath the snowmachine and several feet of snow at the bottom of the moulin. Roerick estimated the snowmachine was 125-130 feet deep in the glacier. Would-be rescuers were able to reach it by securing a 180-foot climbing rope to snowmachines nearby and then rappelling down into the hole.

'Really tragic'

Roerick thinks Shjon and the snowmachine must have plunged through several layers of snow that had built up in the moulin as they fell. It would be hard to account for all the snow at the bottom of the moulin in any other way.

"It's really tragic," Roerick said. "I don't know that anyone knew specifically that (moulin) was there. It wasn't a widely traveled area."

There are places where it is safe to ride snowmachines, or dogsleds, on glaciers in Alaska. Nearly all of them have been carefully surveyed or probed for crevasses lurking beneath the snow. Unprobed glaciers are inherently unsafe, but on a warm, friendly day in the Alaska mountains, Runser said, it is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.

"People just," he said, and then took a long pause. "I don't know. They just don't think. They look, and other people are riding around, and they think everything is safe."

Sometimes it's not.

Shojn's body was recovered Monday.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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