Telluride, Colorado, ski legend Peter Inglis -- "PI" to his friends -- had just reached the top of what he thought was a 7,000-foot Chugach Mountains ridge in eastern Alaska on Wednesday when the snow beneath him gave way and he fell to his death.
What the 54-year-old guide and avalanche expert did not know was that he had topped out not on a ridge line but on a cornice of snow overhanging a ridge line above Tebay Lakes in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, about 200 miles east of Anchorage.
"PI had looked at the top and thought it wasn't a cornice,'' friend Donna Claus said in an email. "He was standing on it. The other guys were spread out below on the slope they came up. It whooshed, and he disappeared over the other side down a wall of rock, taking all the snow that was there with him."
Claus' son was one of those skiing with Inglis at the time. Donna and Paul Claus, a well-known Alaska bush pilot, operate Ultima Thule Lodge in Wrangell-St. Elias, the nation's largest wilderness reserve. Inglis worked as their lead guide, though he was not guiding when the accident happened.
He was simply out with friends enjoying the surrounding mountains. Paul Claus helped recover his body.
"He has been with us as a friend first and then lead guide for at least 20 years,'' Donna Claus said. "He had climbed all kinds of things. ... He was avalanche control at Telluride for 20 years, search and rescue, AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association), ski guide, etc.
"(He) had saved many people in hard-to-do rescues in southern Colorado and was above all a kind, wonderful teacher of all and such a good friend of ours. He was an 'uncle' to our kids and our son is having a hard time with this. ...
"It was a classic luck-run-out thing,'' Donna said.
Some avalanche authorities were speculating the strange winter Alaska has experienced this year, with a seemingly constant cycle of freezing and thawing, might have contributed to the instability of the cornice.
Backcountry magazine, in an online tribute to Inglis, called him a legend who made his name skiing the east face of the Matterhorn, the west face of the Eiger and the north face of Mont Blanc in Europe.
"Jaime Palmer, a well-known Telluride skier, stomped out the letters 'PI' into a snowy face within the Bear Creek area yesterday as a tribute to Inglis,'' the magazine reported.
Donna Claus noted the instability of the snowpack in the eastern Chugach on Friday just as avalanche experts in Anchorage were warning of the instability in the western Chugach. They issued an avalanche warning for the western Chugach around the ski community of Girdwood near Anchorage and for Turnagain Pass south of there for the weekend.
"As Paul and I flew away after the body recovery yesterday we saw so many slides from so many cornices,'' Donna said. "Maybe with the early or late or whatever winter we have had it is different this year."
Inglis' wife, Julie, was staying at Ultima Thule.
"We fully intend to keep her in the family,'' Donna said. "PI was so special to a huge part of the climbing, skiing and guiding world. ...There will be a huge hole to fill with PI gone. ... He is part of our family here. We will miss him so much. He was always smiling, always ready for another adventure and always the safe one. This is stunning for us all because safe would be the one word to describe him in the mountains."
Inglis' death was also felt by Mountain Trip, another business that conducts guided trips in Alaska. Inglis was due to start another season guiding on Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak, in a matter of weeks. He had made 15 previous trips to the mountain.