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Outdoors/Adventure

Avalanche that killed Anchorage rider churned survivor 'like a washing machine'

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  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 13, 2016

An Anchorage man killed in an avalanche near Eureka last month was not buried deeply in the snow and likely died from impact or other trauma, a new report says.

Randy Pratt, 50, was killed in the Feb. 27 slide. Joe Denney, one of the riders with Pratt, told Alaska Dispatch News Friday that the trio had traveled in the backcountry of the Eureka area for more than a decade. On average, they spent about a month together each year "working as a team to play in this terrain."

"We're very aware of avalanches and their dangers," Denney said. "We thought we had taken the necessary precautions, but we didn't."

The new report, compiled by Graham Predeger of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, was aided by details provided by Denney and the other rider. Predeger thanked the riders and rescuers involved for their "openness, honesty and willingness to share this story for others to learn from."

"It's always really commendable for folks who are in avalanche accidents, especially when there's a fatality, to speak with agencies like mine and get the information out," Predeger said Thursday.

According to Predeger, the snowmachiners left the Eureka Roadhouse on Feb. 27 and headed south toward the toe of the Nelchina Glacier.

Although everyone in the party had avalanche beacons, shovels and probes, Pratt had made a change to his gear, Predeger said.

"(Pratt) had his avalanche beacon in his backpack and had been known to keep it there instead of wearing it on his body 'because it was uncomfortable to wear,'" Predeger wrote.

Predeger said the riders didn't see any "red flags" for avalanche activity -- such as shooting cracks in the snow, odd noises or other recent slides in the area -- on a 20-mile ride to the site where the fatal slide occurred. The party had been snowmachining in the same area the previous weekend, and they made several climbs and side-hill ascents along a smaller test slope in the area with "no discernable results."

Just before the avalanche, the snowmachiners stopped to rest at the base of the gully where it occurred. At about 12:30 p.m., Predeger said, Denney headed uphill but didn't realize Pratt was following him. Denney's ascent and left turn out of the gully triggered one avalanche, with a second avalanche following and catching him after he turned and saw Pratt become caught in the initial slide.

"As soon as it caught me, I stood on my sled and jumped as far away from it as I could, because if you're on it it just beats you up," Denney said. "It just started washing me like a washing machine -- about the second or third barrel roll it just ripped the helmet off my head, and I went down about (700), 800 foot just getting rolled in the darkness, out of the darkness."

The second surviving rider was hit by snow from both avalanches funneled down the gully, which caught him atop his parked sled and buried him to the waist. Denney said he ended up resting on the surface of the snow, roughly 50 yards down the slope from his snowmachine, looking up at the sun but unable to draw breath.

"I couldn't breathe through my nose, I couldn't breathe through my mouth, so I made the determination something was in my throat," Denney said. "I started slapping my throat with the back of my thumb like this, and got the snow and ice to break free -- I spit it out."

The surviving snowmachiners could see each other, but their shouts to Pratt went unanswered.

"(Denney) turned his avalanche beacon to search and scanned the area toward the gully but did not pick up any signals," Predeger wrote. "(He) noticed his sled uphill of him and hiked back uphill to dig it out before riding over to (the second rider)."

Two other groups in the area had witnessed the avalanche and headed for the site, arriving about 20 minutes later. A surface search soon found Pratt's backpack, partially buried and still containing his avalanche beacon. Subsequent searches farther uphill found his snowmachine and his jacket, with blood in the snow nearby.

"An organized probe line ensued for roughly an hour before one member decided on a whim to walk further uphill than where the probe line was started," Predeger wrote. "It was this responder who noticed (Pratt's) boot above the surface."

Denney was one of those who helped recover Pratt's body.

"We dug him up -- he was buried face-down," Denney said. "It was obvious that he had been crushed."

By the time Pratt was extricated from the snow, about 150 yards above the jacket and sled, Predeger said, about two hours had elapsed since the avalanche.

Predeger said the slide that killed Pratt was a soft slab avalanche, about 2 to 4 feet deep and 250 to 400 feet wide, descending about 1,500 to 2,000 feet from an elevation of about 5,000 feet. The avalanche deposited snow and debris to depths of between 2 and 10 feet.

The snow equivalent of at least 1.5 inches of rain had fallen in the region during the weekend of Feb. 20, Predeger said. Other people in the area saw avalanche danger signs, including smaller slides similar to the one that killed Pratt, during the week leading up to Feb. 27.

Speaking by phone, Predeger said that avalanche safety remains a major concern in Alaska's backcountry as winter gives way to warmer weather.

"There's a five-point education system: Get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, get the picture in terms of what the snow's doing, get out of harm's way," Predeger said. "For future folks heading out this spring, those are great things to keep in mind."

Denney said that Pratt should have been wearing his beacon on his body, although it wouldn't have saved him in February's slide. For him, the main lesson he learned is "to take little bites when you go out snowmachining -- don't go screaming up to the top of the face."

"One of the biggest things I can say is just because it's safe at a lower elevation or even one bowl over, every time you change from one bowl to the next it could be a slightly different-facing aspect -- and completely different conditions," Denney said. "You need to dig a pit, you need to take your time and check what you're riding in, because it can change very quickly."

An obituary for Pratt published earlier this month described him as "a loving husband and doting father," as well as an "avid outdoorsman." A celebration of his life was held at Kincaid Park in Anchorage earlier this month.

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