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Outdoors/Adventure

Experienced skier recalls Alaska Range avalanche that killed his friend

  • Author: Dermot Cole
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 8, 2014

FAIRBANKS -- Mike Hopper and his friend Erik Peterson had made the journey before, skiing up a valley about 2.5 miles east of the Richardson Highway in the Alaska Range.

Hopper, 63, and Peterson, 35, both experienced backcountry travelers, ran into trouble Saturday, the first time this winter they had been out in the mountains 60 miles south of Delta Junction.

Looking back on it now, Hopper said Monday with a sigh, the two men -- who had both taken avalanche training courses -- missed a key warning sign about the avalanche danger.

Had they fully realized the hazardous nature of the slopes that day, Peterson might still be alive.

He said they heard sounds as they climbed a hillside, but both men believed they were on solid snow and that the "whomping" they heard came from down below, over hollows in creeks.

"Up higher that's a real dangerous sound because that could mean a snow field is settling and then could release a slide," he said. "But we kind of convinced ourselves -- and this was our mistake -- that the sound was low down and was just snow settling in the bottom of the valley."

Hopper and his wife, Annie, are well-known Fairbanks residents who own the Lodge at Black Rapids and have spent more than a decade developing the property.

Peterson, a former high school football coach in Delta and Anchorage, was a hiker, skier and climber who had been in Alaska for six years. An honor graduate from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst a dozen years ago, Peterson finished second in the decathlon in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Hopper said Peterson "was probably the strongest guy I've ever known."

The two of them climbed Mount Hayes a few years ago and "got to the top of the north shoulder."

Peterson had just moved back to Delta and planned to start a weight training and conditioning program for Alaska Range climbers.

A fatal mistake

About a week earlier there had been a foot of snow in the vicinity, which Hopper and Peterson thought should make for good early-season skiing. They parked the truck and climbed for about two-and-a-half hours to a pass and side valley, where they began to ski.

"We made a deal with ourselves that if we heard anything we would turn around," Hopper said.

The snow got denser and deeper as they climbed, which they took as a good sign.

They were about halfway up a valley when Peterson noticed a change in the underlying consistency of the snow. There was ice a few inches under the snow, which was unexpected and worrisome, as they didn't anticipate a layer of ice over which a mass of snow could slide.

"The minute he noticed that, we started moving toward our right," Hopper said, aiming for a rounded ridge to escape the questionable conditions.

"We knew we wanted to stay off that big slope and were noting the landmarks, rock outcroppings, planning our descent," he said.

They took a few steps toward the ridge on their right when they heard another "whomping" sound, this time from above.

"Did you hear that?" Peterson asked. He was about 10 feet from Hopper.

Hopper turned and saw what looked like a "small wave" heading toward them. It was instantaneous, he said, and hit them in a flash.

Hopper saw the avalanche reach the hindquarters of his dog, Rowdi, a chocolate Lab and spaniel mix who had been close to Peterson.

"I yelled to Erik to watch Rowdi because I knew the avalanche was going to get me. I had assumed that Erik was out of the avalanche path because he was closer to the safe side of the slope," he said.

"It just knocked me over like I was a tree and immediately engulfed me. I was head down, sliding down the mountain. It was fast and it went on forever. All I remembered was to try to keep an air space in front of my face," Hopper said in a phone interview Monday in Fairbanks.

He isn't sure how far he was carried but guesses it might have been 150 yards. A representative of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center who flew over the site Monday estimated that the slide began near the top of the ridge, with Hopper guessing the slide began 600 feet above the spot they were swept away from.

He recalls thinking that if the slide carried him to the bottom of the valley, he would die, buried beneath many feet of dense snow. He prayed for it to stop.

When it did, Hopper found himself encased in hard-packed snow, trapped a couple of feet below the surface, in a pile about 10 feet deep.

'I got there too late'

Hopper said he thinks he survived because he didn't lose his right ski pole and he was lucky to be close to the front of the pile. Had he been a foot or two farther back, it would have been impossible to escape.

On Monday his voice remained hoarse because he had inhaled so much snow during the fall, he said.

His legs, chest and left arm were pinned tight. He said he started to panic, but then told himself he couldn't afford to do that.

"I also realized it was my son's 20th birthday and I did not want to die on his birthday," he said.

Hopper said he used the basket of the ski pole to dig through the hardened snow and push it out the front of the pile, a small amount at a time. He said it seemed to take forever.

"Finally I freed my left arm -- that was the first time I thought I could possible extricate myself," he said. Once he had enough room, he reached the shovel he carried on his pack and pushed more snow to the front. It took him about two-and-a-half hours to get free.

Then, he began looking for his friend.

"What I hoped was that he was in a position similar to me," he said.

Hopper saw a black glove breaking the surface about 10 feet back from the front of the debris pile. He said he crawled over and dug down, but Peterson was still.

"I got there too late," Hopper said.

The avalanche happened at about 1:30 p.m., and it was already getting dark when Hopper found Peterson.

"At that point I knew I couldn't help him," he said.

He tried to mark the site with a probe in his pack and slowly made his way back down the hill, using his skis as best he could, though he was exhausted.

There was no sign of Rowdi. Hopper said he is certain the dog was buried in the slide.

It was dark when he made it back to the truck, but Erik had the key, so Hopper stood by the highway waiting for someone to go by.

He said it seemed like a couple of hours before a car came. The driver went to a spot where there was cellphone coverage and called for help.

On Monday, Hopper talked to Erik's parents in Rhode Island and told them what had happened. He said it's an overwhelming loss.

"He had just gotten a job driving for Crowley so he could get back to Delta," Hopper said. "He really loved Delta and he loved the range. He was going to develop a strength and conditioning program for Army guys hoping to train for the range."

"The reason I survived and he didn't is that I was 10 feet closer to the edge of the debris pile so I could poke a hole into it and had a place to push snow," he said. "The only way he had to get to air was straight above him," and the surface was out of reach.

As he replayed the events in his mind, Hopper could not disguise his regrets.

"We had some warnings that we rationalized our way out of and some of that was just the eagerness of the first snow," he said.

"We weren't concerned about the layers of snow. We didn't have any snow before then. We'd been up there early in the season before," he said. He said they were wrong about the "whomping sound" danger and were not prepared for what it signaled.

On Monday, authorities determined that conditions were too hazardous to go back to the site immediately.

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