Outdoors/Adventure

Turnagain backcountry skier survives full burial in avalanche

A Turnagain Pass avalanche fully buried a skier Thursday afternoon, according to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. But in a "remarkable" turn of events, the skier walked away uninjured after digging his head out of the snow, according to avalanche forecaster John Fitzgerald.

The 350-foot-wide avalanche was triggered by the skier and ran downhill an estimated 1,000 feet on the southwest face of Sunburst Ridge, Fitzgerald said. The man's companion, who escaped the avalanche by riding on the outside, helped dig out the buried skier.

"Anything that buries a person, we consider large," Fitzgerald said. "It's not big enough to take out a railroad car, but for humans, yes, it's big."

Fitzgerald declined to name the buried skier.

Surviving a complete burial is relatively unusual.

"If they do not die as a result of trauma by hitting trees and rocks on the way down -- a quarter of avalanche victims die from trauma impact injuries -- completely buried victims begin a desperate race against time, and the statistics show that only 28 percent survive," according to the website Ultimate-ski.com.

Snow not bonding

Sunburst Ridge rises above the Seward Highway, which bisects Turnagain Pass, an area the avalanche center described as dangerous above 2,500 feet elevation ever since a storm rolled in Saturday after a series of clear, dry days.

On Thursday, the sky cleared. Center director Wendy Wagner on Tuesday said the freshly fallen, wet, heavy snow did not adhere to the lighter snow beneath and could cause a little "trouble" by Thursday. She was right.

In a phone call Thursday, Wagner sighed and expressed relief at learning that no one was injured or killed in the midday avalanche.

"I am really, really happy that everything turned out all right but it was a big avalanche and a full burial. So for that, it was a good outcome."

Fitzgerald had been at Tin Can Ridge, about a mile away. Because the center knew avalanches were likely, he and his partner drove to the Turnagain Pass parking lot, where they saw evidence of a slide.

Digging out

Fitzgerald said maybe a foot of snow covered the head of the skier, who could "move his arm enough to dig his head and arms out."

Within a few minutes, Fitzgerald said, the buried man's companion arrived and did "the rest of the digging."

"They were pretty rattled, but they are regulars up there (in Turnagain Pass) and they realize the gravity of being caught and buried."

Despite an avalanche advisory posted to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center's website, "at least 20 people" were skiing and snowboarding Thursday, Fitzgerald said.

"Avalanche danger is CONSIDERABLE today in the upper elevations of the forecast area. With our current snowpack structure, human-triggered avalanches in the 2-to-5-foot range are likely today," the advisory said.

Below 2,500 feet, avalanche danger was considered moderate, officials wrote. The organization also advised visitors not to take on slopes greater than 35 degrees -- a warning Fitzgerald reiterated Thursday.

Check the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center website for daily advisories.

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.

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