Mountaineers see bad luck behind UAF class avalanche incident

Members of a University of Alaska Fairbanks mountaineering class are recovering after being hit by an avalanche in the eastern Alaska Range.  The incident has raised questions about the university taking students into the mountains.

The McCallum Peak climbing trip was the culmination of an 11-week mountaineering course. UAF spokeswoman Marian Grimes said the group, which included nine students and four instructors, was climbing up the Canwell Glacier off the Richardson Highway Saturday when the slide triggered.

USGS Canwell Glacier 2002
USGS’s Peter Haeussler prepares to measure the offset of a crevasse on the Canwell Glacier in November 2002, following a magnitude 7.9 earthquake that struck near Denali National Park. (Public domain photo by U.S. Geological Survey)

”Some people were partially buried in the snow,” Grimes said. “Some were on top of the snow.  There were two people who had their faces covered. The climbers who were free of the snow assissted them very quickly, uncovered their faces within the first about 20 or 30 seconds.”

Grimes said no one was seriously injured, but the climb was abandoned and the group returned to Fairbanks. UAF Director of Recreation, Adventure and Wellness programs Mark Oldmixon said snow conditions appeared to be initially OK to the instructors.

”They didn’t find any red flags: natural avalanches or shooting cracks,” said Oldmixon.

An Alaska Alpine Club trip to the same area was canceled. Volunteer leader Kellie O’Brien said she didn’t feel comfortable with conditions, given recent weather.

”Reviewing history of the weather in Alaska and knowing that we’ve had strange snow, and that it’s been inconsolidated,” O’Brien said. “And then to have the temperature so warm followed up by that fresh snow fall that passed through, I just have this sixth sense that it just was not stable conditions.”

O’Brien referred to a forecast posted earlier in the week to the Eastern Alaska Range Avalanche Center website, warning of instability. Oldmixon, who’s actively involved in the online center, maintains the forecast was stale.

”It shouldn’t be something we necessarily use as a go-no go five days later,” said Oldmixon. “So we felt comfortable still sending the trip.”

Alaska Avalanche Information Center education coordinator Sarah Carter was in the area teaching course the prior weekend, and some of her students posted the forecast. Carter agreed conditions shift quickly, and are localized, but cautions that the eastern Alaska Range snowpack has become generally less stable in recent years due to warmer weather.

”With the warmer systems moving through, there are multiple layers of stronger snow with facets between those layers.” Carter said.

Carter noted basic techniques, like only exposing one group member at a time to a slope to reduce risk, but she insisted on not laying blame relative to the UAF avalanche incident.

“There is an element of luck in the mountains,” said Carter.

UAF’s Oldmixon said his initial takeaway from the weekend accident is that the class fell victim to rapidly changing conditions, common in the mountains.

“My initial instinct is we didn’t do anything wrong,” Oldmixon said. “These accidents will occur and in this one there could have been 13 deaths.”

Jeff Benowitz is an experienced local alpinist and longtime UAF climbing gym instructor.

“The University of Alaska should not be in the mountain guide business,” said Benowitz. “We should offer mountaineering skill classes and we can do that on campus, and we do it very well.

The university’s Oldmixon said the avalanche incident will undergo thorough review and could result in program changes, but the initial priority is helping those involved recover from the slide.

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