The Fairbanks man who was buried in an avalanche near Isabel Pass Saturday and lived to tell about it says he’s learned that even an experienced backcountry skier can get into trouble in a rugged area like the Eastern Alaska Range. He says unusual winter weather is making it more unpredictable.
Three days after digging himself out from under a mountainside of snow, 63-year-old Michael Hopper speaks quietly and calmly about the near-death encounter that’s shaken his confidence and taken two of his closest friends.
“I’m going back to the drawing board, is what this experience has taught me. And as I learn more about what actually happened during in the accident,” he said.
Hopper has spent nearly 20 years as a backcountry skier – a form of crosscountry skiing done in remote locales like Rainbow Ridge, just this side of Isabel Pass in the rugged Eastern Alaska Range. That’s where the avalanche buried him and his friend, Erik Peterson, and his beloved dog Rowdy.
Their bodies remain buried while experts await safer conditions to recover them.
Hopper has also taken advanced avalanche-training. So by anyone’s estimation, he’s an able, if not expert, backcountry skier.
He says he knew the potential for peril, so a few years he built a cabin, in case he got into trouble.
“The Eastern Alaska Range is a tough place, he said. “It’s cold and windy and tricky, and you need a place to retreat to.”
Hopper says after all that time he’s came to love the area. So a few years ago, he and his wife Annie built the Lodge at Black Rapids, about 15 miles north of Rainbow Ridge, where they spend part of their time when he’s not at his psychology practice in Fairbanks.
He says he and his companions were itching to get going Saturday for the first real outing of the season, after the area finally got some measureable snowfall.
“So part of what happened this year was we were anxious to get going. We didn’t ski all of last year. So that was some of what was motivating me and Erik,” he said.
Hopper says he wanted to get back into an area, because he hadn’t been able to ski there since early last year, due to the odd weather that set in last winter, starting with rainfall just after the holidays.
“Then in January, it rained. And I went back up into that valley, attempted to go the next day, or a couple of days afterwards, and the entire valley, every spine that came down, had avalanched. It was like glaciers just carved down. It was impassable.”
Hopper says he now realizes that backcountry skiers now need to take into account the changing climate when traversing that area.
“I think if you talk to most Alaskans, it’s pretty evident that it’s much more erratic,” he said. “We’re getting rain. We never had that.”
He says as bad as the events of Saturday night were, they could’ve been worse.
“See, my son was supposed to go skiing with me on this trip. It was his 20th birthday,” he said. “Fortunately, he had a curling competition, which they won. And that’s one thing I’m eternally grateful for.”
Hopper says because of that, from now on, before heading out on another backcountry ski trip he’ll think of his son, Huckleberry.
“I’ll go in with the idea that, ‘Is this a condition that I would take my son in?’ And if I hold true to that, it won’t guarantee it, but it’ll back me off things that I might take a risk on my own.”
A memorial service for the family of Erik Peterson will be held Saturday at the Black Rapids Lodge. The Hoppers have set up an account at Mount McKinley Bank for donations to help defray the Peterson family’s expenses. More information is available on the Lodge’s Facebook page.
Editor’s note: This text was revised to clarify that Saturday’s event at the Black Rapids Lodge is a memorial service.