Friends, Family Mourn Avalanche Victim; Expert Advises Recovery Operation Delay

Memorial services were held over the weekend for the Delta Junction man killed in a avalanche in the Alaska Range.  Friends and family gathered to remember 35-year-old Erik Petersen, who was skiing with friend Michael Hopper when the slide came down Dec. 6th.

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Hopper survived the slide, and he and his wife Annie hosted a memorial service for Petersen at their lodge at Black Rapids Saturday.  Another service for Petersen was held in Anchorage yesterday.

Meanwhile, an avalanche expert who’s surveyed the area of the eastern Alaska Range where the deadly slide came down says the snowpack on mountainsides near Rainbow Ridge remains unstable. That will delay any operation to recover Petersen’s body.

Sarah Carter with the Alaska Avalanche Information Center Carter says a 600-by-150-foot expanse of snow engulfed skiers Erik Peterson and Mike Hopper, and his dog, carrying them all about a third of a mile down the mountain.

“As it moved downslope, it was funneled into a steep creek drainage,” she said. “And so it piled up quite a bit deeper, down in the steep creek.

Carter surveyed the slide area around Rainbow Ridge from the air and on the ground in the days after the December 6th incident, to better gauge the scale of the avalanche that slammed into the two backcountry skiers.

“It did release quite high on the slope. They triggered it from lower down” she said. “They were maybe a third of the way up the slope, or so, and the avalanche fracture line, where it actually detached from the mountainside, was way up near the ridge, almost 500, 600 feet above them.”

Carter says this season’s unusual weather has made the area’s snowpack unstable and susceptible to avalanches. The first significant snowfall came in early December, and that formed into a crust or, as she calls it, a “wind slab” on top of an unusually unstable base layer. All of which came crashing down on the skiers.

“And that’s ultimately what was triggered by Erik and Michael,” she said.

Carter says those dangerous conditions still exist in the eastern Alaska Range.

“It takes time for the snowpack to change,” she said. “And this particular set-up could last weeks, or months.”

She says that makes it unwise to attempt a body recovery operation now.

Carter is the education-outreach coordinator for the Alaska Avalanche Information Center. And she’s also the forecaster for the Valdez Avalanche Center. She says she believes climate change is a major factor in the unusual weather of recent years, and that it contributes to greater avalanche potential.

“A lot warmer weather. More moisture. That does affect avalanches, and creates larges avalanche events. And having a few of those within just a few years kind of gives us a heads-up that maybe we might be dealing with this more and more.”

That can make it hard for those who traverse the back country to predict and prepare for the conditions they’ll encounter. Carter says that’s compounded by a lack of real-time data for snow and weather conditions on the Alaska Range, compared to the extensive state and federal data-collection sources for the area south of Anchorage, around Alyeska ski resort.

“There’s not a forecast center that is responsible for the Alaska Range,” she said. “So it is a data-sparse area.”

Carter says aside from the sometimes-sporadic information from a few weather stations along the Alaska Range, outdoor recreationalists and others don’t have a lot of data about conditions there.

She says the Alaska Avalanche Information Center website has a page for those who want to share their observations about conditions in the area.

She says that’s essential information, and she encourages anyone who’s out and about along the Alaska Range to post their observations.

“Even if it was just a photo, or a brief couple of sentences saying where they were and what they saw. If they saw avalanche activity, that’s bulls-eye information that other users can utilize and say ‘Well, maybe that might not a great place to head to right now.’ ”

Carter says center official hopes to expand that and other information resources in the future.