Avalanche Survivor Returns to Rainbow Ridge, Recovers Bodies of Companions

The survivor of the Dec. 6 avalanche at Rainbow Ridge returned to the site in the Eastern Alaska Range last week to recover the bodies of his friend and dog. Michael Hopper says he had to go, because Alaska State Troopers had ruled out a recovery mission until the danger of avalanche in the area subsided. That could’ve taken months.

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Michael Hopper says he and a companion set out a week ago intending to scout out the area where his friend, Erik Peterson, and his dog, Rowdy, were buried, to determine whether a recovery mission was even possible.

Both Hopper and his companion, Dan Perpich, are experienced backcountry skiiers. He says they knew it was risky to return to the site. He says they proceeded cautiously during the 2-and-a-half-hour trek to Rainbow Ridge from the Richardson Highway, about 10 miles north of Isabel Pass.

Michael Hopper says his dog, Rowdy, almost always accompanied him when he went backcountry skiing – like this 2010 outing in the Eastern Alaska Range near Black Rapids. Credit Mike Hopper
Michael Hopper says his dog, Rowdy, almost always accompanied him when he went backcountry skiing – like this 2010 outing in the Eastern Alaska Range near Black Rapids.
Credit Mike Hopper

“It was still unnerving, I have to admit,” he said.

Hopper says once they got back to the debris field where his friends were buried and surveyed the area, they decided a recovery was do-able. They mapped-out a safe route away from avalanche-prone areas, and started digging.

Hopper said Perpich was the ideal companion for the mission, because he’s a veteran who’s been through courses at the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center out of the Black Rapids Training Site.

“He’s received plenty of training in avalanche awareness and also in rescue and recovery of all sorts,” he said. “So he was a pretty handy guy to have along.”

Hopper and Perpich worked two full days of work to remove the bodies and bring them out.

Hopper says it was a relief for both him and Peterson’s family to recover the bodies, because he’d been nagged by the thought of leaving his friends behind until the danger of avalanche subsided. That could’ve taken weeks, even months.

“We felt it was important, I think, to his family, to know their son was off the mountain. There was a sense of rightness about that,” he said. “And it was also good for me to find my dog as well.”

Hopper says he also found comfort in how he found his dog.

“Probably the only light in this dark mission was when we found Rowdy, he was curled up right up against Erik’s back. And he had his right paw on Erik’s shoulder. And it looked very, very much just like he’d just curled up right up against Erik and went to sleep.”

Hopper speaks quietly, and stops to clear his throat every couple of minutes. He says that’s because he re-injured his lungs during the recovery mission after damaging them when he was buried in the avalanche. He managed to dig himself out that time, but not before breathing in a lot of snow and accumulating fluid in his lungs.

“I’m under strict orders now not to play outside for a month,” he said.

Hooper told Alaska State Troopers last Tuesday that he’d recovered Peterson’s body. He turned it over to the Troopers, who in turn transported it to the state Medical Examiner’s office.

Hooper says Peterson’s remains will be returned to his family in Rhode Island for interment.