The recent avalanche death of a longtime Anchorage ski coach with decades of experience in Alaska’s mountains shocked those who knew him.
But as much as Randy Bergt knew about avalanche danger, his death represents a phenomenon not unfamiliar in backcountry skiing: sometimes, even snow safety experts get caught in avalanches.
Bergt spent years coaching up-and-coming cross-country skiers, including the dominant Service High School teams in the mid- to late-’90s and even some athletes who went on to the Olympics. The recently retired 60-year-old was considered a pillar of the ski community. Service’s recent Snowball ski race finals we’re dedicated to Bergt.
It isn’t a surprise Bergt’s contributions to skiing are part of how he’s being memorialized. More unexpected is that he died skiing, in the alpine, buried under 4 feet of snow at Hatcher Pass the day before Thanksgiving.
“It’s like finding out the best driver you knew just got in a bad car wreck,” Gary Snyder said. Snyder is a high school science teacher and fellow ski coach who spent time in the backcountry with Bergt.
“Here’s a guy who had a ton of experience,” Snyder said. “He thought things through a lot. He paid attention to details, and clearly he knew a lot about avalanches, and then to have him die in an avalanche is really shocking.”
Snyder is not alone in struggling to understand what happened.
Bergt was with two other skiers on Marmot Mountain and was the first to descend. The most recent avalanche forecast noted a weak layer in the snowpack.
Bergt triggered an avalanche reportedly 150 feet wide by 800 feet long. His group carried the recommended avalanche rescue gear: beacons, probes and shovels. Bergt’s partners dug him out, but their attempt to resuscitate him was unsuccessful.
Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center director Jed Workman said a major factor in the accident is that instead of fanning out, the snow funneled into what’s known as a terrain trap.
“This was a fairly thin avalanche, but getting buried in a ravine, it increased the depth,” Workman said.
The avalanche hazard was rated “considerable.” But considerable is in the middle of a scale that has five degrees of risk, and it doesn’t mean the entire forecast area is unsafe.
The forecast is just one part of the puzzle, Workman said.
“There’s just no guarantee that any one of us is going to put all the pieces together every single time. Accidents are going to happen, and it’s not a reflection, necessarily, of our skill,” Workman said.
Still, friends and family said Bergt was about the last person you would expect to be buried in an avalanche.
Bergt was a professional ski patroller at Alta Ski Area in Utah for 11 winters. He made hundreds of human-powered alpine ascents and descents. Bergt’s backcountry buddies said he was one of the most careful skiers they’ve ever known.
But Workman and Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center Director Wendy Wagner said the more time someone spends in avalanche terrain, the more they are exposed to the risk of getting caught in one.
“There is no way you’re going to be able to reduce a risk to zero, to be able to know for sure a slope’s not going to avalanche,” Wagner said.
Avid skiers will face so many variables that are often unseen and completely out of their control that the odds of an accident increase over time, Wagner said.
“It just takes that one day, with that one wrong decision, in the wrong spot, and you have a really bad outcome,” Wagner said.
Like everyone else interviewed for this story, Wagner doesn’t blame Bergt for his death. But the impulse in others to assign blame might have deeper origins.
Paul Wunnicke was a longtime friend and ski buddy of Bergt’s, and also a trained avalanche professional. He’s on the Alaska Avalanche School board of directors.
Though he admits he’s no psychoanalyst, Wunnicke has a theory about why people are quick to judge victims of accidents like the one that befell his friend.
“If you can sit in your armchair and say, ‘Well, you know, I would do this and I would do that, and I wouldn’t have done this or wouldn’t have done that,’ then you feel a little bit better about all the times that you had near-misses you had that you don’t even know about,” Wunnicke said.
There’s a lack of negative feedback for bad decisions made in the backcountry, because more oftentimes, nothing goes wrong, Wunnicke said.
“If it didn’t avalanche, and we’re home by our sweeties by the fire at the end of the day, then we must’ve made good decisions,” Wunnicke said. “And that isn’t necessarily what happened. In reality, it might just be that we were very lucky.”
Bergt would’ve wanted his death to cause others to learn more about traveling in the mountains, to think critically about the risks while they’re there and to communicate with their partners, Wunnicke said.
And Wunnicke says Bergt would’ve also wanted one other thing:
“Absolutely, without a doubt, I know Randy would say, ‘Go skiing.’ That’s what Randy would want us to do.”