Three killed in avalanche on Bear Mountain near Chugiak while ascending a technical route

An Alaska Department of Public Safety helicopter in the parking lot of Mirror Lake Middle School. Agencies used the school as the incident command post for the search. (Alaska Mountain Rescue Group)

Public safety officials believe an avalanche killed three climbers on a mountain in Chugach State Park this week.

According to Alaska State Troopers, 54-year-old Thomas Devine of Chugiak, 43-year-old Matthew Nyman of Colorado, and 50-year-old Edward Watson of Florida were expected to return from the Bear Mountain area Tuesday evening.

When they didn’t show, the agency launched a search Wednesday with Alaska Mountain Rescue Group. Troopers said the bodies of the three climbers were discovered buried in what appeared to be a recent avalanche.

According to AST Spokesperson Austin McDaniel, the climbers were in the Northwest Couloir area of Bear Mountain.

“This is a much more technical route to ascend Bear Mountain than the standard trail that is used by many hikers in Alaska,” said McDaniel

The Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center assessed the area and published a preliminary accident report Friday.

“Confidence is high that this was a shallow wind slab avalanche that was triggered by the climbers as they approached the top of the climb,” the report says. However, it says a natural avalanche can’t be ruled out.

Debris from the avalanche, it says, ran 2,200 ft. — almost the entire length of the 2,500 ft. gully.

The preliminary report notes that, without witnesses or survivors, “it is impossible to piece together the full picture of the events.”

McDaniel, with the Troopers, says the three men were equipped with climbing gear.

“When the volunteers with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group had reached the avalanche area and located the three men, they were wearing harnesses but the harnesses were not connected together by a rope,” said McDaniel. “So they did have some more advanced climbing equipment with them.”

The avalanche center’s report notes that one of the climbers was very familiar with the route and two were experienced mountaineers. It says the three were wearing crampons and carrying ice axes, but weren’t wearing helmets or avalanche transceivers. 

Volunteers with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group work near the avalanche slide area on Bear Mountain on February 3, 2021. (Alaska Mountain Rescue Group)

McDaniel said coordination with Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and other agencies was critical in this search effort.

“Recoveries like this not only require a great deal of technical skill and physical stamina, but they can take taxing emotional toll as well,” said McDaniel. “Without these really dedicated volunteer groups that we have across the state that assist with these search and rescue efforts, it would make troopers jobs during these tragic incidents exponentially more difficult.”

Bear Mountain is a popular destination in Chugach State Park, near Mirror Lake in the Peter’s Creek area. Troopers are asking hikers to avoid the area until avalanche conditions improve.