Wrangell - St Elias National Park & Preserve (AK)
Snowmobiler Buried In Human-Triggered Avalanche
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 11th, a recreational snowmobiler was buried in an avalanche above Kennecott within the park. The avalanche was triggered by another snowmobiler who drove his machine up a gully to an open basin at 5,500 feet, causing a three- to four-foot thick slab of snow to break loose.
The snowmobiler who was buried was about 300 vertical feet below the lead rider when the avalanche was triggered. He turned and tried to outrun the avalanche, but was quickly knocked off his machine. He traveled over half a mile and 1,500 vertical feet inside the snow before the avalanche stopped. He was wearing an avalanche beacon, helmet and other protective gear, though, and had taken avalanche safety training and knew to try and "swim" towards the surface if caught by an avalanche. He was also able to keep part of a hand above the snow as the avalanche stopped. Others at the scene found him with the aid of beacons and then spotted his glove. The rescuers were able to dig him out in approximately four minutes. The victim was unconscious and not breathing; CPR was immediately begun and he began breathing on his own after the tenth rescue breath. He exhibited respiratory distress, a decreased level of consciousness and mild hypothermia, but, amazingly, no physical trauma. His snowmobile was totally destroyed.
The park was notified of the incident shortly after it occurred. The snowmobiler was transported to an NPS facility at the McCarthy airport, where rangers Luke Hodgson and Stephens Harper performed a patient assessment, administered oxygen and treated for hypothermia. A National Guard helicopter was on standby to provide air evacuation if needed, but was called off once the man's condition was determined to be stable and not life threatening. He was rewarmed and released from NPS care that evening. Hodgson and Harper met with the friends and family involved in the incident the following day and learned what had occurred. Thirty plus people who were either directly or indirectly involved spent over two hours reviewing avalanche safety material and made a concerted effort to learn from the mistakes that were made that lead to the incident.
Major factors leading to the accident included travel on an avalanche prone slope without testing snow-pack conditions, travelling in an avalanche chute, and riding directly above another rider in avalanche terrain. Many other factors contributed as well. It should be noted that the group did a good job of search and rescue utilizing their tools and education. The patient was literally seconds away from being a fatality.