UAF mountaineering class caught in avalanche

Photo of the avalanche site on the Canwell glacier. Provided by the Alaska Avalanche Information Center.

Photo of the avalanche site on the Canwell glacier. Provided by the Alaska Avalanche Information Center.

Erin McGroarty / Sun Star

An avalanche along the Canwell glacier near Summit Lake caught eight members of the UAF “Introduction to Mountaineering” class on Saturday, March 26.

Two of the climbers had their faces covered in snow by the slide, blocking their airways, while six others were partially buried. No serious injuries were sustained. The slide was estimated to have involved 10 to 18 inches of snow according to Sam Braband, manager of the outdoor recreation program at UAF.

The nine students and four leaders were on the final trip of the 11-week course when the incident occurred.

The trip was led by class instructor and mountaineer, Frank Olive, assistant coordinator of Outdoor Adventures (OA) since 2010. Olive teaches many of the outdoor adventures and outdoor leadership courses, as well as being responsible for the day-to-day operations of OA including trips, classes and rentals.

According to Mark Oldmixon, director of the Department of Recreation, Adventure and Wellness, the original plan for the trip involved climbing McCallum Peak, but after the slide occurred and all 13 members were extracted safely, the group made the decision to ski out that day and return to Fairbanks.

The team left the trailhead at approximately 9 a.m. on Saturday with the intention of reaching the mountain valley to camp that evening. The slide occurred around 2 p.m. about three miles from the road.

Immediately following the avalanche, the team took a head count to identify who was missing from the group, according to one of the assistant leaders. They then collectively switched their avalanche beacons to search mode.

“Not doing so is a common mistake in large groups during avalanche rescue,” said an assistant leader on the trip. “It is easy to forget and if somebody is not in search mode, they will continue transmitting a signal, thus confusing those searching.”

Those still above the snow worked to locate the buried members and uncover their faces first to ensure a clear airway, accomplishing this within 20 to 30 seconds of the slide, according to Oldmixon. After everyone was accounted for and able to breathe, the group continued to dig out those still partially trapped in the snow.

Once all members of the team were freed from the slide, the group set up a staging area at a safe point on the slope to warm those who had been buried, check their vitals and perform first aid on the minor injuries such as small cuts and bruises.

During the ski back after the slide, those members of the team who had been buried complained of chest pain due to the inhalation of snow while submerged. These members received emergency medical care upon returning to Fairbanks.

The Alaska Alpine Club had also planned a trip in the area for that weekend but canceled the climb due to reports and observations of avalanche risk.

According to Erica Lamb, president of the club, this trip also involved summiting McCallum Peak. Their approach, she said, was from essentially the opposite side of the mountain from the UAF group.

“Our approach and the UAF team’s approach were very different,” Lamb said, “We were essentially approaching the peak from the opposite direction. Conditions could be totally different over there.”

Oldmixon clarified that conditions were calm and clear on the slope, with temperatures in the mid 20s.

Areas like Thomson Pass and Ptarmigan are tested for avalanche danger by the AAIC because of their high traffic, Lamb said. The Delta mountains in the Alaska Range where Canwell glacier is located, on the other hand, does not receive official avalanche forecasts. This forces climbers to rely on reports of conditions from other climbers.

“Course instructors will discuss the avalanche with the class and will explore the things to be learned from the incident,” Oldmixon said.

“It was a stressful situation and our main goal is to make sure everyone is able to mentally unpack and recover,” Braband said. “It was because of that training and because of the education that they received that they handled the situation very quickly, very effectively.”

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