Fairbanks snowmachiner survives avalanche burial

A Fairbanks man survived burial by an avalanche in the HooDoo Mountains. The accident in the popular snowmachining area near Summit Lake off the Richardson Highway was the one of two in recent weeks.

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Sean Herring was snow machining with friends in the Summit Lake area last weekend following a storm that brought heavy snow and wind to the Eastern Alaska Range. Herring says the group was staying away from big slopes, and he’d driven away from the others up a small drainage to go to the bathroom, when he triggered the slide.

“It was on a 30-40 foot hillside, and it just slowly started burying me, and then the one above had also slid and was sliding down the creek at me.. and so once I saw that I was pretty sure I was going to die.”

Herring says he initially panicked as the avalanche engulfed him.

“My face was probably two feet under the snow. My arm — I could just barely reach the surface. I kept doing like a punching motion around my face — either clearing it from my face or pushing it in my mouth so I could chew on it and swallow it. I finally noticed that I could still breathe under the snow.”

Herring estimates spending about half an hour digging himself out, after which his friends showed up, and helped him excavate his snow machine and ride to safety.

“After it was all over I was very thankful that I was alive… but also that I was able to experience that and have much more respect for the mountains.”

It was the second reported slide in the Summit Lake area in 2 weeks in which a rider was buried. In an earlier incident, the snow machiner survived a 25 minute burial before being located and dug out. University of Alaska Fairbanks Outdoor Recreation Department Director Mark Oldmixon, is part of a local effort to educate backcountry travelers about avalanche danger. He says the incidents show that even small steep slopes can be dangerous.

“So a 20-ft. slope, but 3 ft. of snow at 100-ft. wide… you know, that’s a lot of cubic feet of snow. And then, there’s a terrain trap they call it. That’s where the snow just piles up into the bottom of this drainage.”

Oldmixon additionally points to dangerous anomalies identified in this year’s heavy early season snowpack in the Eastern Alaska Range.

“There’s a couple of what we saw to be obvious weaknesses… but also seeing other signs there that something else was showing up down int he Summit area in the HooDoos… a little gremlin.”

Oldmixon, encourages backcountry travelers to take advantage of avalanche safety classes, and to keep up on localized conditions by checking the Eastern Alaska Range Avalanche Center website before heading out.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.