“I just kept digging.” How an Anchorage man rescued a hiker buried in Flattop avalanche.

Debris from an avalanche Saturday on Flattop Mountain that buried a hiker. (Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center photo)

A hiker buried by an avalanche on Anchorage’s popular Flattop Mountain survived after another man happened to see his legs sticking out of the snow and rescued him.

According to a report by the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, the hiker was alone Saturday when he was caught in an avalanche near the Blueberry Loop trail and fully buried before he was able to kick his legs free. The hiker, who has not been publicly identified, is believed to have been buried for as long as an hour and able to breathe because the large pieces of avalanche debris left space for an air pocket.

The rescuer, Anchorage software developer and avid hiker Alex Kuprienko, said he was looking up at the avalanche debris when he saw the man’s legs.

“That’s why it’s a miracle, first of all, that he survived there for so long and didn’t give up, and that it was just me looking in the right spot at exactly the right time,” Kuprienko said.

Kuprienko said it didn’t register at first what had happened but he could tell something wasn’t right. He rushed to the legs and started digging toward the man’s head.

“So the snow was really kind of set up, icy snow, and all I had was my fingers basically. I was kind of clawing at it the snow, trying to break it,” Kuprienko said. “And I kind of had this thought that I should get my gloves out, but then I thought, ‘That guy down there, he feels much worse than I do at this point,’ and I just kept digging.”

When he reached the rest of him, Kuprienko said the man’s skin was so cold that snow had stopped melting on it. He seemed lethargic, and Kuprienko hugged him and shielded him from the gusting wind. He called 911, and when the man said he could walk, Kuprienko helped him down the mountain, trying to keep him moving to generate body heat.

For a time, Kuprienko thought the man’s estimate that he’d been buried for as long as an hour wasn’t true and had to be an exaggeration. But based on what time he had started hiking, how far he’d gone and another hiker’s report of seeing fresh avalanche debris convinced Kuprienko that the man had, in fact, been buried that long.

Kuprienko even drove the man home after paramedics checked him and a ranger had given him some hot cocoa. And, if that wasn’t enough, Kuprienko said he also drove a separate man to the hospital from Flattop who’d been stricken with severe abdominal pain.

That night, Kuprienko said, he called called his father ⁠— a longtime lifeguard and skier ⁠— in Russia to tell him what happened. Kuprienko said his father told him, “Now you’re a man, you saved somebody’s life.”

Asked how he felt about having saved the man’s life, Kuprienko said he was simply in the right place at the right time.

“I’d like to think that anyone in my place would do the same exact thing. Maybe not without freaking out, but they would figure out that they need to dig the guy out,” Kuprienko said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m not sure what to think. I was just super glad he was alive when I found him.”

Kuprienko said he hopes news of the rescue will encourage people to seek avalanche safety training and to always be vigilant while traveling in avalanche terrain.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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