Accident: Chugach State Park

Location: Eagle Peak

Mon, April 9th, 1984
3 climbers caught, 1 buried and killed.
Accident Report

By Larry Campbell, Daily News, 4/84

“Avalanche kills 1, injures another man”. An early-spring avalanche swept over three Anchorage-area climbers assaulting Eagle Peak in Chugach State Park Tuesday, killing one climber and injuring a second. Dead is Stephen M. Campbell, 24, of Anchorage. Joe Yelverton, 20, of Chugiak, suffered a broken left ankle, torn cartilage in his right knee and an injury to his right arm. The third climber, Barry A. Silver, 21, escaped unharmed. Silver walked about seven miles to the park visitor’s center for help. He returned with an Alaska State Trooper helicopter to pick up Yelverton, who stayed on the mountain, wrapped against the weather in a sleeping bag. From a bed at Providence Hospital Tuesday night, Yelverton remembered his friend’s love of the mountains. Campbell had told him many times that he hoped his last days would be spent on the hillsides. “He said he came up here to work on the pipeline,” Yelverton said. “But I think it was for the climbing. He’d always said that when he bites it, when the day finaly comes, he wants it to be in the mountains.”

The trio had begun their ascent of the peak 20 miles southeast of Anchorage that morning, said Yelverton, who described what was to have been a leisurely, two-day climbing trip. “We’d put in our base camp yesterday,” he said. “We were going to climb the next day, and figured we’d get to the summit about mid afternoon. Then come on down”. The sky was clear and weather warm, and the team was making good progress. With Silver at the lead, the three reached the 5,000 foot level of the 6,900-foot peak by just before noon, Yelverton said. “Then, the next thing Yelverton heard was Barry saying, ‘Oh, no.’ ” he said. “I looked up and saw the slope was moving.” Silver and Yelverton had spotted a wave of snow, 2,200 feet long and 600 feet wide speeding toward them. “It happened fast. I remember looking back at Steve. I yelled something at him, I don’t remember what. The last I saw, he was standing up straight and his head was down. “I looked back up. There was this 5-foot wave of snow about 10 feet up fromme.” Yelverton dropped down and dug his climbing axe into the snow. “Then it hit. My first thought – my very first – was that I was going to die. “I’ve heard people talk about getting caught in slides before and try to describe it. There’s no way to describe that force, though. It was like getting hit by a truck, but that doesn’t describe it!’ As the avalanche rushed down the mountainside, tons of snow overwhelmed Yelverton and Campbell, but pushed Silver aside, Yelverton said. “An avalanche comes like waves in water,” he said. “Everything to each side of the wave gets shoved out away. The slide just spit Barry out. We were right in the middle, though. For the next maybe 15 to 20 seconds – I don’t remember how long – I just kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to keep active.’ I kept doing a swimming motion. I just didn’t want my head to get underneath. At one point, I remember choking on some snow. You’ve got to stay on top of it.” For a brief moment, Yelverton saw Campbell’s body among the flurry. “When it first hit, I was pushed passed him. I remember seeing his body tumbling, just before we reached the cliff. “The slide carried us over. It was a 150-foot cliff. It felt just like free-falling. I didn’t see him after that. I just tried to keep moving.”

The slide carried Yelverton and Campbell 1,000 feet down the mountain. When it stopped, Yelverton was still on the snow’s surface. “I yelled out for Steve. He never answered and I thought he was dead. I yelled for Barry and he answered. Then I tried to stand up and collapsed. I thought both my legs were broken. I looked uphill and didn’t see Steve. Then I looked behind me. He was still on the surface, too. He was just lying there.” Still 600 feet up the mountain from his companions, Silver rushed down the hill to Campbell’s lifeless body. “We decided the best thing to do was to get the hell off the slope,” Yelverton said. Silver helped Yelverton to a safe spot and left a sleeping bag and some food with him before heading for help. For the next four hours, Yelverton was left alone. “I kept flashing back on the accident and seeing Steve laying there. I tried to keep busy. I had this tube of ‘Sunscreen’ (sunburn cream). I read the ingredients on the tube I think three times. “A storm came up fter about three hours and it started to snow. I got gloomy. I just prayed to God to give me strength. Then I looked out over the hills and the sun was breaking through. The sky cleared up. About 10 minutes later I heard the chopper blades.” In his six years of climbing, Yelverton had never experienced such a catastrophe. Now he’s not sure if he’ll continue climbing. He feels only a little sadness about losing his friend Campbell, however. “He was saved during the Billy Graham Crusade here last month,” he said. “I remember looking at his body lying there and didn’t feel that bad. I feel confident that Steve is much happier where he’s at now.”

Outside Online, Essay by Joe Yelverton (published 2022):