Skier survives a harrowing avalanche ride down Silvertip
BROKEN LEG: The slide buried him once, but spat him out.
By BETH BRAGG email@example.com Published: December 31st, 2007 12:13 AM
An Anchorage skier who triggered an avalanche and was swept 1,500 feet down a mountainside Saturday afternoon was lucky to survive, a trooper spokeswoman said Sunday.
Rory Stark, 36, was airlifted to an Anchorage hospital with a compound leg fracture after he rode a slide that carried him from just below the ridgeline of Silvertip almost all the way to Sixmile Creek, spokeswoman Megan Peters said. At one point, the avalanche stopped and buried Stark under snow, Peters said. Then it regained its momentum and as it roared down the slope, Stark was tossed free. “He told the trooper that when it stopped it was almost like concrete, and he was under the snow and couldn’t breathe,” Peters said. “Then it kept going and it spit him out on top. So he was very lucky.” Stark, an outdoorsman who was a co-winner of the 2005 Alaska Wilderness Classic, was backcountry skiing with friends in Chugach National Forest.
The skiers recognized the potential for an avalanche as they began to ski down Silvertip and decided that they were descend one at a time, Peters said. The first skier made it unscathed, but Stark’s attempt triggered the giant slide. In a recorded avalanche report Sunday morning, Lisa Portune from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center said the avalanche started small but got bigger and bigger, ultimately taking out the entire drainage area.
Portune’s report said recent conditions in the Turnagain Pass and Girdwood valley have resulted in at least five human-triggered avalanches in the last week. A weak layer of surface hoar, formed during a mid-month cold spell, is buried under 2 to 4 feet of snow, making conditions dicey for skiers and snowmachiners. Surface hoar can be one of the most dangerous weak layers in a snowpack. “Skiing and riding steep slopes with a deep slab instability like we have right now is similar to playing Russian roulette,” Portune said in her report. “Human-triggered slides are likely on slopes greater than 30 degrees.” Saturday’s slide happened on a slope of about 45 degrees.
The avalanche deposited Stark in terrain difficult to reach, Peters said. Troopers on snowmachine were able to get only within 400 feet of Stark, who was on the other side of a steep gully. Even if the troopers could have negotiated the gully, getting the injured man back across it on a sled “would have been next to impossible,” Peters said.
The Rescue Coordination Center sent a Pave Hawk helicopter, which hoisted Stark — who had bone sticking out of his leg — and took him to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.
Skier recalls ride in a ‘tidal wave’ slide
CARRIED 1,500 FEET: Avalanche danger remains high, officials warn.
By JAMES HALPIN Published: January 5th, 2008 12:12 AM
For a moment, there was only suffocating pressure, darkness and cold. Rory Stark struggled to get free, but couldn’t move underneath the mountain of snow. Stark, 36, was backcountry skiing in Chugach National Forest with five friends when he and Tyler Johnson, 31, climbed near the top of Silvertip Mountain to ski the ridge line just after noon last Saturday. The slope was steep and icy, and the men had to take off their skis to kick-step their way up the mountain.
Aware of the avalanche danger in the area, the experienced skiers decided to skirt the ridge line to avoid triggering a slide. Johnson went first and made it about 500 yards before stopping to wait for his friend. He turned and watched Stark ski down, carefully staying about 50 yards away from the tracks Johnson had left. “He went about three turns, then it started,” Johnson said. “It started pretty small but it grew fast and it was coming down on me.” Johnson skied out of the way, then turned to look, seeing only a blanket of white below. He thought all his friends were gone.
TOSSED DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
As soon as the snow began to shift, Stark turned to frantically ski back up, he said in an interview from his hospital bed Thursday. But as he kicked hard, skiing gave way to desperate swimming in a sea of snow that sucked him down the mountain. At first the slide didn’t seem too severe, but as it picked up speed, Stark fought for his life, trying to force room for an air pocket in front of his face when the slide stopped. It stopped, but he had no air. Then, as he was beginning to lose consciousness, the snow began to slide once more, beating his head on debris as he struggled to breathe. “I was definitely taking a beating — I felt like a rag doll,” Stark said. “It was just like a tidal wave. It got you down there and, you know, you can’t get a breath.” The slide finally spit him out near Sixmile Creek, about 1,500 feet below where he started. He could barely see because of the snow in his face, and a bone was protruding from his leg with blood spurting from the wound.
The three friends who stayed low on the mountain, Brian Stibitz, Mark Corsentino and Chip Trennien, rushed to him, along with a family from Cordova that was also skiing in the area. They covered him in clothes, and the family gave him a splint, Stark said. Johnson, scanning the mountain as he descended, found them. He couldn’t believe Stark was alive. “I thought there was no way anyone could survive that fall,” Johnson said. With nobody missing, Stibitz ran to call for help. It took rescuers nearly four hours to reach the difficult terrain near Mile 61 on the Seward Highway. “There was a steep gully and a snow bridge, and they didn’t want to risk bringing him back across that,” Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said later.
Troopers could only get to about 400 feet from Stark. They called the Rescue Coordination Center, which deployed a Pave Hawk helicopter. The chopper brought him to Providence Alaska Medical Center, where he remained Thursday. “It makes you feel good to hear that chopper coming, that’s for sure,” he said.
AVALANCHE RISK HIGH
The slide Saturday was the result of a weak layer of surface hoar buried under several feet of snow on a slope of about 45 degrees, according to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. There continues to be a danger of human-triggered avalanches on slopes greater than 35 degrees, the center says. At least five have occurred in the past two weeks, with three last weekend — the Silvertip avalanche and two in the Summit Lake area. The men knew of the risk before they went out there. “It’s part of being in the backcountry,” Johnson said. “There’s always a danger of avalanches.” Experienced backcountry skiers, the two have descended mounts Iliamna, Redoubt and Spurr. They have also skied 26,000 feet of Cho Oyu in Nepal, the sixth highest mountain in the world.
On Silvertip, they were equipped with emergency locator beacons, probes and shovels, and were careful to descend separately to lessen the risk of triggering a slide. Still, it happened. Stark’s leg shattered in at least five places, and doctors say it will be six weeks before he’s walking again. He lost a lot of blood, but expects to be fine in the end. “I just got lucky, because as big as it was, there wasn’t much you could do,” Stark said. “I’ll definitely get back to it. I’m not looking for danger at all. I just like backcountry skiing.”