Silent Spring


In the wake of a fatal avalanche in the area, the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center writes a detailed accident report complete with a physical examination of the slide. Normally these reports come out in two weeks time, but due to the continuing blizzard, the CNFAIC never had an opportunity to visit Stock Bowl. The police report, some six weeks later, was also still in progress, in part because the survivors have not been forthcoming with authorities, the CNFAIC or the media. Frankson and Mlyneux declined interview requests for this story.

"We really don't like our media up here," Bennett explains. "For some reason, they just like to pick on us snowmachiners."

Baugh and Bennett did contact some outlets to clarify misinformation from initial reports—that they were not "high marking" or "dropping cornices" the day of the avalanche. They also pointed out that the avalanche danger rating that day was "considerable," not "high" or "extreme" as has been suggested (a considerable rating falls squarely in the middle of the five-point avalanche danger scale: Low, Moderate, Considerable, High or Extreme).

Matt Murphy is the avalanche forecaster in charge of writing the CNFAIC accident report. "We know there were four people buried and that two people were rescued, which is an excellent, excellent rescue," he explains. "That's something that hasn't been emphasized. And while we do want to figure out what happened that day, we also respect the fact that they lost two friends and we're giving them a lot of space."

"We haven't all gotten together and broken it down yet," Baugh says. "It's been tough, and right now there's still a lot of doubt just about what exactly happened. We're all trying to get together to sort it out."

Eight days after the accident, during a window in the storm, search and rescue volunteers returned to Stock Bowl aboard Helo-1. The team dropped eight separate explosive charges into the bowl before putting anybody on the ground, and one of the charges triggered a large avalanche. Back in Anchorage, Stark's funeral was underway.

Rescuers located Von Alvensleben's body under almost eleven feet of new snow. But before they could dig it out, Helo-1 received a call about another avalanche in the area. The chopper took off to assist in the rescue of an Oregon man buried in a nearby slide that was more than a half-mile across. Thanks in part to Helo-1's quick response, the man survived. The team would later return to the scene of the original slide to recover Von Alvensleben once and for all.

Sgt. Bryan Barlowe, Girdwood post supervisor for the State Troopers, was at the Turnagain lot on the day of the avalanche and the days the bodies were recovered. He says he feels sympathy for the riders who were caught and killed in Stock Bowl, but his sympathies end there. "I'm not here to say they're bad folks. They're not. They're good guys and highly skilled on the snowmachine. It wasn't reckless snowmachiners making decisions. It was just emotional people wanting to get their friends out of the backcountry. But at some point, rational thought has to take over. I 100 percent disagree with their decision to go back in there for the bodies that day."

"I understand all this criticism we've gotten," admits Ferguson. "I do. But here's my point: An experienced rider who's been around Turnagain, storm or no storm, wind or no wind, once you cut down enough trees and stake 'em, and you bring your rope and wire to cut cornices, it can become safe. It's just a lot of work. And that's what we did. We weren't being stupid. We had a plan."

Now that it's April, the abbreviated signs of spring are just beginning to poke through the Turnagain backcountry. Memorial funds have been set up: Stark's will benefit his expected twins while Von Alvensleben's will focus on educating snowmachiners about avalanche safety. With May around the corner, it won't be long before the annual melt-off is in full swing. Tourists will return with cameras and picnics. But one bit of unfinished business remains for Ferguson and his friends: The snowmobiles belonging to Von Alvensleben and Stark remain entombed in Stock Bowl. Those sleds, like the men who rode them, will not be left behind.