The last time I saw Rowdy he was sprinting for all he was worth toward a snow-covered spur about ten feet to our right. A cloud of snow enveloped his hindquarters as the avalanche caught up to him. The last thing I ever said to my long-time, climbing/ski buddy, Erik Petersen, was, “Watch out for Rowdy!” I knew I was about to be swept away. Erik was farther uphill and closer to the steep but stable snow slope of the spur that divided the slope we had climbed from an adjacent, equally steep valley. I figured he was safely out of the avalanche path and would find me in a beacon search. And, I knew Rowdy didn’t wear a beacon. A moment later all went black as—standing sideways to the slide on an upslope traverse—I was cut down like a tree being felled.
The day, December 6th, 2014, started off full of long-delayed promise in the Eastern Alaska Range. Erik had texted me the day before with news I’d waited nearly a year to hear: “New snow, ten inches reported at Trims Creek!” This was just eight miles south of our lodge at Black Rapids. We had been in a snow drought dating back to the previous winter. Rain in January had soaked the early snowpack and the sodden, heavy snow slid in massive wet slab releases. Jumbled glaciers seemed to have appeared everywhere overnight to clog the approaches to our usual backcountry ski slopes. Eleven months later, Erik’s text announced the first significant snowfall since that bizarre January rain. Just to be sure, I drove south past Trims Creek and, sure enough, Rainbow Basin and Ridge were covered in a wonderful blanket of new powder snow. Temperatures were finally in the teens and the wind was calm. We were on for our first tracks of the year!
For Erik it was sort of a homecoming. A talented football and track coach, he’d coached in nearby Delta Junction—and skied with me in the Range—for several years before having to move to Anchorage to continue his career. But his heart remained with the people, farmlands, and mountains near Delta and he’d just returned, determined to find a way to stay for good. He showed up at the lodge the morning of December 6th with the bright smile and muscular energy he was famous for. By 10:30 a.m. we were at the trailhead clipping into our skis, and I was already hurrying to catch up with him. Erik was a 35-year-old former D1 decathlon champion. I was not.
For Rowdy too, it was a special day for different reasons. Just weeks earlier, our indestructible, irrepressible lodge dog had been correctly diagnosed with Addison’s disease after months of suffering recurring ear infections. By the time we found the right vet, Rowdy was nearly in renal failure and had to be hospitalized for three days and stabilized. This trip was the first test of his new-found health.
As we followed a rejuvenated Rowdy up the familiar creek drainage of our favorite backcountry ski terrain, all the months of snowless frustration were left behind with each pole plant. The snow cover was thin and, okay, so we had to fight our way through brush we usually slid over, but still we were sliding! Occasional whomping sounds announced the collapse of our thin snow platform over the approach creek, but we managed to stay dry and push on through the narrow confines of the valley floor as the mountains we longed to ski rose on either side. One small slide near the valley bottom urged caution on north facing rocky slopes, but we were headed to higher, uninterrupted south-facing slopes. Finally, we turned up a high side valley and climbed steadily up toward the wide bowl at its head and our dream slopes.
One final whomping, a little higher up the drainage than usual, argued for further caution. We promised each other anything higher and we’d turn around. But the higher we got the deeper, more stable and more promising the snow seemed to get. When we reached the final spur ridge we would hug in our climb to the ridgeline. We were thinking only of making new powder-run memories.
As the slope steepened and we began our switchback approach, Erik noticed something strange in the snowpack: under the six inches of new snow now appeared a funky, thin and yellowed layer of hardened snow or old ice. It broke up in small chunks under our pole plants. Concerned, we began moving closer to the spur slope that rose on our right where we found the same deeper, homogeneous snow of the lower slopes. We began committing rocky outcroppings on the spur to memory to guide us on our descent. We didn’t want anything to do with the bowl slope itself.
I had just begun a short traverse that brought me back out onto the bowl when we heard a soft and distant whomp. Erik, who was setting the track and thus farther upslope with Rowdy and nearer the spur asked, “Did you hear that?” I turned to look toward the sound and watched as a 12 inch whitewater wave of snow magically appeared about twenty feet upslope and across my field of vision. It was then I turned back for the final memory I have of my best friend Rowdy.
I remember clearly the long slide down. I had the distinct impression of being face down and sliding headfirst down the slope in pitch blackness. I can’t recall any sound. Admonitions from avy safety classes popped up unbidden in my mind: “Swim to the surface!” A few futile strokes in the soft-snow whitewater stilled that impulse. “Keep the space in front of your face clear!” This I did with more conviction with my right hand as I waited … and waited … and frantically waited for the slide to stop. For at this point I realized that if it kept going much farther the slide would reach the valley floor and I would be irretrievably buried in the terrain trap. Those seconds waiting for the slide to stop were easily the most terrifying moments of my experience.
But stop it did, and without hesitation I continued my determined efforts to keep the snow away from my face, somehow never doubting I could. And indeed my efforts were met with daylight and fresh air. As I attempted to take a desperate lungful of air I inhaled a mouthful of snow, hacked the remnants back up, spotted with blood, and then proceeded to fill my aching lungs with blessed winter air. The snow was piled over my head and towered in front of me. My head seemed to have come up in a cave. The rest of my body was deeply buried except for my free right hand and forearm. I found a ski pole still attached to my right wrist and, freeing it, stuck it up outside my hole to signal my friend. I desperately wanted to believe he had been clear of the avalanche path. I think I shouted his name one time, but minutes passed by and it slowly dawned on me that he wasn’t coming … and neither was Rowdy. That horrifying awareness was quickly replaced by the realization that if anyone was to be the rescuer it would have to be me. For the next two hours I worked frantically to free myself from my snowy tomb. As I started to scoop snow up and away toward the hole I realized I would soon fill in my one window on the world. I also realized my “window” resulted from my having ended upright and near the leading edge of the avalanche. I then reached out and retrieved my “signal” ski pole and, using the ski pole basket, began shoving up, out and over the edge the snow that I laboriously scraped out with my gloved hand. The going was agonizingly slow and for one brief moment I admit I considered just waiting until my wife, alarmed at my absence to help with the lodge dinner, sent out help. Doing the math convinced me that waiting would result in my death by hypothermia, so I returned to my labors with renewed conviction.
When I managed to clear enough snow to reverse my ski pole and use its sharp end to chunk up the hardened snow encasing my left shoulder and arm, my spirits rose. With two hands and a little room, I quickly cleared out the space in front of my torso. By this time my legs had begun to cramp; I tried in vain to pull my right leg up and out of my ski boot only to painfully tweak my knee. With my upper torso free I was just able to twist around enough to grab hold and retrieve the shovel strapped on the outside of my pack. My extrication at that point was a foregone conclusion. With a lot of awkward shoveling I managed to dig down to my ski boots, detach them from my skis and finally crawl out of my would-be resting place. Hypothermic by this point, I donned every piece of clothing and the headlamp in my pack and then set out to find my friend. I no sooner turned my beacon to receive than I heard Erik’s answering. I looked up to see his black glove sticking just up to the surface of the snow not ten feet upslope from me. I scrambled over with my shovel and began frantically digging, knowing already the awkward and tragic truth.
I had only seen one other dead body in my life, my mother’s, seven years earlier. My brother and I had arrived at the hospital moments too late. When the too-cheerful attendant pulled back the sheet covering my mother’s face I had the same reaction I did when I finally reached Erik’s head: the person under cover was almost unrecognizable. With both my mother and Erik, their life force was so strong that its absence was startling and undeniable. Once again, with Erik, I was too late even to provide comfort. I then looked briefly for any sign of my beloved dog.
My slow gimpy slide down the mountain and ski out to the highway, the interminable wait for a passing car to finally stop and agree to send word to my wife at the lodge—the keys to Erik’s truck were with him—the second interminable wait as she mobilized both the Northern Warfare Training Center (NWTC) and the Ft. Greeley ambulance service, and finally the three hour ambulance ride to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital … it all stays with me clearly. So many wonderful people came to my aid in a way I couldn’t for Erik and Rowdy. Survivor guilt set in as quickly as the snow that entombed them both.
Within hours of the slide, the Training Center mobilized a full team bent, as only military can be, on recovery. But fortunately, cooler, experienced hands I knew well prevailed —(I’d run and climbed with both of their senior instructors) and any attempt at finding my dog and friend waited on careful avalanche evaluation. The next day Sarah Carter from the Alaska Avalanche Center in Valdez arrived, and after flying over the site she strongly advised against any travel in the area.
Two weeks later, the Alaska State Troopers were still warning people to stay away from the Rainbow Ridge snow slopes and advised us recovery would have to wait until the summer snow melt. I just couldn’t see spending Christmas knowing…
I called a good buddy of mine newly back in Anchorage after getting married in Switzerland, a former Army captain I met when he was stationed at NWTC years earlier. Now a retired captain, Dan Perpich was also a good friend and ski partner of Erik Petersen. We both agreed recovery couldn’t wait and decided to do a “recon” of the approach slopes the weekend before Christmas, December 21st, winter solstice. Dan was still on his honeymoon so he brought his beautiful (and understanding) Swiss Mrs. with him.
We began our recon at first good light around 10:30 a.m. and made steady, cautious progress on the 2 ½ hour climb. But by the time we reached the high side valley the clouds had settled and snow squalls threatened. We climbed that final valley in nervous spurts: we would go a ways and one of us would say, “I don’t know about this.” Invariably the other would respond, “Okay, let’s just go a little farther,” and point to the next, nearby destination. Upon reaching that goal, the roles would reverse but the result would be the same. We kept going. When it started snowing with some intensity, Dan argued more strongly that we consider halting. I knew we were close and wanted to go far enough—“To that rock ridge just ahead”—to see if I could pick out the bent avalanche probe I had left to mark the burial site. And sure enough there it was, much farther down the slope and nearer the valley floor than I remembered.
Captain Dan then took charge. He alone crossed up and over to the site and only then did I follow. Having fought in Afghanistan and helped in the aftermath of an avalanche in Switzerland, he took command of the recovery detail. But we both held each other and cried several times as slowly we recovered our friend…
… and then we found Rowdy. Miraculously, he was curled up against Erik’s back with his right paw on his shoulder. He had managed to dig out a breathing space in front of his muzzle. The frozen walls of his little cavern told us that he had slowly just gone to sleep against my good friend Erik. I can only hope his warm paw provided Erik a small measure of the comfort my beautiful dog gave me his whole life. He was the best dog, to the end.
The memorial services for Erik at the lodge and at an Anchorage high school were amazing. Erik was a special person and a truly gifted coach, and he left behind a legacy of inspired student athletes and loving, laughing friends. In June his father and I plan on hiking to the site to retrieve his skis and pack, and undoubtedly water his resting place with our tears.
Besides the hole in my heart, the avalanche left me with a lungful of debris. Two months after the initial surgery I underwent emergency lung surgery from which, gratefully, I am now almost fully recovered.
Without Rowdy, the Lodge at Black Rapids is a much emptier place for me, and I don’t know if I will ever recover from that. It doesn’t seem fair to ask another dog to take Rowdy’s place. Maybe in time…
Trapped in avalanche debris, Mike Hopper’s first thought was of his son Huckleberry who turned 20 years old 12/6/14 and was supposed to accompany Mike and Erik. His second thought was of his wife Annie and how long it would take her to get over being mad at his not being back at the lodge in time for dinner service and start to worry. And last but not least he thought of his 17 year old daughter Katie who would have killed him if he had died in an avalanche. And then he thought of Rowdy…
You can visit all of us at http://www.lodgeatblackrapids.com, or call 907/388-8391. Rowdy’s spirit lives on.