A heli-ski avalanche near Matanuska Glacier killed a Fairbanks woman who was heli-skiing on Saturday. It was witnessed by four others in the group.
Erin Lee, 40, was rescued and taken to Mat-Su Regional Hospital and pronounced dead.
She was part of a group heli-skiing about 7½ miles from the Glenn Highway east of the Matanuska Glacier, said Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the Alaska state troopers. It wasn’t immediately clear which mountain the avalanche occurred on. Troopers have not visited the exact site. McDaniel also noted that another group was heli-skiing in the same area Saturday.
Group was from Majestic Heli Ski
Lee was one of four guests in the Majestic Heli Ski group led by one guide that afternoon.
Majestic Heli Ski is based near Mile 115 of the Glenn Highway. Which is about halfway between Palmer and Glennallen. Majestic Heli Ski offers packages that include heli-skiing in the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains. Majestic Heli Ski has not made any statements about the heli-ski avalanche near Matanuska Glacier.
Two clients and a guide were at the bottom after finishing a run. Lee began skiing and an avalanche was triggered. One other skier was still at the top. All four watched the slide bury Lee. No other skiers were caught in the avalanche and there were no other injuries, according to McDaniel.
Group had safety gear
Lee was equipped with avalanche safety gear. Including an avalanche beacon, rescue probe, shovel, harness and avalanche airbag system. She did not deploy the avalanche airbag system during the avalanche.
The other skiers in the group were also equipped with safety gear, and the guide had communication equipment. According to the company’s website, Majestic Heli Ski clients receive training about hazards and also how to use the safety gear.
“It sounds like the witnesses, including the guide, were able to see what happened and they were able to go right to the area and use the beacon technology,” McDaniel said.
Lee was recovered from the heli-ski avalanche near Matanuska Glacier by the group. Then flown to the hospital in the Majestic Heli Ski helicopter. It was not clear exactly how long Lee may have been buried. McDaniel said about an hour passed from the time of the avalanche until the time Lee reached the hospital.
It’s not clear what triggered Saturday’s heli-ski avalanche near Matanuska Glacier. McDaniel said there is not currently a plan to investigate that.
“The availability of having witnesses see what happened is key in us making the decision on trying to track down an avalanche specialist to go out there and determine a little bit more closely what had happened,” McDaniel said.
Closest danger forecast was Considerable
The area where this happened is outside the direct forecast zones for the Hatcher Pass and Chugach National Forest avalanche centers. There was a forecast from the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center, about 60 miles west. It rated the avalanche danger there on Saturday as considerable at all elevations.
New snow fell in much of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough last week. That caused some instability for avalanche conditions in the Hatcher Pass area. Numerous natural, human and remotely triggered avalanches were reported Friday. One crossed and closed a road, the avalanche center wrote.
Guides at Majestic Heli Ski “continuously gather data and evidence, take field observations, perform snowpack tests, monitor weather conditions and evaluate and forecast the snow stability and the avalanche hazard,” according to their website.
Avalanche deaths not a common occurrence, says State Trooper
All backcountry recreating has risks, McDaniel said But avalanche deaths are a less common occurrence. Lee was the fourth person in Alaska to die in an avalanche this season. In early February, three climbers died in an avalanche on a steep and challenging route of Bear Mountain near Chugiak.
Five men also died heli-skiing Saturday when their helicopter crashed above the Knik Glacier in the Chugach Mountains southeast of Palmer. One man who survived the crash remains in serious condition. That group consisted of the pilot, three guests and two guides from Tordrillo Mountain Lodge.
McDaniel said he and other officials with the state troopers could not recall any deaths other than the six Saturday that were related to heli-skiing in recent years. A Southeast Alaska Backcountry Skiing Adventures heli-ski guide was buried in an avalanche near Haines in 2014. He eventually died, following the death of another guide from the same company on a Haines-area heli-ski trip in 2013. An avalanche near Haines killed an Alaska Heliskiing company guide and a snowboarder in 2012.