Minor errors lead to family tragedy
The annual ritual of spring brings out thousands of hearty Alaskans to ride, ski, board and explore the great outdoors that surrounds us before the snow fades into summer flowers. World-renowned festivals and sporting events like Arctic Man and Tailgate draw visitors from around the globe.
This includes lifelong Alaskans and just-arrived newbies, all anxious to experience the best Alaska has to offer.
Claire Sundgren, known to her friends as a “bad-ass Alaskan girl,” grew up in the cold north winters of Fairbanks and loved to play in the snow with her friends. On April 3, 2016, she left her two young sons with her mother (Billie Sundgren Tewalt) and went with her boyfriend to attend Arctic Man. In 2016 this occasion was expected to set a record for the world’s largest snowmachine gathering and Claire was thrilled to be part of the action.
Blue skies and fresh powder were calling as Claire and her friend made plans. She looked forward to supporting friends entered in the race as well as the personal freedom to ride and escape all the stresses of life.
Around noon, at the urging of Claire’s sons, Grandma Billie called Claire.
“I didn’t really expect her to answer,” said Sundgren Tewalt, “what with cell coverage not so reliable in remote areas of Alaska. But to my surprise she did. And she sounded wonderful and happy. She told us that she was having an awesome time and that she loved the boys and I very much.”
That was the last time Claire spoke to her family. A short time after, as she sat on her sled in the sun, the slope above her fractured from a “high mark” track and the snow avalanched in on her so fast it was like being caught in the spin cycle of a washing machine.
Claire carried avalanche rescue equipment, had taken the time and effort to attend training programs, and wore an active emergency avalanche transceiver. She was found and recovered quickly. But the damage was too great.
“I could not believe it,” Sundgren Tewalt said, remembering the call from the Alaska State Troopers. “The man was so kind, so gentle, when he told me, my Claire was gone; the mother of these two innocent little boys would never be coming back.”
The news was crushing and still aches each and every day. But Sundgren Tewalt is coming to understand … life goes on. She wants and needs to protect her family; these precious children of her beloved daughter.
Sundgren Tewalt wants people to hear her message and think about doing everything possible to make sure they don’t have to go through the pain and heartache she and her family live with now.
Accident investigators with the Alaska State Troopers and Alaska Avalanche Information Center stated in the official report: “A snowmobile rider climbed the east face of Courage Mountain while his ‘partner’ waited at the bottom. The rider triggered a hard slab avalanche that caught him, then hit and buried his ‘partner’ about six feet. Others in the area arrived soon afterward. The partner was located by transceiver and dug free within 25 to 30 minutes. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.”
This was a horrible tragedy for everyone involved: heartbreak, regret, anger, frustration, acceptance, taking steps forward to heal.
Sadly, in Claire’s case, critical rules were broken and the result is a one-minute tragedy that will impact her family and friends forever.
Often the most valuable lessons come from the greatest challenges. By assessing honestly and forgiving ourselves and others for our human fallacies, we grow and can smile again.
For Claire it is easy to imagine her glowing and laughing; the sun shining on her bright happy face as she soaked in life. It is easy to know she would want her children to experience the very same. She would not want them to be afraid because of past mistakes, but rather to grow, learn and be wiser.
“I wish every snowmachine rider would stop and consider their family before they go ripping through the powder,” said Grandma Billie. “If you don’t think you need to invest the time and effort in training, think about your mother. Think about my family. Grief has torn our family apart but I want to do my part to share my experience in the hope our message can save at least one life.”
The Alaska Avalanche School and the Alaska Avalanche Information Center offer education programs ranging from free, one-hour avalanche awareness to four-hour backcountry safety, to multiday professional courses. Get the full schedule and all the details at www.AlaskaSnow.org or call (907) 255-2242.
AVOID THE TERRAIN TRAP
In order to avoid the ‘Terrain Trap’ hazard, avalanche educators must emphasize terrain factors and management. Here are rules to follow to avoid the “Terrain Trap”:
• Ride on slopes one at a time while others watch from a safe zone
• Have an escape plan
• Never ride above others
• Never park at the bottom of a slope that has the potential to be an avalanche runout zone
• Wear a working transceiver under your jacket next to your body
• Stay alert of your surroundings
• Carry a shovel and probe
• Know how to respond quickly and efficiently in an emergency.