Remembering Liam

by • October 31, 2017 • Columns, Safety MattersComments (0)9

Family urges caution after losing son who perished in Hatcher Pass avalanche

Dr. Liam Walsh enjoys fishing, in this photo submitted by his mother. Walsh died last year in an avalanche at Hatcher Pass, and the family has raised money to erect educational and interpretive sign in the area. Right: Dr. Liam Walsh was working at Algone Medical Center in Wasilla at the time of his death. 
Courtesy Janet Talley

Dr. Liam Talley Walsh was known for his gregarious, happy personality and compassion for others.

“That was the very reason he became a doctor,” said his mother, Janet Talley. “He was truly committed to helping others and was able to empathize with them.”

He also loved getting outdoors to explore the planet around him. That’s what made him decide to head out on a snowy November day to ski in Hatcher Pass.

“He loved life and lived every single moment of it to the absolute fullest,” said his father, Bob Walsh. “If he wanted to do something, there was no stopping him. He would always find a way to make what he wanted happen.”

Talley said Liam should never have gone to the pass that day alone, but that was Liam. When he wanted to do something, he did it.

That morning, he spoke with his friend Don Weller, a frequent backcountry partner. The pass was finally getting a good dump of snow, but Weller did not have an avalanche transceiver so Walsh convinced him not to drive to the Mat-Su Valley to join him. It would likely be a short time out anyway; hardly worth the 100-plus-mile round trip for a quick ski.

Walsh loaded up his truck and headed out from his Wasilla home alone to Hatcher Pass, where he set out in a snowstorm to carve some turns. He never made it home. He was just 33 years old.

“We wish he would have known how avalanche prone Hatcher Pass actually is,” Talley said. “My husband and I feel very strongly that other people need to know. We had no idea that not even the emergency responders would go in there because it was so dangerous. There are not enough warnings about how dangerous this place can be.”

Walsh’s berieved friends and family felt compelled to help. They raised more than $9,000 for three “Are You Beeping?” avalanche information and safety signs that will soon remind snow travelers they are entering serious avalanche terrain. Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center, part of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center network of snow-safety information centers in Alaska, is installing the signs at Hatcher Pass as a reminder of the danger, and important tips to stay safe. The signs will interact with backcountry travelers if they are wearing an active avalanche transceiver and transmitting a signal.

The importance of reminding Hatcher Pass adventurers of the potential danger has been reinforced too many times over the years. Since 1999, nine people have died in avalanches in the area.

Walsh joins other sons who experienced a similar fate. It was a beautiful, blue-sky day following a weeklong storm when Brendan Smart and two friends went to the Pass to ride their snowboards on Feb. 28, 2006. Smart was just 24 years old when he was caught in a massive slide that buried him under more than 20 feet of snow. Like Walsh, who vanished in November and was not recovered until June, Smart was not found until late May. In Smart’s case, recovering his body sooner was aided by the fact he was not alone so they had a much better idea of where to search.

Keith Coyne was recovered within a day after he was caught on Dec. 26, 1999, while riding his snowmachine in the Pass. He was not wearing an avalanche transceiver, which made finding his body take too long. In Coyne’s case, the weather was clear and dozens of other riders had been riding the same slope all day when the heat of the sun warmed the snowpack, causing it to collapse.

The circumstances in all nine fatal slides since ’99, along with all the cases before that, might vary in details, but the fact that Hatcher Pass is an incredible playground drawing thousands of adventure seekers every year is the same. The beauty, the excitement and the easy access make it a big draw.

The mothers, fathers, families and friends of those lost will forever grieve.

“If it’s so dangerous that the State Troopers and Search and Rescue responders will not go there, why don’t they just close the Pass?” Talley wonders. “If you don’t know where to find information about the conditions, how would you know?”

The “Are You Beeping” signs will remind snow travelers to get the training, gear and forecast picture, and stay out of harm’s way, along with other critical tips to stay safe. This includes where and how to obtain a snow forecast for the region.

“We want to help make a difference,” Talley said. “We can’t bring Liam back, but we can do something that might save another person’s life.”

“We know the signs don’t make the backcountry safer,” said Walsh’s brother, Eamonn, “but they do remind travelers that it’s dangerous and they should go out prepared.”

In addition to funds donated by friends and family of Dr. Walsh, the Mat-Su Trails Foundation is also supporting this project with a financial contribution.

The Alaska Avalanche Information network of centers, along with the Alaska Avalanche School, and the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, are working hard to help Alaskans stay safe while traveling in the mountains. They have a full slate of classes, from short seminars to full day workshops to multiday courses, scheduled for this winter.

 

Plan now for SnowFest event

Join AAIC on Saturday, Nov. 4, at Alaska Pacific University for the annual SnowFest.

This free, community-service event is made possible with support from AARP Alaska and the Alaska Department of Public Safety to help residents get prepared for this year’s snow season.

Learn more at www.alaskasnow.org.

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