ANCHORAGE — In the end, after experiencing every father’s nightmare, Roger Brown was offered a token of consolation by the military men who came to his aid.
A day after his 9-year-old son died when he drove a snowmobile into a 140-foot hole on an Alaska glacier, Brown guided an Army mountaineering team to the site. And when more than a ton of snow had been pulled away, and the body of the Shjon Brown had been dug out, soldiers from the Alaska Northern Warfare Training Center made room for Roger Brown near the lip of the deadly hole.
“The No. 1 man bringing the stuff up was one of our lead mountaineers, 1st Sgt. (Tom) Dow,” said Maj. William Prayner, who directed the recovery. “We put the father right next to him, tied in. After we had packaged Shjon up, we brought him up, and his father, with the first sergeant, brought him out of the hole.”
The tragedy unfolded Saturday in the Hoodoo Mountains, the site of the Tesoro Arctic Man Classic, a race in which a skier descends a slope, grabs a towline trailing a snowmobile, gets pulled up an second hill, then descends to the finish line. The fastest skiers cross the finish line in about four minutes.
The race draws thousands of Alaskans who camp along the Richardson Highway and use snowmobiles to enjoy riding on the sunny, warm April days.
The Browns were among them, and with friends, made their way Saturday afternoon up the West Gulkana Glacier.
As Roger Brown took a break on a hillside, he watched his son drive around a mound. When Shjon did not reappear, Roger Brown traced the boy’s tracks and discovered he had driven into a moulin, a hole formed when water on the glacier’s surface melts ice and flows to an underground river below.
The hole in summer would have been about 30 feet in diameter, said Maj. Prayner, who heads the Alaska Northern Warfare Training Center. But a winter of heavy snowfall had hidden the hazard, and a snow bridge had partially formed across the hole.
“The problem is, when you get on top of the snow bridge, you can force a section of it to fall down into the hole,” Prayner said.
An emergency room doctor with climbing experience, identified by the Anchorage Daily News as Jeff Baurick, was in the area. Tied to a snowmobile with its skis buried in snow, he rappelled into the hole and found the child’s helmet, goggles and snowmobile.
Alaska State Troopers called the Army for assistance, Prayner said. Soldiers from the northern training center already were in the area. He ordered them to load gear onto a Small Unit Support Vehicle, or SUSV. The tracked, articulated vehicle carries far more than a snowmobile, and more important, could be used to anchor ropes for mountaineers to descend into hole.
The soldiers reached the glacier in time to help pull Baurick from the hole, and his observations led troopers to conclude the boy had died.
The training center needed the Defense Department’s permission to participate in a recovery mission. That came Sunday.
A dozen soldiers and a second SUSV returned to the moulin with troopers, Roger Brown and three of his friends. The soldiers used pictures taken by Baurick to plan the recovery.
“It was a straight drop down with a considerable amount of snow overhanging what would be in the summer the full opening of the hole,” Prayner said.
The soldiers positioned logs near the lip to provide stability. The overhang was 10 to 14 feet deep.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, Staff Sgt. Stephon Flynn, 36, a flight medic who works at the center, and Stephen Decker, 46, a civilian instructor, went over the lip and into the hole.
“There was a lot of snow, and a lot of snow had fallen into the hole on top of Shjon and his snowmachine, so we had to be very careful not to keep more snow falling in, to keep Flynn and Decker form getting covered,” Prayner said.
On the floor of the hole, only about 15 feet in diameter, Flynn and Decker roped themselves in. They probed the bottom for stability.
They dug a shallow cave in the wall where they could take shelter from falling show. Every time a load was lifted, they entered the cave. Parts of the snow bridge tumbled down.
“They thought at some point they might get buried for a little bit,” Prayner said. Three soldiers at the surface were ready to quickly descend if that happened.
Flynn and Decker spent six hours in the hole. Mostly they probed, dug snow and loaded it into “mule” bags that had to be lifted out.
Soldiers at the surface couldn’t risk adding the weight of pulleys to the logs at the lip. Two roped-in soldiers at the lip used brute force to pull up the bags, which weighed more than 100 pounds each.
Other soldiers, or Brown and his companions, would drag off the bags, empty them and return them to be sent back down the hole.
The men pulled 30 bags over the lip — more than 3,000 pounds of snow, with Flynn and Decker waiting in their cave for each load to clear.
At 9:30 p.m., they found something. A metal probe had touched something soft — the boy’s boot.
It took two more hours to remove the snow around Shjon’s body. He was lifted to the surface at 11:30 p.m.
The body was moved to an SUSV, where Roger Brown and his friends could grieve in private.
The soldiers at the surface switched ropes, which had been damaged moving up snow, and helped Flynn and Decker climb out. The group met Shjon’s mother and the boy’s stepfather at the Army’s Black Rapids training facility.
The soldiers were prepared to stay on the glacier at least two days.
“This one went very smooth, and I’m very proud of our men,” Prayner said. “But it’s difficult to be excited about it because of the circumstances and the tragedy.”