Family remembers snowmachiners as elite thrill seekers

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Jeremy Stark had snowflake tattoos on his neck.

Christoph von Alvensleben was featured in backcountry snowmachining films.

Both men, who died Friday when an avalanche poured down a mountain at Turnagain Pass, lived to snowmachine in Alaska's backcountry, said friends and family members. They loved the snow. They loved riding. They loved being extreme.

Stark, 27, and von Alvensleben, 25, belonged to an elite group of freestyle riders who rode when and where no one else would, sometimes with someone filming as their machines flew through the air or did flips off ridges thousands of feet up in the Alaska mountains.

"He was really the prototypical invincible person who could do anything and do it well," said von Alvensleben's older brother, Johannes, who was reached at the family home. "He might get hurt. But nothing bad would really happen to him. Not avalanches. Avalanches are something that happen to other people, not us."

Both men were buried when a slab of a snow above Seattle Creek came crashing down. Snowmachiners who ride in the bowl call the steep slope Widowmaker, said friend Kyle Armbrust.

Heavy snowfall, strong winds and extremely dangerous avalanche conditions stymied efforts Saturday to recover the bodies, said Beth Ipsen, spokeswoman for the State Troopers.

Alaska state troopers, friends and family and those at the scene when the avalanche occurred Friday afternoon provide varying accounts of what happened.

What is known is that the six or seven riders were in an area where no one had been for a while and the avalanche dangers were considered high. The snowmachiners, mostly young men in their 20s, were riding around the bowl when the snow slab started sliding. All the men had avalanche gear.

Stark even carried an extra beacon when he went out snowmachining for anyone who might have forgotten theirs, said his mother, DeeDee Stark, reached by phone Saturday.

"They were not stupid riders," she said.

Both Stark and von Alvensleben worked at the North Slope, usually on shifts that would leave them with weeks off where they could hit the backcountry, their families said.

Von Alvensleben, a German citizen who grew up in Anchorage and earned a welding certificate at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has been the star of snowmachining short films where he freestyles with 180-degree turns and flips. A couple of years ago, he broke a world record for a distance jump, soaring more than 240 feet through the air, his brother and friends said.

"He's one of the last people I'd expect to get caught in an avalanche," said von Alvensleben's friend, Armbrust.

His family used to find comfort in his extreme habits because he wouldn't go into the dangerous backcountry alone. He would go with a half dozen guys who were some of the best snowmachiners in the state, maybe even on the West Coast, said his brother.

"These were not weekend warriors, they were guys who went out every day they could," said Johannes von Alvensleben. They were more dedicated to snowmachining and spent more hours doing it than many people do to their full-time jobs.

Some movies that the group made included a series of films called "Turnagain Hardcore," showing jaw-dropping stunts set against bluebird skies with thumping heavy metal music.

Troopers are hoping to recover the bodies of both men today, Ipsen said.

Stark's mother said her son told her he felt free in the backcountry, that's why he did it. Now, though, she says, "I just want him back here. I can't stand the thought of him still being up there."

She said Stark's girlfriend is expecting twins. "So that's going to be hard. But it will be good to have some of him."

Avalanche experts say backcountry conditions around Anchorage remain ripe for avalanches.

Friday's avalanche deaths were the first this year in Alaska, according to The Associated Press.

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