Troopers say avalanche probably claimed two climbers on Devil's Thumb

Posted: Monday, April 28, 2003

Alaska State Troopers ended a search last week for two Canadian climbers missing near Petersburg since mid-April. Authorities believe the two may have perished in an avalanche.

Troopers led a three-day search for Guy Edwards, 30, and John Millar, 24, of British Columbia.

The two, with Kai M. Hirvornen, 33, of Vancouver, B.C., had been dropped off on Baird Glacier two weeks before. They skied three days via Witch's Cauldron to set up a base camp near the 9,077-foot Devil's Thumb for an attempted climb on its 6,000-foot-high northwest face, a route that has never been conquered.

Edwards and Millar were last seen Sunday, April 13, on their night ascent of the northwest face. According to trooper Search and Rescue Coordinator Lt. Chuck Lamica, Hirvornen did not feel comfortable with the climb and chose to stay behind.

"He watched their progress by their headlamps on the mountainside until about 1:30 Monday morning," Lamica said. "That was the last time they were seen."

The two climbers took gear and food for a four- to five-day climb. When they didn't return by April 18, Hirvornen became concerned and skied to the head of Thomas Bay. Using a hand-held radio, he contacted the tugboat Western Mariner, which provided a communication link to the Petersburg police and troopers.

Hirvornen was picked up that evening by a TEMSCO helicopter and flown to Petersburg. A search began the next morning with troopers, TEMSCO helicopters, Petersburg Search and Rescue volunteers and the Juneau Civil Air Patrol.

Troopers suspended the search on April 22.

"There were avalanches occurring in that area before they started their climb," Lamica said. "There were avalanches occurring during the four days or so that their climb was supposed to be occurring, and there have been avalanches occurring pretty much continually since this search started.

"Based on the fact that we have found zero clues on that mountain of them, we feel pretty strongly that this case is probably avalanche-related and we also feel the odds of survivability at this point are about zero."

Bill Glude, director of Southeast Avalanche Center in Juneau, was flown to the area April 21. Glude advised searchers that avalanche conditions made it extremely hazardous to try to put a search-and-rescue team on the northwest side of the mountain.

Glude said there was evidence of recent avalanches in the area of the climbers' intended route.

"Sometimes we can bomb an area to make it safer for operations," Lamica said, referring to intentionally triggering avalanches to clear away the hazard.

"In this particular case, because of the terrain and amount of snow and ice, it was Glude's opinion there was no way to render this area safe. We suspect these gentlemen have probably been hit by an avalanche, and there is just no safe way to go in and dig through debris.

"We feel very confident that if they were alive and somewhere on the mountain or the icefield below, we would have found them. They are experienced climbers in good physical shape with a lot of knowledge. We would have seen some type of signal or attracter. It was a dangerous route at a dangerous time of year. I expect that the odds caught up to them."

The climbers left at base camp their avalanche rescue beacons, which would have helped pinpoint where their bodies are.

Troopers said they will seek DNA samples from family members to help identify the bodies if they are found.

Said Lamica, "We haven't done a lot of that in the past, but this way if we find a body down the road we can get some closure for the families."

Thirty-nine climbing parties have gone to Devil's Thumb. Fifteen of those excursions made it to the summit on routes other than the northwest face. Another 15 parties have tried the northwest face, and all have failed.

There have been two confirmed fatalities on Devil's Thumb.

In August 1977, Nichols Rouner died in a fall while soloing.

In July 2002, Marc Springer and three other climbers reached the summit via another route than the northwest face. Springer was buried by a large rock slide while trying to scramble to a higher location for better cell phone reception as he awaited pickup.

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