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Could more trail signs save lives?

Death of hiker raises questions about whether proper trail warnings exist

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2001

Chop Gully, the steep avalanche chute on Mount Juneau where a young tourist died this week after a fall, has been dangerous for other hikers over the years.

Steve Lewis, spokesman for the Juneau Mountain Rescue team, thinks cautionary signs could warn people away from the area.

"It would be nice to get some signs that say 'This is not the way up Mount Juneau,'" he said.

Lewis helped retrieve the body of Evan Schroeder on Thursday afternoon. Schroeder, 17, was a passenger from New Jersey on the cruise ship Norwegian Wind, which stopped in Juneau on Wednesday.

Chop Gully is the same place that Michael Hetzel and Terrance Mulligan, both 30, got stuck, Lewis said, although Schroeder was about three-fourths of the way down the slope from where that incident took place. The gully is full of shale and other loose rock, plus rock that breaks away easily under foot.

Hetzel and Mulligan were hiking down from the summit of Mount Juneau on Aug. 3, 2000, when they encountered cliffs they couldn't descend. They called authorities from a cell phone, and were plucked off a ledge by a helicopter close to nightfall. They were uninjured.

Juneau seniors tennis champ Dean Williams, 83, who walks the flume a wooden trough along the base of Mount Juneau once a day and watched the retrieval from Basin Road on Thursday, agrees that signs are a good idea.

"There should be a sign there that says, 'This is where people lose their lives,' so it won't happen again," he said.

"I respect that mountain," Williams said of Mount Juneau. He said he was stuck on it with high school buddies in the 1930s while hunting ptarmigan. As a member of a volunteer rescue group in the mid-1940s, he had one experience much like that of Juneau Mountain Rescue on Thursday.

"It's almost identical," Williams said. "This sailor came in on the Navy cruiser Chicago and wants to climb the mountain. He went up with two companions. They got on the top, but when they started to come back, he got into trouble. It's a trap, because there is a place up there that looks like a shortcut. This guy took the shortcut. The other sailors got back to the Chicago, but he never showed up."

No one could find the missing man. Then, after three days, eagles began to circle the remains, Williams said, and he and four others started to climb to the spot.

"We were all skiers, and they thought we should be good in the mountains."

They were not technical climbers, however, and had no equipment but rope.

Bringing the sailor's body down was challenging. "You could lose your life up there with all that loose rock," Williams said.

Williams' wife, Edna, knew the dangers, too. When she worked for the Juneau Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s, she habitually cautioned gung-ho visitors, she said.

"Young Navy fellas, the first thing they wanted to do was hike Mount Juneau. They'd ask, 'Where do I get started?' and I used to tell them, 'Take it easy.'"

The ownership of Mount Juneau is a tangled web.

The flume belongs to Alaska Electric Light and Power. The land around the flume at the base of Mount Juneau belongs to the city, "depending on how far up the gully you go," said Bill Garry, area superintendent for state parks.

"Above the first eighth-mile (of the slope), most of that gully is federal land, state selected, which means it is federally managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The top of the mountain is Chuck Keen's private claim."

Keen is the owner of the Robert Service Gift Shop on Franklin Street.

"There was a time we tried to discourage people from hiking on the flume because avalanches come on there," said David Stone, vice president of consumer affairs for AEL&P. "It's always been of concern to us. We hadn't thought about the idea that people would try to climb up (that avalanche gully) from that spot, but we can consider it."

Mount Juneau is dangerous, said Tom Pauser, a yeoman with the U.S. Coast Guard and a member of Juneau Mountain Rescue. "It's pretty steep, and if you take your eyes off the trail, you can slip."

Pauser noted that at the spot where the Mount Juneau Trail diverges from the Perseverance Trail there is a sign that describes steepness, rock slides and avalanche conditions, and warns hikers that small dogs and children might not be able to handle the route.

"We definitely need more of that sort of thing especially for people who are inexperienced and come in out of town and think they can hike (Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts) in a day. It gets pretty steep, and if you go unprepared, anything can happen."

*****

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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