FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Two friends heard warning sounds as they skied toward mountains in the eastern Alaska Range, but they thought they would be safe at higher elevations.
As Michael Hopper and Erik Peterson crossed a gently sloping valley in relatively flat terrain Saturday, they heard "whomping," the sound of a layer of snow collapsing. They concluded it was snow settling into a creek bed.
They heard it again later in steep terrain, just before an avalanche killed Peterson, 35, and buried Hopper, 63, for more than two hours.
Hopper said he feels betrayed by the mountains he loves and thought he knew them better from trips along the same route, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported Tuesday (http://bit.ly/1saciXX ).
"I may have gotten a little too confident, a little too familiar," said Hopper, co-owner of the nearby Black Rapids Lodge who has skied the mountains for 20 years. "Maybe things are changing in ways none of us expected."
The first whomping sound they heard in the foothills Saturday was a little unnerving, Hopper said, but not enough to make them stop.
At the higher elevation, on an estimated 30-degree grade, they spotted another danger sign: Hard-pack snow beneath 6 inches of loose snow. It was evidence of a weak layer that could move.
They changed course and headed for a west-facing ridge but heard another "whomp." Peterson was ahead of Hopper and turned around to ask Hopper if he heard it.
"As he said that, I looked upslope about 20 feet," Hopper said. "I saw what looked like a wave breaking like whitewater. It just instantaneously appeared on the slope horizon."
They had set off an avalanche about 600 feet above them. It carried Hopper 150 feet down the slope. When he stopped, his face and right arm were free but the rest of his body was encased in snow.
He scraped snow away with his free arm, loosened his left arm and dug himself out after two hours.
Peterson had landed about 10 feet up the slope. The avalanche covered his head, and he could not breathe. His body has not been recovered because the mountain remains unstable.
Hopper dug out his skis and descended to the Richardson Highway, where a passing motorist assisted him.
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com