Half-baked weather delivers deadly avalanche
This winter Alaska has experienced deep-freeze cold followed by dumps of heavy snow followed by a blast of Chinook “Pineapple Express” warm winds followed by … well, you get the picture. This winter has baked up a lasagna of weather that adds up to a treacherous snowpack that can bury you in an instant if you’re not aware.
It was in February of 2006, in similar weather conditions, that Richard Strick, Jr., of McGrath, experienced just how dangerous this “lasagna weather” can prove. He and a group of friends set out by snowmachine, in a blinding snowstorm, to scout the Iditarod race route through the Alaska Range. Strick, who grew up in Bush Alaska, thrived on adventure and helping others. He loved getting out to the places he called “beyondo,” places where he could settle his soul and find peace in the quiet wilderness.
Despite the many years Strick had traveled this route to conduct work for the school district and to help friends and neighbors, this day turned out tragically different. As he led the way through a narrow slot in the Dalzell Gorge near Pass Fork, the fragile balance of snow on the slope above let go and buried him under nearly 10 feet of snow.
Weather conditions that season had been brutally dry and cold. Heavy winds had caused wind loading, scouring the remaining snowpack with crusty slabs and plaguing the area with a deep freeze that kept the base so dry and frozen, the layers of snow didn’t bond well.
On Friday, Feb. 10, 2006, it started to snow; a dry, cold, sugary mix. For the next four days it continued, ultimately dropping several feet of powder. Fresh snow hung precariously on the slopes, then suddenly, it released, burying Strick.
Because he was not wearing an avalanche transceiver, finding Strick became the proverbial, “needle in the haystack” hunt. Conditions were so dangerous, public safety officials did not allow rescuers into the area for several days.
“It was the ugliest snow I’ve ever seen,” said Eric Johnson of Skwentna, who helped with the search. “There was 5 to 7 feet of sugar. This snow, there was no consistency to it.”
With the help of his family and friends, Strick’s body was recovered, brought back to McGrath and prepared, dressed and buried according to Athabaskan custom, on Feb. 27, 2006.
His family and friends still ache with missing him.
Richard Strick, Jr., left, perished in February 2006 after getting caught in an avalanche while helping clear trail for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. This year, two of his nephews, Steffen, center, and Robert, right, are running Iron Dog in his honor.
This year, cousins Robert and Steffen Strick, Jr., are running the Iron Dog race as rookies in memory of their Uncle Rich. They call themselves Team Strick. Rich’s brothers, Fritz and Steffen, Sr., plan to fly by plane along the course to keep watch over the younger men.
All this makes mother Sharon a bit nervous.
“This year, with apprehension, I support my two grandsons,” she wrote in an email. “And with Fritz and Steffen, Sr., flying the route, I’ll have almost all my male heirs in ‘beyondo’ at once.”