Slide caught pair in final run

Winchell dove into the avalanche to try to save Brakel on Mt. McGinnis

Posted: Wednesday, April 28, 1999

The party of five skiers and snowboarders were on their fifth and final run down part of Mount McGinnis, near the Mendenhall Glacier, when an avalanche caught and killed two of them, state troopers said.

Juneau residents Katrina Winchell and Matthew Brakel, both 32, were taken in separate helicopters to Bartlett Regional Hospital, where they were pronounced dead from multiple injuries shortly before noon Tuesday.

The other members of the party of three women and two men were not injured, troopers said.

Chris Bowman, a nurse and Brakel's girlfriend, was snowboarding in the group. She said Winchell plunged into the avalanche after Brakel, to save him.

``Greater love is none than to save a friend,'' Bowman said.

Coastal Helicopters transported the skiers and snowboarders, but wasn't guiding them. They arrived at the mountain about 8:15 a.m. They were skiing, snowboarding, photographing and videotaping on the northwest face.

They would ski or snowboard down part of the mountain, from around the 4,200-foot top to about 3,000 feet, and then the pilot would shuttle them back up for another run.

The pilot, Mike Wilson, saw the avalanche shortly after dropping off the party at the mountaintop about 10:30 a.m. and immediately radioed the company for help, trooper Sgt. Will Ellis said. The pilot could see that at least one person was caught in the avalanche.

The slab avalanche started just below the summit and ran over a small slope with cliffs and dropped into a steep gully, said Bill Glude, an avalanche expert and outdoors guide who helped remove one of the victims.

The snow was about 3 feet thick over a crust of snow that melted and refroze, he said.

Bowman was standing a few hundred yards on another slope with photographer Mark Kelley when it happened. Brakel and Winchell on snowboards and Theresa Ihas, a Canadian on skis, were on the ridgetop.

The two women were starting down a more southeasterly face and Brakel went over the steeper north face, Bowman said. ``He always wanted to go big,'' she said.

``Matt jumped a cornice and then he made two turns, and then the whole `avvy' went,'' Bowman said. ``It was just so huge and it went on so long and it carried him out of my view.''

Winchell and Ihas stopped when they saw the avalanche, Bowman said. Bowman could hear Winchell calling out, ``Where is Matt?''

Bowman shouted out for everyone to turn off their emergency locating beacons so they could hear Matt's. But before she finished her message, Winchell was gone. Ihas later told Bowman that Winchell dove into the avalanche.

The helicopter pilot ferried Bowman and Ihas, who is also a nurse, to Brakel, who was head down in the snow at about the 1,500-foot level, troopers said.

The two women had to jump out of the helicopter because there was no place to land amid the huge ice boulders that littered the scene.

The women pushed away a boulder, dug out Brakel and performed CPR for about 45 minutes, Bowman said. He had serious head and spine injuries and didn't have a pulse, but they wouldn't give up.

Meanwhile, the helicopter pilot had taken Kelley to Winchell, who was lying face down and unconscious on a steep slope at about the 2,400-foot level, Ellis said.

The pilot couldn't land, but he tried to hold the helicopter ``toe-in'' to the slope while Kelley tried unsuccessfully to lift Winchell into the helicopter, Ellis said.

Capital City Fire and Rescue received the company's call at 10:35 a.m., said Lt. Beth Weldon of the Glacier Fire District. The fire department sent a medevac team and a rescue team on separate TEMSCO helicopters.

The medevac helicopter arrived about 11 a.m. The rescue team wasn't needed, Weldon said.

Another TEMSCO helicopter had already arrived at 10:50 a.m. with two members of the guiding company Out of Bounds Adventures. They transported Winchell. Fire department medics transported Brakel.

Both victims were alive when they arrived at the hospital but were soon pronounced dead by the emergency room physician, said Bartlett spokeswoman Marijo Toner.

Although people associate avalanches with death by suffocation, sometimes victims are killed by being battered by snow, ice and rocks, trooper Ellis said.

Winchell and Brakel were the 10th and 11th people killed by avalanches this year in Alaska. Eight people died while snowmachining, including six last month at Turnagain Pass southeast of Anchorage. A construction worker was killed by an avalanche this month in Cordova.

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