Within hours, news began trickling out that Randy Bergt, a beacon of Anchorage's thriving ski community, had died Wednesday in an avalanche up at Hatcher Pass.
"Everyone had the same kind of response," said Rob Whitney, a former champion junior skier coached by Bergt at Service High School. "Oh my God — are you kidding me??"
Friends say Bergt, 60, was a passionate and highly skilled skier whose death is a shocking loss for hundreds, if not thousands, of people who encountered him over the decades.
"He was a pillar of the nordic community," said Joey Caterinichio, board president of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage.
Bergt retired this year from his job as an engineer in Anchorage's public transportation department.
He and his wife, Tasha, coached the powerhouse Service High School boys and girls ski teams of the mid- to late-1990s and have volunteered in the Anchorage outdoor community for years. He also worked ski patrol at Alta Ski Area in Utah, a friend said.
But it was Bergt's enthusiastic energy about the sport that captivated people.
"He was just super-active in the ski community, and not just nordic racing," said Tim Miller, an avid skier and friend of Bergt for 25 years. "He just loved skiing."
Bergt and two equally experienced friends decided to ski the President's Ridge area of Marmot Mountain on Wednesday despite avalanche warnings of "considerable" danger above 3,500 feet. All three carried avalanche beacons as well as rescue probes and shovels.
They decided to descend at 3,600 feet, according to a preliminary report by Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center forecasters Jed Workman and Allie Barker that was posted Friday. Bergt entered the slope and triggered an avalanche 150 feet wide and 800 feet long.
Bergt, caught and carried through a vertical, rocky gully, was buried four feet deep in a "narrow terrain trap" at the base of the run, Barker and Workman wrote.
The other two skiers conducted a beacon search and picked up a signal near the base of the debris pile, the report says. They found Bergt with a probe and dug him out.
They tried to revive him with CPR but couldn't. Emergency responders began receiving reports of the avalanche around 2:30 p.m. State parks rangers recovered Bergt's body on Thursday.
The avalanche danger was no surprise.
Strong winds gusting as high as 51 mph built "dangerous, sensitive, wind slabs" at mid- to upper-elevation slopes that continue to be an avalanche problem, the center warned Monday in a forecast updated Thursday morning as skiers started the long Thanksgiving weekend. A new update was scheduled for Saturday.
The center issued this warning: "If you head into the backcountry this holiday and into the weekend, use extreme caution. Dangerous avalanche conditions exist and human-triggered avalanches are likely in specific areas."
Workman, in an interview Friday, described the avalanche as relatively small and potentially survivable had it not "funneled into a terrain trap."
"This means we need to choose terrain appropriately, without terrain traps in the run out," he said in an email. He also said 70 percent of all avalanche fatalities occur during considerable avalanche danger for persistent slabs and deep slabs.
He and Barker expressed their sorrow for Bergt's death, calling him "an experienced mountain man" in the email.
"Avalanches are an equal-opportunity killer," Workman said by phone. "They don't care how experienced you are."
Word of Bergt's death began circulating in Anchorage's tight-knit ski community within hours. Alaska State Troopers officially released Bergt's name Friday morning.
Anchorage's ski elite struggled with the implication of blame that often circulates when an experienced skier dies in an avalanche.
Most skiers make mistakes in the backcountry, several said. Most are lucky enough to come home without incident.
"Randy is a not a risk taker. I know a lot of risk takers. Randy is not one," said Nora Miller, a friend of the Bergts and longtime backcountry skier.
Miller said she "hated the idea" behind the question she and others were hearing from people, given the avalanche advisory: "Why were they out there?"
"Lots of people go out when it's 'considerable,' " she said.
Her husband, Tim Miller, said experienced skiers assess the risks they face on any given run based on the varied conditions they've encountered over the years.
"They weren't doing something they didn't have knowledge of," he said. "They didn't just walk out there … the most knowledge you can have, it still won't always prevent tragedy."
As a Service High School ski coach for four years in the late 1990s, Bergt skied fast enough to keep up with some of the best young racers in the country, waxed piles of skis at night after training and developed the notorious "mombo" one-ski drill, said Whitney, now an Anchorage firefighter and considered the best junior skier in the country at one point.
"I grew up with incredible family values but Randy instilled the whole selfless volunteer theme," said Whitney, who skied at Service all four years that Bergt coached. "He dumped his heart and soul into our ski team."
Whitney and his wife, Olympic skier Holly Brooks, planned to go out and add some holiday decorations to a growing display of decorations and ski memorabilia at a spot on the Service ski trails named in Bergt's honor. A group of Service ski team alumni started putting out decorations on Thursday.
"We can all take something from Randy," Whitney said. "He's had such a presence. There's enough people in this community that want to continue his legacy and his acts of unselfishness."
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Nora Miller by a previous name....Read more