Accident on Freezy Nuts

We floated the Chulitna River over the long weekend- hot and sunny and with glorious views of the Alaska Range towering above the river. The mercury climbed to 80 degrees and we drifted down river in shorts and t-shirts. On Sunday night we camped on a gravel bar with the summits of Denali and Mooses Tooth jutting above the clouds. The view from my sleeping bag serene when I unzipped the tent and looked out to see the faint morning light at 3:30am turning the peaks a deep pink. When you’re on a gravel bar in the sun the mountains look so peaceful and pleasant-

Chulitna River
Denali and the Mooses Tooth massif as seen from the lower Chulitna River.

And then back to Anchorage and the working life. I check my email to see a string from random people I don’t know. And then I check the news; 2 dead in an avalanche in the Ruth Gorge: Andrew Herzenberg, age 39, and Avner Magen, age 42 – both from Toronto, Ontario. I read the NPS report– they were killed while descending Freezy Nuts on Saturday, May 29th. A little later I read the string of emails and make the connection- I had been corresponding with Avner Magen for a few weeks and now friends and family were asking if I had any news.

Bryce Stath on “Freezy Nuts” – Spring 2009.

Avner and his partner, Andrew, were interested in “moderate” alpine routes- the kind I like to climb and I gave him tidbits of information about what might be in shape and what to watch for this time of year. I’ve climbed in the Ruth in late May before and had excellent conditions — but I also attempted the Mooses Tooth in late May in 2002 and turned back due to suspect snow at 8000′. In short- you don’t know until you’re there but given the rapid warming of snow against granite with just a touch of sun you approach everything very conservatively and fly in with a good book just in case all you end up doing is sitting around taking photos.

Regardless- climbing in the Alaska Range is high stakes and even the best of the best make mistakes or pass through the wrong place at the wrong time and get injured or killed. Climb long enough and you or someone you know will be one of those people.

Tragically Avner and Andrew chose wrongly on Saturday. Would I have chosen any differently? Who knows – it was hot down on the river but the Ruth is a very different place. Maybe the snowpack seemed good from previous ventures- maybe they thought that the rewards were worth the risk. Maybe they miscalculated what time the sun would hit the upper slopes of the route, maybe rockfall set off a point release. Lots of maybes- about all that is really known is that Avner and Andrew climbed a lot, seemed to love climbing and leave behind family and friends who will miss them.

When you love climbing but still have a career and family it often seems that you live two very different lives. Non-climbers will continually question why someone chooses to partake in an activity that seems to have a decent amount of inherent risk- my family has experienced first hand the anxiety and tragedy that comes from bad decisions and risk. But when you try and describe why the answers offered usually only lead to more questions or further gaps in understanding. It’s not that climbers are careless- with the exceptions of a few mentally ill individuals no one sets out on a climb with the intention of suicide. The answer is personal and differs for everyone.

I don’t know why Avner and Andrew chose to climb- they were both exceptionally gifted persons – Avner was a professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto and Andrew a medical doctor at a Toronto Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, so I imagine their reasons and reasoning was much more complex than anything I’ll ever attain. To attempt to draft a system of reasoning for something as personal as climbing is impossible. Each climber has his or her own reason for doing what they do; about the only thing you can do is point to instances of bliss during their pursuits and say “that’s why”.

Avner had three young children and a memorial web site has been set up here; a site where donations can be made for the care and education his children will be set up soon.

Some of Avner’s climbing photos can be seen here. I grabbed a few off his website to share in the hopes of sharing the bliss he appeared to find.

Rest in Peace Avner and Andrew- and I hope your friends families also find peace.