Published April 17, 2013
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A pair of Army mountaineering experts spent six hours down a 140-foot hole in an Alaska glacier and helped shovel out more than a ton of snow to recover the body of a 9-year-old Fairbanks boy killed when he drove his snowmobile into the opening.
The dangerous extraction about 125 miles southeast of Fairbanks went off without a hitch, but there was no celebrating among the soldiers or others involved after the arduous, grim work Sunday and early Monday.
"This one went very smooth, and I'm very proud of our men," said Maj. William Prayner, head of the Army Alaska Northern Warfare Training Center. "But it's difficult to be excited about it because of the circumstances and the tragedy."
A dozen soldiers and a civilian instructor at the mountaineering and cold weather training center aided in the recovery of Shjon Brown's body.
The youngster and his father, Roger Brown, were among thousands of Alaskans who descended on the Hoodoo Mountains south of Delta Junction for the Tesoro Arctic Man Classic, a race in which a skier descends a slope, grabs a towline trailing a snowmobile, gets pulled up an second hill, then descends to the finish line. The fastest skiers cross the finish line in about four minutes.
Many spectators take in part of the race, then enjoy miles of high country and the long, warm days of April. The Browns were among them, and on Saturday afternoon made their way up West Gulkana Glacier.
As Roger Brown took a break on a hillside, he watched his son drive around a mound. When Shjon did not reappear, Roger Brown traced the boy's tracks and discovered the boy had driven into a moulin, a hole formed when water on the glacier's surface melts ice and flows to an underground river below.
The hole in summer would have been about 30 feet in diameter, Prayner said. But heavy snowfall had hidden the hazard, and a snow bridge had partially formed across the hole.
"The problem is, when you get on top of the snow bridge, you can force a section of it to fall down into the hole," Prayner said.
An emergency room doctor with climbing experience, identified by the Anchorage Daily News as Jeff Baurick, was in the area. Tied to a snowmobile with its skis buried in snow, he rappelled into the hole and found the child's helmet, goggles and snowmobile. He concluded that the boy was buried.
Soldiers from the northern training center were nearby training, and Alaska State Troopers called for assistance. The soldiers arrived at the glacier in a tracked, articulated Small Unit Support Vehicle, or SUSV, in time to help pull Baurick from the hole. The doctor's observations led troopers to conclude the boy had died.
The training center needed the Defense Department's permission to participate in a recovery mission. That came Sunday.
A dozen soldiers and a second SUSV returned to the moulin with troopers, Roger Brown and three of his friends. The soldiers used Baurick's pictures to plan the recovery.
"It was a straight drop down with a considerable amount of snow overhanging what would be in the summer the full opening of the hole," Prayner said.
The soldiers positioned logs near the lip to provide stability. The overhang was 10 to 14 feet deep — more than enough to bury anyone who went down.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, Staff Sgt. Stephon Flynn, 36, a flight medic who works at the cold weather and mountaineering center, and Stephen Decker, 46, a civilian instructor, went over the lip and into the hole.
"There was a lot of snow, and a lot of snow had fallen into the hole on top of Shjon and his snowmachine, so we had to be very careful not to keep more snow falling in, to keep Flynn and Decker from getting covered," Prayner said.
On the floor of the hole, just 15 feet in diameter, Flynn and Decker roped themselves in. Water flowing in a moulin goes somewhere, Prayner said, and they probed the bottom to make sure it was stable.
They also dug a shallow cave in the wall where they could take shelter from falling show. Every time a load was lifted, they entered the cave. Parts of the snow bridge tumbled down.
"They thought at some point they might get buried for a little bit," Prayner said. Three soldiers at the surface were ready to quickly descend if they needed to be dug out.
Mostly Flynn and Decker probed, dug and shoveled snow into "mule" bags that were lifted out because there was no room to move the snow aside.
Soldiers at the surface couldn't risk adding the weight of pulleys to the logs at the lip. Two roped-in soldiers at the lip used brute force to pull up the bags, which weighed more than 100 pounds each.
Other soldiers, or Brown and his companions, dragged off the bags, emptied them and return them to be sent back down the hole.
The men pulled 30 bags over the lip — more than 3,000 pounds of snow — with Flynn and Decker waiting in their cave for each load to clear.
At 9:30 p.m., their metal probe had touched something soft — the boy's boot.
It took two more hours to remove the snow around Shjon's body. Under lights powered by a generator, the soldiers prepared to lift him at 11:30 p.m. — and made a place at the lip for Roger Brown.
"The No. 1 man bringing the stuff up was one of our lead mountaineers, 1st Sgt. (Tom) Dow," said Prayner, who directed the recovery.
"We put the father right next to him, tied in," he said. "After we had packaged Shjon up, we brought him up, and his father, with the first sergeant, brought him out of the hole."
Shjon's body was moved to an SUSV, where Roger Brown and his friends could grieve in private.
The soldiers at the surface switched ropes, which had been damaged moving up snow, and helped Flynn and Decker climb out. The group met Shjon's mother and the boy's stepfather at the Army's Black Rapids training facility.
Prayner, who has two 10-year-old sons, said the effort was taxing but the soldiers were humbled and honored to help the grieving family.
"This is a 9-year-old boy and a father," he said. "This is probably the hardest one in at least last seven or eight years that I've done. It's just very hard."