Maine hiker’s body found on Alaska mountain

Posted Dec. 26, 2012, at 7:49 p.m.
A Coast Guard helicopter searches the terrain on Mt. Barometer in Kodiak, Alaska, for signs of a missing hiker and Coast Guard crewman from Hollis Center. Derek Russell's body was found on the mountain Tuesday afternoon.
James Brooks | Kodiak Daily Mirror
A Coast Guard helicopter searches the terrain on Mt. Barometer in Kodiak, Alaska, for signs of a missing hiker and Coast Guard crewman from Hollis Center. Derek Russell's body was found on the mountain Tuesday afternoon. Buy Photo
A volunteer member of Kodiak Island Search and Rescue prepares to join a search for a man from Hollis Center, Maine, who went missing after a planned weekend climb of Mt. Barometer in Kodiak, Alaska. Derek Russell's body was found on the mountain Tuesday afternoon.
James Brooks | Kodiak Daily Mirror
A volunteer member of Kodiak Island Search and Rescue prepares to join a search for a man from Hollis Center, Maine, who went missing after a planned weekend climb of Mt. Barometer in Kodiak, Alaska. Derek Russell's body was found on the mountain Tuesday afternoon. Buy Photo

The Maine man who had been missing since Saturday afternoon after a planned mountain climb was found dead on Mount Barometer in Kodiak, Alaska, on Christmas Day.

Members of Kodiak Island Search and Rescue and the Alaska State Troopers confirmed Wednesday that the body of 20-year-old Derek W. Russell of Hollis Center was found by search team members around 2 p.m. Tuesday local time. The discovery ended a two-day effort involving as many as 100 volunteers, helicopters, an airplane, and search-dog teams.

“He was last seen on Saturday at 2 p.m., and we were notified Sunday evening around 6 p.m. that he was missing,” said Nick Szabo, incident commander for Kodiak Island Search and Rescue, the agency that coordinated the search. “I got the first call from one of the dog teams at 2:34 p.m. Christmas Day. That’s when we confirmed he’d been located.”

Szabo, who has been part of the search and rescue agency for 25 years, said the mountain, which is listed as having an elevation of just under 2,500 feet, is a treacherous climb, especially during winter months.

“This mountain is very dangerous in the wintertime,” said Szabo. “Number one, he shouldn’t have gone up by himself; number two, he probably wasn’t as well-equipped as he should have been; and number three, he shouldn’t have been climbing it in the winter.”

Szabo said Barometer is ranked as a No. 6 climbing grade — the highest in terms of difficulty — even in the summertime.

“In wintertime, the summit is almost glare ice,” Szabo said. “The only trail going to the top of the mountain is on a ridge and the ridge is about six feet wide, which drops sharply off on both sides. And if it’s icy, you can easily slip and fall off.”

Szabo was unsure what Russell’s level of hiking and climbing experience was, but noted the crew member of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Munro, based in Kodiak, had borrowed a crew member’s ice ax, which led Szabo to believe that Russell may not have had all the equipment a veteran climber would carry.

Szabo said Russell’s body was found about 1,200 feet up the mountain shortly after a search team noticed skid marks and followed them to the ice ax. Russell’s body was found shortly afterward.

“He was observed on the summit of the mountain Saturday by one of our members who’d been hiking on the lower level,” Szabo said. “Yesterday, two of our people got dropped off on the summit by helicopter and found the skid marks. Apparently he made it up to the top, and then on the way down he slipped and slid about 1,000 feet.”

Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said an autopsy will be performed, but was delayed as bad weather Wednesday postponed transport of Russell’s body by aircraft to the state medical examiner’s office.

Ipsen said the Coast Guard, Alaska state troopers, and Kodiak Search and Rescue coordinated and assisted in the search, which was hampered by inclement weather.

“On the first day, on Sunday, the helicopter couldn’t fly because of the weather,” Ipsen said. “And the weather had been pretty cold, down in the teens with a lot of wind and snow.”

Szabo said four searchers worked a 3½-hour stretch that ended at 3:30 a.m. Monday before turning back because of darkness and weather conditions.

Searches and rescues aren’t uncommon for Szabo’s organization, but he said they are fairly unusual for Barometer.

“I can’t remember the last time we were called out for Barometer,” he said. “It’s not something that happens every week, month or even year, but it has taken lives before.”

Ipsen and Szabo said it was a frustrating end to an inspiring search effort.

“We had a lot of people who volunteered to search on Christmas Day away from their families,” Ipsen said. “The community support was just phenomenal. Our hearts go out to the family, especially at Christmastime.”

Inquiries about Russell’s Coast Guard background were referred to the service’s public affairs office, which was unable to provide any details. Two Coast Guard crew members reached via a call to the cutter Munro’s quarterdeck were unfamiliar with Russell’s background and said the full crew would not be back until Thursday.

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