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The Globe and Mail

Torontonians killed in Alaska avalanche

University of Toronto professor Avner Magen

It was a trip the experienced Toronto climbers had been planning for months - a few days scaling the Rouge Gorge glacier in one of Alaska's national parks.

Andrew Herzenberg, a nephrologist with the University Health Network, and Avner Magen, a University of Toronto computer-science professor, journeyed to Denali National Park on May 24. They joined Mr. Herzenberg's sister, Karen Stephens, and her friend, Josie Garton, about 190 kilometres north of Anchorage for four days of climbing until the two women decided to return to civilization.

The Torontonians stayed on Saturday for one final climb, said Ms. Garton.

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"On Sunday, they were going to be calling to arrange for a pick up," she said from her home in Anchorage on Monday.

A very different call arrived instead: the climbers would not be coming home alive.

Dr. Herzenberg, 39, and Prof. Magen, 42, were killed in an avalanche that swept through the Gorge Saturday afternoon, park officials said.

They were descending a steep snow and ice gully nestled between two peaks on the southeast side of the Gorge when the avalanche tore through, said Maureen McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the park.

Another group of climbers saw the avalanche and knew the pair had been scaling the area and did not return to camp. They skied closer and saw Dr. Herzenberg and Prof. Magen in full gear, underneath rocks, ice and snow.

At about 9 p.m., they used a satellite phone to call the National Park Service, which sent rangers in to the Ruth Gorge by helicopter and picked up one of the witnesses who led them to the pile of rubble.

Just before 11 p.m., the rangers pronounced the two men dead. The bodies were flown back to nearby Talkeetna on Sunday morning.

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Conditions had been ripe for an avalanche - warm and rainy on the Alaskan mountain range, which is a huge tourist draw for experienced climbers, said Ms. McLaughlin.

There is no official warning system for avalanches in the park, she said, and news that there is potential for one often spreads by word of mouth. Park visitors don't have to register with the wardens if they're climbing in Rouge Gorge, though this group actually did, Ms. McLaughlin said.

"Right now, it's really warming in there [and is risky]in terms of being able to move around safely," she said.

The avalanche tragedy comes just three days after a Montreal man survived a 300-metre fall in the same park.

Luc Benoît, 40, was rescued from the West Rib part of Mount McKinley - the tallest mountain in the park - Wednesday night after he tried to scale it solo.

Friends, family and colleagues mourned Dr. Herzenberg and Prof. Magen Monday as news of their death quickly spread through their social circles.

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Prof. Magen's absence was felt in the computer-science department at the University of Toronto Monday.

"He lived for this kind of thing," chair Craig Boutilier said. "He was a fantastic athlete, distance runner, cyclist, everything."

He described his colleague as "self-effacing, modest and brilliant, but didn't have a lot of the ego and hubris that a lot of academics have."

He studied algorithms, mentored graduate students at the University of Toronto and taught undergraduates at the Mississauga campus. He loved his wife and three children dearly, Prof. Boutilier added.

Along with information about his research, Prof. Magen's personal website boasts numerous photos of his climbing expeditions, including trips to the Swiss Alps and the former Soviet Union.

Colleagues at the University Health Network described Dr. Herzenberg as a physician who was fast on his way to becoming a star.

He was a "highly talented renal pathologist committed to improving the lives of patients with renal disease," Sylvia Asa, medical director the laboratory medicine program of University Health Network's wrote in a prepared statement.

He was also described as a devoted family man, with a wife and two daughters he cherished.

"We will dearly miss Andrew's commitment, generous spirit and sense of humour," said Dr. Asa. "As per his family's wishes, we have created a fund in Andrew's name to support renal pathology. If people would like to contribute they can visit www.herzenbergtribute.ca"

With a report from Lisa Priest

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