Dangerous gale-force winds drove rain and snow across the wilderness of the Chugach Mountains at Anchorage’s back door on Sunday as authorities tried their best to press a search for a member of the Alaska National Guard now missing for three days.
Twenty-six-year-old Nephi Soper — a specialist in the Long Range Surveillance unit of 297th Squadron of the ANG — left Alaska’s largest city late Thursday on a hike across the Chugach Front Range with plans of joining a training exercise on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson the next day.
When he failed to show by Friday night, Alaska State Troopers were notified. Troopers began organizing a Saturday search which included helicopters from the Alaska Air National Guard and volunteers on the ground from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group.
Searchers found nothing, and by Sunday clouds and winds to 50 mph had grounded the helicopters while those on foot were being held out of some areas because of large and growing dangers from avalanches and exposure.
Tom Crockett, a Chugach State Park ranger, said he couldn’t recall much worse conditions for a search, but he was holding out hope for Soper. The soldier was reportedly hauling a large backpack when he left the park’s Prospect Heights trailhead and was thought to be well-outfitted for his hike. His Facebook page indicated he is familiar with hiking in the Long Lake-Mount Williwaw area of the park.
Ice now coats much of the Chugach high country, however, after a winter with more wind and rain than snow, and the Sunday weather was life-threatening to anyone caught in the open unprepared. Searchers hope Soper has settled into a sleeping bag either in a snow cave or a tent to hunker down and wait for conditions to improve.
“At this time, we do not know Specialist Nephi Soper’s whereabouts or condition, but are obviously concerned,” Brig. Gen. Laurie Hummel, adjutant general for the Alaska National Guard said in a statement issued Saturday. “We are hopeful that he is uninjured and that the hike is just taking longer than anticipated.”
Soper reportedly planned to travel from the Prospect trailhead to Long Lake in the half-million-acre wilderness park, then climb across the snow- and ice-covered alpine tundra to a 4,000-foot pass between 5,357-foot Tanaina Peak and 5,148-foot Koktoya Peak. The other side of the pass drops steeply toward a small lake above the wild Ship Creek valley where wolves still roam.
From that lake near 3,050-foot, a ridgeline descends more gently for another 1,500 feet into the timber and on down to the primitive Ship Creek Trail, which heads north to the Arctic Valley Road.
The 20-mile hike from Prospect to the Arctic road can be done in a day in good weather, but much of the route is exposed, and there are potential avalanche risks in several areas. There is no avalanche reporting network for the area, but just to the east the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center was Sunday warning of extreme danger related to the stormy weather.
Stoper, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, moved to Alaska in December 2013, according to his Facebook page, which includes many photos taken in an around the Long Lake area of the state park.
The photos would indicate he knows the country well. Troopers added that he is in top physical condition. And his National Guard training included schooling in wilderness survival.
And yet — given the weather conditions — searchers were Sunday worried. The weather is thankfully forecast to begin to moderate on Monday.