A third-day of searching for a hiker gone missing in the Front Range of the Chugach Mountains within sight of Alaska’s largest city appears to have ended with no sign of Nephi Soper.
A specialist in the Long Range Surveillance unit of the 297th Squadron of the Alaska National Guard, the 28-year-old Soper has now been missing since Thursday when he departed on a trek of about 20 miles over the wild and uninhabited mountains to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. He had undertaken the adventure as a personal prelude to a training exercise there.
“Because he had communicated that he would be hiking in, and because of his flawless attendance and reliability record, his unit was concerned about his whereabouts when he did not report for duty” by Friday night, according to Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead. The Guard immediately reported him missing.
A search with helicopters from the Air National Guard, volunteers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Chugach State Park rangers, and pararescue jumpers from the Air Guard’s fabled 210th Rescue Squadron started the next day under the supervision of the Alaska State Troopers.
Troopers were unable to provide any information on whether any hint of Soper’s whereabouts was found Monday, and an AMRG member repeatedly stated the group had been told not to talk about the rescue. But when asked directly about plans for Tuesday, the member said AMRG planned to once again resume search efforts. The members name is being withheld to avoid any problems with troopers who for reasons that have never been explained regularly try to keep a tight hold on information about searches in the Anchorage area.
Even Soper family members in the lower 48 have had trouble getting information on a wilderness search that has been hampered for days by bad weather. The half-million acre Chugach Park contains a few trails on the edge of Anchorage, but most of the park is wilderness. Soper left on one of the trails headed into untracked territory on a Thursday evening with the temperatures near 20 degrees, the winds relatively light, and the moon near full.
The weather remained cooperative through Friday, but by the time Soper was reported missing a storm had begun rolling in off the Gulf of Alaska. By 4 p.m. Saturday, the first day of the search, a weather station at Arctic Valley just west of the search area was reporting winds gusting to 67 mph. The winds died down overnight, but began building to 80 mph by midday Sunday.
Search conditions were better on Monday, but winds gusting into the 30s continued to swirl snow into a cloud over the valley that would have led Soper toward a high pass he needed to cross before descending into the Ship Creek valley where a trail leads toward Elmendorf-Richardson.
National Guard officials on Monday remained hopeful Soper had camped somewhere along the route to wait out the weather, a common safety practice in Alaska.
“He is an Army-trained medic and infantryman,” Olmstead reported in an email. “…He has received survival training and cold-weather training in the winter with his unit. Specialist Soper is a solid soldier. His supervisor and co-workers have stated that he is always in the right place and the right time with the proper equipment. He is on-time, reliable, hard-charging and physically fit.
“It is not unusual for SPC Soper to hike and travel on foot or bike, long distances and alone. He is an experienced outdoorsman who enjoys adventures alone.”
Soper moved to Alaska from Missouri in the winter of 2013, and the photos on his Facebook page indicate he has been adventuring almost ever since in the Alaska wilderness. It is a sadly unforgiving environment.
Less than four years ago, 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre disappeared while running the most popular Fourth of July foot race in the state — the Seward Mount Marathon. LeMaitre was last seen only about 200 feet below the race’s 2,900-foot, turn-around around rock at a place called Race Point.
He was never seen again.
A search began the next day and went on for days. It ended with no sign of the missing man. LeMaitre’s daughter, MaryAnne, and volunteers continued the search for another six weeks. They never found any clue as to where MaryAnne’s father might disappeared into the wild.
His body has never been found.
But not all searches end this way. There is always hope. And sometimes even after hope is lost, the lost reappear.
Many thought former Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Racer musher Melanie Gould was lost forever in the summer of 2011. Dozens of searchers aided by dogs, airplanes and helicopters spent 10 days looking for her along the Denali Highway in the Alaska Interior before they gave up.
Two days after that, cold, hungry and tired, Gould emerged from the wilderness. She is today living a happy life Outside, as Alaskans call the Lower 48 states.