Hiker Nephi Soper joined the many gone missing in the Alaska wild on Wednesday.
Hopes of finding the 26-year-old specialist in the Alaska National Guard had been dimming with the passing of every day since he disappeared almost a week ago, and as yet another storm pounded the Chugach Mountains above the state’s largest city on Wednesday Alaska State Troopers decided they’d done all they could.
Official word came in a statement saying, troopers had suspended the “active search at 1615 hours on Feb. 24, pending additional clues or information surfacing in the future.”
Friends and family of the smiling young man from Missouri were left to cling to only the slimmest prayers he might yet emerge from the wild, half-million-acre Chugach State Park at Anchorage’s back door.
Fifteen years ago, Rod Boyce, now the editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, disappeared into a Kenai Peninsula snowstorm along with his entire dog team during the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race. Boyce and the dogs spent six days hunkered down in a valley as an extensive air and ground search swirled around them. Many thought the worst had happened.
Eventually, however, Boyce decided he best go looking for help and snowshoed out to where a snowmobiler spotted him, and he was saved.
If Soper is still alive, his only hope now is a similar will to survive. Authorities could find no reason to encourage volunteers to continue to put themselves at risk searching in an area of high winds and avalanche danger.
“No clues have been found at this point,” Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said via email early Wednesday. “Flying time has been pretty limited due to the weather, mostly winds.”
Dozens of volunteers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and the Alaska National Guard, where Soper trained for long-range surveillance and patrol, had been active on the ground, however. Ipsen said they conducted thorough searches of the Middle Fork Campbell Creek, South Fork Campbell Creek and North Fork Campbell Creek drainages in the Front Range overlooking Anchorage and of the Ship Creek drainage out of sight of the city on the north side of the range.
On Thursday night, Soper left the Prospect Heights entrance to the park on the Anchorage Hillside to head into the wild. He apparently planned a hike of about 20 miles first along a popular trail to a city overlook called Near Point, then up the North Fork Campbell to Long Lake, and finally up and over a 4,000-foot pass before a descent to Ship Creek.
The area is largely wilderness, but there is a primitive trail along Ship Creek that leads back to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson where Soper was expected to join a National Guard training exercise on Friday. When he failed to show, the Guard notified Alaska State Troopers.
He was thought at first to be simply overdue on a normal adventure. He had many times hiked the Chugach.
Only about a year after arriving in Alaska from Kansas City around Christmastime in 2012, he wrote on his Facebook page, “Still love it here. I go hiking whenever I get the chance…Summer was great, the hottest it got was only bout 85 but it was a very sunny summer. Well that’s pretty much over now as there is a chance of snow next week, and (it has been) been cloudy and rainy for about a month now. I miss everyone in Missouri…but i Do NOT miss Missouri. ”
He later posted photos taken near the 5,445-foot summit of Mount Williwaw, which rises just to the east of the route along which he was believed to have disappeared sometime Friday. A hasty search of the area on Saturday found no sign of Soper, and by Sunday gale force winds were lashing the Chugach. They did not ease until early Tuesday.
Pavehawk helicopters from the Alaska Air National Guard’s famed 210th Rescue Squadron planned to fly the search area Monday night in hopes of spotting the light of a camp fire or any other sign of life, but “had to turn back due to extremely inclement weather and high winds,” reported Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead.
The weather moderated somewhat on Tuesday and more flying was done, but there was no sign of Soper, who searchers had hoped to find camped somewhere. An experienced Alaska hiker, he was thought to have been fairly well equipped for his adventure.
He was reported to be carrying a large backpack when he left Prospect Heights. A friend said that Soper owned a tent, and the tent was missing from his residence. It was unclear as to whether Soper had a sleeping bag, however. A number of sources said he often used his military issue bag on overnights in the Chugach, and that bag was found in his gear locker at Elmendorf-Richardson.
It was possible, friends said, that he might have had another bag.
Ipsen said troopers were able to figure out some food items Soper carried on his hike because a convenience store camera showed him making purchases just before he left Anchorage. But the video gave no indication of what other gear he took with him.
It was unclear whether he had snowshoes, which could have proven vital on his trek. Anchorage has been hit by unusual amounts of rain at lower elevations this year, but above 2,500 feet the snow is to shin to crotch deep, and observers said that where the wind has loaded it into mountain gullies it just gets deeper as one climbs higher in the mountains.
Some speculated Soper might have been caught and buried in a snowslide, though Ipsen said there were no obvious signs of avalanche reported by searchers. Others wondered if Soper might have fallen into Campbell Creek or gone through the ice of Long Lake.
In 1995, skier Jeffery Rudd disappeared within a mile of the hugely popular Glenn Alps entrance to the Chugach. He had last been seen skiing in blowing snow near the intersection of two of the most popular trails in the park. Then he disappeared.
Searches went on for two futile weeks. Then Chugach Park Superintendent Al Meiners called Rudd’s disappearance “a classic mystery.”
Hikers the next summer discovered Rudd’s body in a creek not far from where he’d last been seen. Chugach park officials theorized a steep creek bank had sloughed enough snow to bury him the winter before and that blowing snow had covered any sign of what happened.
Even on the outskirts of urban Anchorage, Alaska is an unforgiving place.