Commentary

When journalists make nice, lessons get lost

For want of a shovel, Alaskan Jenny Neyman — writer, editor and enterprising publisher behind the now sorely missed Redoubt Reporter newspaper — and friend Chris Hanna almost died entombed in snow high on the Harding Ice Field high above the port city of Seward last week.

Or so the story was told by the Associated Press which pushed it around the globe.

Under four feet of snow, the news agency reported, “the 7-by-5 (sic) space Hanna dug started with a ceiling 40 inches high. Warmth and humidity from their bodies made the ceiling sag to within 8 inches of their faces, like a giant, suffocating sponge. Besides hypothermia, hunger and a shortage of oxygen, the experienced outdoor enthusiasts had to stave off claustrophobia.”

Why Neyman and Hanna did not enlarge the cave went unmentioned. Is it possible the heat of their bodies had iced the top so firmly they could not bust through it with the ski they used to dig their emergency shelter as heavy winds and snow swept the barren plain above?

On her Facebook page, the 36-year-0ld Neyman has posted a photo of an avalanche shovel, which would have been useful in both digging the cave and digging it out as it started to settle, and profusely thanked the people who came to rescue her and Hanna.

“The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and the Alaska Air National Guard 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons,” she wrote. “The Guard says that, over the course of the mission, three HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, two HC-130 King refueling aircraft and approximately 40 personnel were involved in the coordination and execution of the mission, including the four pararescuemen who were dropped on Skilak Glacier on Monday and skied about 13 miles up the glacier in whiteout conditions toward us, and the helo crew that dug us out and flew us home during a break in the weather Tuesday.”

The cost of this rescue remains unstated; that anything might have been done better unmentioned.

One can only wonder how the same story might have played had Neyman and Hanna, 46, been a pair of 20-somethings newly arrived in Seward to work for the summer in Kenai Fiords National Park.

This being Alaska Press Club weekend in the 49th state it is probably a good time to contemplate the issue of media bias — some subtle, some not. Journalist don’t much like to talk about this subject under the best of circumstances. They particularly don’t like to think about how friendships with the people about whom they are writing color stories.

They should.

What happened to Neyman and Hanna was no fluke.

Storms that bring snow measured by the feet per day are not uncommon high in the Coast Range mountains this time of year. Nor are howling winds and low clouds that can render it impossible for aircraft to fly for days. And Neyman and Hanna had warnings of both on the horizon.

As the AP reported, “a friend flew them (to the icefield) under blue skies in the morning and planned to return at 5 p.m., long before a storm expected that night. By 2 p.m., the clouds moved in. By 3 p.m., they knew the plane couldn’t reach them.”

Gambling on the weather is an always risky business in Alaska. Twenty-six-year-old Nephi Soper, a seasoned member of the Alaska National Guard, left the Prospect Heights entrance to Chugach State Park on a 20-mile hike over the Front Range and on to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in late February with gale force winds lashing the mountains.

When he failed to show up for duty, a search was launched. It went on for a week. No sign of Soper was ever found. Authorities believe his body is still out there somewhere.

Neyman and Hanna were better prepared than Soper in that they carried a GPS locator beacon that allowed them to communicate with the world via text message. But they were gambling, too, and they knew it.

“We are well aware that the weather on the Harding Icefield is super dicey, so we’d just been keeping an eye on the forecast looking for a completely clear, calm-wind day with nothing coming anytime soon,” Neyman confessed to KBBI-radio reporter Daysha Eaton in Homer.

“…Although there was a weather system predicted to hit the area later that evening, around 8 p.m.,” Eaton wrote. “….They figured they could go up, ski for a few hours, and fly out long before then. So a friend with a plane dropped them off for a day of adventure late Friday morning.”

The pilot never made it back for the pickup. Hanna and Neyman, recognizing they were in trouble, started skiing north toward Exit Glacier where a trail some 20 miles away led down to a road. They made it about 8 miles before the weather shut them down.

They were well-prepared to spend the night out. They had a tent, sleeping bags, some food, a stove, fuel and a pot in which to melt snow for water. But they lacked the most important piece of gear when traveling in the snow-covered mountains of high Alaska – a  shovel.

Lacking the shovel, they couldn’t dig into the snow to provide shelter for their tent, or dig the tent itself out once the snow started falling, and the snow in the coastal mountains is known to fall so heavily that some expeditions have stalled and become little more than shoveling ordeals.

Without a shovel to dig a tent hole, Hanna and Neyman were forced to pitch their tent in the open on the Harding. It lasted one night in gusting winds and heavy snow.

Hanna then managed to dig out a snow cave with a ski and his hands.

He got wet and as a result cold, but the pair crawled inside the safety of their emergency sheltered and shivered for days until they were rescued.

They were uninjured. Their survival skills are to be commended. But the mistakes they made that led up to their being forced to call for rescue should not be overlooked because Neyman is part of the big, friendly club of journalists.

Rescues put rescuers in danger as Troopers learned all too well in 2013 when Helo 1 crashed, killing the pilot, a trooper spotter and the rider of a broken-down snowmachine who’d summoned rescue. Everyone who recreates in the Alaska outdoors has a responsibility to do everything possible to avoid rescue.

A shovel here would have turned the snow-cave ordeal into an uncomfortable, or not so uncomfortable, camp out with no need to call for rescue. A more conservative call on the go, no-go decision in the face of incoming weather would have avoided everything.

But how are the inexperienced and uninitiated to know these things unless reporters tell them?

In every accident there are lessons. It’s nice to be nice, and Lord knows I’ve sometimes been accused of being the opposite. But the news shouldn’t be about being nice or not. It should be about explaining what really happened and why so people gain some value from it.

Because news without value is these days just so many electrons floating in the tubes.

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8 replies »

  1. Dig some more Craig. SAR folks would appreciate ananalysis of devices and coms involved. Devices without warmup can repeat erroneous cords. like to see that map!

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    • you raise good points, Joel. my problem with a whole lot of reporting on this story is that it somehow makes the tool of today (a GPS) sound more important than the tool of yesteryear (a shovel). but the reality is exactly the opposite.

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  2. I don’t disagree with much of this, but I need just a little more information to connect all the dots you set forth. The linked AP article is written by Dan Joling. Who is Dan? Do you know that he’s an Alaska-based reporter who knows this couple? I would assume that both those things are true… can you confirm that that’s the case?

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  3. A cell phone and sat. phone take all the fun out of it. I never carried such instruments on the wilderness races or in the Arctic. If I had I would have pressed the button many times. I must admit they have saved many lives, some were my friends.

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  4. 95% agree. The 5% is we (Alaskans) also need to learn more about the GPS beacon used and the analysis of the SAR. You need to dig more. The preponderance of these devices and blind reliance on them may be partially responsible for the human to take these chances. I know you know about the power of reporting a precise location form GPS. The skiers took a Delorme (model?) and a cell phone. Cell phone battery failed. Was SOS button pushed for location or was waypoint communicated to the guy in lower 48 who then relayed location to Guard? Was drop of 4 Ak Gaurds x miles away a mistake of device, comms, or… Clarification on this is needed from the SAR community who need to hear about limitations of electronic location based services. Don’t get me wrong. Can you imagine this turning out the way it did without a 15-50 meter location being transmitted? Would an EPIRB have been a better choice?

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