The search for Nephi Soper is over, but as with Chris McCandless before him the mystery of what happened to the 26-year-old might linger forever.
Soper’s body was found Sunday morning floating on the last of the winter ice still on Tanaina Lake 3,500-feet high in the Chugach Mountains only about a dozen miles southeast of the downtown core of the state’s largest city. Around his body were found personal items and, according to Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters, cigarette butts.
Dead men don’t smoke.
The cigarette butts could mean only one thing. Soper, who was trained in long-range surveillance and patrol, made it from Chugach State Park’s Prospect Heights trailhead on the Anchorage Hillside up and over 3,051-foot Near Point into the North Fork Campbell Creek valley and on to Long Lake.
Then he climbed from there up and over another ridge of about 4,000-feet elevation and dropped into the upper Snowhawk Valley on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to the north of the half-million-acre state park.
A week-long search for Soper in February had focused on an area just south of JBER in the park.
Searchers believed, Soper’s plan was to climb from Long Lake to the ridge between 5,357-foot Tanaina and 5,148-fot Koktoya peaks and drop down into the Ship Creek valley where he could pick up a trail that runs to the Arctic Valley Road at JBER.
Soper left Prospect Heights late in the day on Feb. 18. A large backpack hung from his shoulders. He was thought to be well-outfitted for his hike. His Facebook page indicated he was familiar with hiking in the northwest corner of the wilderness park.
A wilderness idyll
A flatlander from agriculturally developed Missouri, Soper had fallen in love with the mountains and wilds of the 49th state. And his military training had prepared him for travel in these places.
He was no McCandless, the self-proclaimed “Alexander Supertramp” profiled in the semi-fictional “Into the Wild.” Soper was better trained, better prepared and more responsible. He told people where he was going when he took off into the wilderness, and he took good gear.
It is likely he made Long Lake the first night out. There is a good trail that runs for about 3.5 miles to Near Point, and the route for the next six miles or so up the narrow valley to the lake is obvious. With the moon near full, the winds relatively light and the temperature near 20, a young, fit guy likely could have reached the lake pretty easily in five or six hours.
And Soper had a timetable to meet. He was due at JBER for a Friday training exercise. He never made it. Military officials that night notified Alaska State Troopers that Soper had gone missing.
Pete Panarese, a retired state parks official who lives in Eagle River and has spent decades tromping the north parts of the park, thinks it possible Soper was already behind schedule when he reached Long Lake. Travel in the Chugach in winter is always harder and slower than it looks, Panarese said.
It is possible Soper decided to shorten his trip by climbing over a ridge to the north of the lake and dropping into the Snowhawk Valley. He would have been familiar with that area. The Army and the National Guard train there.
And there is a trail that runs down the valley to meet the Arctic Valley Road miles below the Ship Creek trailhead. If Soper was behind schedule, opting for the Snowhawk Valley Trail over the Ship Creek Trail could have saved him hours of hiking.
“I thought of that right off the bat,” Panarese said. “It would have been the shortest route.”
Going the long way from Prospect to Ship Creek and then out to Arctic Valley “doesn’t make any sense,” Panarese said, when there is shorter alternative for someone working on a tight schedule.
Whether Soper made a conscious decision to turn north into the Snowhawk Valley or simply got lost on the 4,000-foot ridge above Lost Lake and wandered into the Snowhawk Valley will never be known for sure, but the upper Snowhawk Valley is where he ended up, barely a mile north of where search efforts to find him eventually focused.
Wilderness dwarfs us all
A mile doesn’t seem far, but distances are deceptive in Alaska. You can move from one world into wholly another in a matter of miles.
From downtown Anchorage with all the urban comforts of Big City, USA, you can see the mountains rising above Tanaina and Long lakes in country that is as wild now as it was when Capt. James Cook in 1778 sailed almost to Fire Island just off Anchorage.
And the mile between Long and Tanaina lakes requires a 600-foot climb up a steep and in February icy hillside and an even trickier descent down the other side. The descent is dangerous, and it is possible Soper was injured on the way down.
A family member said they were told “his ankle did not look right but they could not tell then if it was broken or not.” Peters said troopers are awaiting an autopsy report that could take some time.
If Soper was injured on the descent to Tanaina, there couldn’t have been a worse time for it to happen. A major Pacific Ocean storm was already charging north across the Gulf of Alaska. Winds would be gusting to 35 mph and starting to blow snow and rain sideways across the Chugach as those involved in the first search efforts to find Soper called it a day.
If Soper was still alive then, his survival window was closing fast, and the weather was only destined to get worse. The winds were gusting over 50 mph the next day. Search aircraft were grounded. Searchers on foot were kept out of steep areas because of large and growing dangers from avalanches.
Tom Crockett, a Chugach State Park ranger, couldn’t recall worse conditions for a search, and the weather didn’t improve any the next day, a Monday. 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,” Lt. Col. Candis Olmsted reported at the time.
By the time aircraft were finally able to take to the air the next day, wind and snow had obliterated any hope of finding what searchers by then believed to be a body. The search was officially called off at the end of the day.
Death by exposure
Panarese – a former chairman of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, a former Chugach State Park superintendent, and a former state parks ranger – suspects the autopsy will find Soper died of hypothermia.
“What condition was he in when he started smoking those cigarettes?” Panarese wonders now. “I’ve been hypothermic. It’s hard to know how serious the trouble you are in. It’s a strange phenomenon, and it’s insidious.”
Hypothermic people sometimes just stop taking care of themselves though they might be physically able to do so. As their body temperature drops, their behavior often becomes dangerous to their own survival. A phenomenon called “paradoxical undressing,” wherein people in the late stages of hypothermia disrobe, is well-documented and sadly common in deaths in the Alaska wilderness in winter.
Still, at some point after making it onto the frozen surface of Tanaina Lake, it does appear Soper remained alert enough to at least try to reach out for help.
“His phone was open as if he was trying to call someone,” a relative reported, “but of course there is no cell service there.”
There is a cabin that might have provided Soper shelter from the weather and a chance at survival. It was only about two miles from where his body was found, but for a man seriously injured or hypothermic, two miles across rough, frozen ground might as well be 200 miles.
The north in winter knows no mercy.
CORRECTION: This story was corrected June 7, 2016. It originally said there were two cabins in the Snowhawk Valley. There aren’t. One burned down.