Alaska adventurer Tim Kelley has a theory as to what might have happened to 26-year-old Nephi Soper, whose body was found floating on a sheet of ice on Tanaina Lake in the Chugach Mountains only about dozen miles from Anchorage on June 5. Near the body, searchers found Soper’s cell phone open as if he might have been trying to call for help.
And it is from the possibility, if not a likelihood, that Soper used his phone in an effort to summon rescue that Kelley notes one of the most dangerous of phenomenon in the back country in a broad area around Alaska’s largest city: hugely unpredictable cell phone service.
In Soper’s case, it is not hard to imagine someone in trouble looking at their phone, seeing three or four bars indicating a strong signal, and trying futilely and repeatedly to phone or text for help as they slowly slip into the throes of deadly hypothermia.
Bars mean nothing
Those bars on your phone that are supposed to indicate signal strength? They regularly lie. And apparently this is not a problem unique to Alaska.
“What you’re seeing, versus what is reality, can be two very different things,” Steve van Skike, an authority on digital connectivity, told DigitalTrends.com last spring.
“There’s no standard,” van Skike added. “They do indicate signal strength, but it’s up to the handset manufacturer to come up with whatever algorithm they want.”
“You may even have had this experience – your phone shows four bars, but when you try to text or download you can’t do it because you have no service despite the four big bars you see,” writes Ken Perkins at weboost.com
Four bars and no service is an inconvenience in Seattle or New York or almost anywhere on the road across the U.S. between those two cities. Four bars or three bars or two bars and no service, however, could get you in deadly trouble in Alaska.
Kelley, who has cross-country skied the 49th state from the Brooks Range to the Chugach Mountains and all over the valleys of the Susitna and Yentna rivers, has plenty of experience with cell-phone signals in the Southcentral region of the state.
“I have been in situations where I am skiing in spotty coverage, and the cell phone beeps, indicating that I have voice mail. But then I go and try to call, and I can’t get a connection,” he said. “So some features of the cell phone that only require short data transmission work in sketchy coverage that voice may not.
“And as you go in and out of spotty coverage, the phone beeps over and over, and this is why cell phones can be ‘dangerous,’ because every time it beeps you think you might have coverage when you don’t.
“So you do what doesn’t help you. You stop. You try to call. Your hands and body cool down. And you get frustrated about the situation. ”
What could have happened
Imagine this scenario:
Soper, a member of the Alaska National Guard who was supposed to report for duty at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on Friday, leaves the Glen Alps entrance to Chugach State Park late on a Thursday in February.
The moon is full that night. Travel conditions are good but not that good. He makes Long Lake deep in the Front Range sometime late and realizes he is behind schedule and likely to be late for duty.
So, instead of following his planned hiking route northeast from Lost Lake over the ridge between Tanaina and Koktoya peaks and down to Ship Creek and the Ship Creek trail, he turns north and decides to skirt Tanaina, drop down into the Snowhawk Valley, and pick up the Snowhawk Trail, which will save him hours.
A photo recovered from his camera shows him looking back at Anchorage from near a Chugach peak on Thursday night. The peak is most likely Tanaina. The descent from the ridge there to the lake is steep.
Suppose Soper falls and twists an ankle. He’s in trouble now, but he’s still thinking. Maybe he hears his phone beep as Kelley has heard his beep. So Soper decides he’ll head for the big open area in the valley below – snow-covered Tanaina Lake – where it will be easy for rescuers to spot him, and from there he will call for rescue.
It’s a logical decision.
Once there, he hunkers down to wait. He has a cigarette. A number of cigarette butts will be found around his body when it is finally discovered months later. He starts trying to call. The bars on his phone indicate he should have service, but he just can’t seem to get out. A lot of experienced Chugach hikers have been through this routine.
“This has happened to me before,” Kelley said. “You end up getting cold and pissed, and you realize anything you have to dial and connect with (cell phones and sat phones) are not a good as a device you just press a friggin’ button on (Spot or InReach).”
Kelley, of course, has spent decades in-country and knows that when the phone doesn’t work, you forget about rescue and keep moving. You go for the Snowhawk Valley cabin no matter how bad you are hurt.
But Soper is young and far less experienced. Maybe he doesn’t know this. He has another cigarette. He keeps trying. He’s already wet and sweaty from the tough descent to the lake. His body temperature starts dropping rapidly.
Maybe he makes it through Friday night. Maybe he hears the aircraft that went looking for him on Saturday but are just to the south, scouring his planned route to Ship Creek. Maybe he figures that if he just sits tight, they’ll come find him visible in this big, white open basin.
But all the time, he’s getting colder. Pretty soon he isn’t thinking very well anymore, and he stops thinking about options. Pretty soon he’s cold enough it’s hard to move. Then the weather turns on him.
By Sunday, it is storming in the Chugach and the search for Soper has become nightmarishly difficult. And from then on, it’s just a matter of time until hypothermia takes him. At some point he passes and his body is covered over by snow. It is not found until the snows melt.
His phone is still there now useless.
Technology is our friend when it works, but it can equally be our enemy when it fools us into thinking it can help when it can’t. As Kelley notes, it is dangerous to trust it too much.