A young Anchorage man is fortunate to have survived a risky summer exploration of a snow cave that collapsed on him in the Portage Valley about 50 miles south of Anchorage.
“He is very lucky,” said Terry Kadel, deputy chief of medical services for the Girdwood Fire Department. Kadel was a member of the team called to help treat 21-year-old Jacob Colby James after friends freed him from beneath a pile of snow and ice on Saturday.
Alaska State Troopers reported that James “climbed into the ice cave and a large piece of ice fell on top of him injuring and entrapping him. Other hiker on scene were able to use rocks to break up the ice and free him.”
Kadel said James wasn’t really caught in an ice cave. It was, Kadel said, more of water-carved opening in a “steep gully filled with snow” that plummets down a ravine below the Explorer Glacier near the west entrance to Portage Valley, a popular recreation area squeezed into the isthmus between the Alaska mainland and the Kenai Peninsula.
Home to the well-known Byron Glacier ice caves, the most-visited ice caves in the state, the Portage area has long left Chugach National Forest officials nervous about ice-cave dangers. They have for years cautioned people to stay out of the Byron caves even in winter when below freezing temperatures make the ice the most stable.
Ice caves and calving glaciers are among the many unique dangers waiting to kill people in Alaska. To date, there have been no known ice-cave fatalities in the state, but several people have been killed by falling ice when they approached too close to glaciers.
The last to die was Italian Alexander Hellweger, 28, who was crushed beneath ice falling of the Lake George Glacier in April of last year.
There are no records of collapsing ice killing anyone in Portage Valley, but the dangers of the Byron ice caves are well known They are also the site of a great Alaska hoax.
In December of 2014, an Anchorage hiker claimed to have discovered a black bear hibernating in the caves. There has never been a recorded instance of black bear hibernating in a glacial ice cave in Alaska or anywhere else, and no evidence was ever found to support the claims of Mike Glidden, who sent an e-mail to Alaska media claiming he was exploring ice caves “100 miles south of Anchorage on Dec. 13” when he took some photos inside only to get home, look at the photos and discover “my flash had caught a hibernating black bear only yards from where I was. I had not intended to do so but I went into the lair of a hibernating bear and took a picture of it while it slept. I would not recommend anyone try this. But the photo I have is priceless.”
The photos showed an indistinct black patch that could have been anything, and Glidden’s claim to having been in some unknown ice cave 100 miles south of the state’s largest city was quickly discovered to be a lie. A close examination of his photos revealed he was in the Byron caves, and when asked to accompany a reporter back there to verify the bear story Glidden balked.
But not before one Alaska news outlet picked up the story and ran with it only to cause other news and quasi-news sites to create a mini-viral sensation that brought attention to a dangerous attraction in Portage Valley.
The Byron cave is the most dangerous in the valley, Glacier District Ranger Tim Charnon said Tuesday, mainly because it is accessible just about year round. Access to other ice caves, he said, is usually limited because of snow.
“It used to be they had a lot of snow covering them,” he said. “They were not exposed until very late in the year.”
Portage Valley, however, had a snow short winter at lower elevations last year, and that has resulted in easier access to a number of snow and ice caverns. James and friends apparently used an informal trail to access the cave below Explorer from near a private campground and recreational-vehicle park on the edge of the edge of the 8,600-acre Portage Glacier Recreation Area.
The RV park manager said James and his friends were not staying there. They apparently parked nearby and hiked in to what he described as “avalanche chute” to explore an opening beneath the snow and ice.
The park manager agreed with Kadel’s observation that the men were lucky no one was seriously hurt. Ice caves have killed people elsewhere. Two people died last year when an ice cave in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest northeast of Seattle collapsed. Chardon said people should just stay out of them.
Troopers said James was able to walk back the RV center with help from emergency personnel, but “was transported to the Alaska Native Medical Center for further medical treatment of non-life threatening injuries.”
James could not be reached for comment.