Trekkers lost

wrangellThree National Park Service search teams were on the ground in the remote and rugged  heart of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park today hoping to find some sign of an unidentified Missouri couple missing on the “volcanic traverse” of the remote Sanford-Dadina Plateau.

National Park Service spokeswoman Margaret Steigerwald refused to identify the couple or provide their ages or experience level. She cited “a lot of family” yet to be informed the backpackers are missing and a desire to protect them from finding out in the news.

The search area is the definition of Alaska wilderness. No trails cross the plateau, and there are no easy bail-out options on the nearly mile-high route between the towering Mount Drum,  Mount Sanford and Mount Wrangell volcanoes.

Crevasse-laced glaciers and towering rock walls block exit from the plateau to the east and west.

A park service brochure describes the 15-mile, north-to-south trek from an airstrip near the Sanford River to an airstrip near the Dadina River as “difficult.” The recommended 4-to 8-day hiking time to cover the distance of a day hike on a maintained trail underlines the difficulty.

The couple was dropped off on June 22, according to the park service, and was due to be picked up Thursday. They were scheduled to make satellite phone calls to Copper Valley Air, an air taxi service, on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the calls never came, according to the park service.

The first part of the  traverse along the east flank of the 12,010-foot Drum volcano is tricky and potentially dangerous.

“From the drop off point along the east side of the Sanford River, head 2.5 miles along gravel terraces towards the snout of the Sanford Glacier,”the park service brochure says. “At the glacier, depending on conditions you may have to either negotiate the several icy streams flowing from beneath the glacier, and/or cross over sections of the glacier.

“Be careful! What appears to be just gravel, is actually a thin covering over glacier ice. Crossing the moraine is deceptively difficult and slow.”

June has been rainy in the Wrangell Mountains, Steigerwald said, and streams are running high which makes them more dangerous than normal. High waters throughout Southcentral Alaska have already claimed the lives of three people in recent weeks, the first being a fishermen on Lake Creek north of Anchorage.

Then, only days ago, a five-year-old playing along the Matanuska River to the west was swept off his feet by high water. His 29-year-old mother jumped into the current to try to save him and both were swept downstream and drowned.

“Most backcountry routes in Wrangell-St. Elias require numerous creek and river crossings,” warn officials at the national park, the nation’s largest, adjacent to the Canadian border in Eastern Alaska. “Bridges and log crossings are virtually non-existent. These crossings can be VERY dangerous without preparation, patience, and planning. (park service emphasis) Hikers must be familiar with safe techniques for crossing rivers and streams. Many are impassable, even for experts. Other can change quickly from trickling creeks to raging torrents, so be especially cautious.”

Search begins

A park service press release said a Copper Valley Air pilot landed at the airstrip Thursday expecting to pick up the couple and found no sign of them.

“He searched for them from the air for several hours and called the National Park Service to report the hikers as overdue,” the park service said.

Much of the plateau is above treeline and covered in rock and tundra. It is open and easily searched by air, but there are brushy spots. The park service did not say what kind of tent the couple was carrying. Brightly colored tents are much easier to spot from the air than those that match natural colors.

The southern end of the traverse drops down into forest along the Dadina where there are more dangers as at the start of the journey, according to the park service.

“Descend the first drainage north of the Dadina glacier,” the agency recommends. “Although rocky, this route easily avoids the thick brush encountered in the other drainages and allows for a quick descent….Use caution while descending these rocky areas. Many of the rocks are precariously jumbled together and frequently move with the softest footstep.

“Descend to the gravel banks of the Dadina River. In the upper sections it can usually be
crossed in braided sections. Further down, it would be very difficult if not impossible to
cross the main channel. Continue down river along the north side. As the river meanders, you may have to occasionally leave the banks and enter the thick vegetation. Grizzlies are active along this river, so be alert and make noise when entering brushy areas.”

Only days ago, 46-year-old Anchorage Dr. Chris Zerger was mauled by a grizzly bear about 50 miles to the southwest at Taral Creek on the Copper River.He stumbled into a sow with three cubs, he told KTVA-News, and was bitten in the arm and leg.

The temperatures in the area have been mild, however, and unless the couple were seriously injured or swept away in a river the chances of survival for days are good.

By Thursday night, the park service had more than two dozen employees and five aircraft involved in the search. Three groups of park service searchers were dropped on  the ground to attempt to retrace the couples route from the Sanford to the Dadina.

The ground crews continued the search through the day Friday aided by a park service helicopter and fixed wing aircraft, and the hunt resumed this morning.







26 replies »

  1. I smell a book deal here. Good Luck on that Craig. You are a better writer than Krakauer.You just won’t totally sell out

  2. I guess the Feds have unlimited funds to look, for over due hikers. Our tax dollars at work!
    Seriously, there needs to be a monetary deposit paid, refundable only, if one makes it out alive, by any and all hikers, climbers etc., if you go off the beaten trail in Alaska.
    It is not that I do not emphasize, with what has happened to this hiking couple, I do.
    My point is that I am done with using time, money and resources, on this type of S&R. Sorry, we go into the wilds, by choice, I for one do not ever expect help, if I get myself in trouble, in the woods. I will get myself out, or I will die there. I am good with that.
    Part of the reason why, we are a running the largest Federal budget deficit ever, our Federal agencies spend and consume dollars, like there is no tomorrow.
    Our state is in even worst shape. Alaska does not have any discretionary funding available.
    You want to climb Mt. Denali? besides the $6-8K costs associated, your climbing fee deposit will now be $25K, per person. This money will be returned, with a small admin fee deducted, after climbers are back, safe and sound.
    You want to go where few people have gone in the past (and perished), get ready to cough up some dough.
    My view could be viewed as heartless, though in reality, we cannot keep doing, what we have done in the past.
    It no longer makes any sense.

    • there already is a Denali climbing fee to cover rescue costs, James. most of the federal money is spent on CG rescues of fishermen and boaters. and a lot of the state spending – a whole lot of the state spending – is used for questionable “rescues” (really just pickups) to justify the costs of some very expensive helicopters.

      • You want to see billions of dollars spent on “rescues” and transports?
        Think of all the EMS calls everyday in America where our geriatric population gets transported from nursing home to hospital and then discharged back to nursing home (via ambulance)…Medicare spending at it’s greatest!…..I called it the “Hot Potato Syndrome” or HPS for short when I was working as a medic…

    • That was quite the rant there, James. Here is where, I think, things don’t quite work out. Let’s just say that you do go out there and die, then what? Someone reports you overdue and the searching (and spending) begins. Perhaps some sort of document that folks sign, on the order of a living will, where nobody looks for you in the event that you go missing?

      • Bill, I do not want anyone to look for me, if I never come back from a hike or hunt. I leave a note to that effect on my boat or truck (and it is signed and witnessed). Let the state take whatever I have left behind, they need it, and I am paying it back, for the good life, that Alaska has given me.
        Yes, Craig, I know there is a deposit fee ($370, plus the park entrance $10 fee), what a joke! I am saying to increase this fee to $25K, to help cover any expenses, incurred by climbers.

        The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of all US Coast Guard activities, and they are too busy looking for threats to our country. Another sad joke!
        What we are doing in Syria, what we did to Iraq and what we have done to Iran, will all come back to bite us in the A**. Wait and see!

      • Well James, you can think like that but it is often family members (or friends) that report someone missing and the rest just follows. There is also the public’s interest in knowing what has happened to folks leaving a truck (with note behind) at some parking lot. Human interest trumps an individual’s right to being left in the wilderness IMO.

      • Bill, that is exactly my point. I say let them all stay lost, God will sort it all out in the end.

      • We surely don’t want to put too much pressure on God, here. Heheh!
        And the public will not want to wait that long IMO.

      • James, I really like your idea of the signed, witnessed note left behind saying you don’t want a search. The world would be a much more simple place (maybe a better place?) if more people subscribed to your way of thinking. Thanks for sharing that idea. I hope when I go no one knows or cares or spends any time thinking about it except for my dogs and my boys (who know what’s what) and the Skilak wolves who scatter my bones across the green ice in their joy.

      • James,
        You are speaking some truth here…Denali has become a circus of a climb.
        NPS flies out fuel blatters to refuel the helos for searches on the mountain.
        I volunteered with NPS for a month on Denali and never went back.
        When I climbed in Equador, the government told us, “We will not rescue you out on that peak”.
        Well, that mentality worked well, since we were very safe and since no rescues were possible there were not over crowded summits.
        A late climber and legend Warren Harding was once stuck on El Cap in a storm….when NPS sent a helicopter to rescue his team, he tossed a can down to the Valley floor with a note in it……the note read “A rescue is unwarranted, unjustified and will not be accepted”…

    • Same for pilots and boaters that need help James? Lots of money spent searching for these people. At what point do you say that our taxes should not pay for these services. We pay for S&R by federal authorities including Aviation and
      marine. Cuvil Air patrol is also federally and state funded. Our Nat Guard searches with personnel
      and equipment paid for with our taxes. The airforce searches as does the coast guard.
      My family and I walk remote trails used by many but that are not on the “beaten path”. Should we pay a fee if we are attacked by a bear? There may be enough user fees already levied. Some are getting tired of them when the whole purpose of taxation was to provide these type of services that most of us can not afford on an individual basis. Next will be user fees for police and fire protection. Then maybe a special levy to protect us against overseas aggressors. When do we stop James?

      • We can stop, when we finally run a balanced Federal budget. Instead, Congress “keeps raising the budget deficit”. Alaskans are actually in worse shape. No one will purchase any bonds if the State, tries to sell any. Our credit rating is dropping.
        All the Feds do, is print more dollars and sell more treasury notes. What a joke! Where is that fiscal conservatism, that the GOP talked about, during 2008-16. Our current President, wants 25 Billion to build a wall; did not anyone tell him, walls do not work? Another tremendous waste of American tax payer dollars.
        I say cancel all S&R and let people fend for themselves. I have fished on the Gulf of Alaska for over 40 years, never call US CG once, and I never will. If I cannot get out of the predicament I put myself in, then that is on me.
        How is our Alaskan reserve going? Run out of money yet? Ready for a state income & sales tax?

      • James, a former economist with State of Alaska (long since retired, Dave Reaume) wrote an interesting article about federal deficits. I can’t find a link to it but essentially he said that these Federal deficits were essentially healthy, up to a point.
        That point is relating the deficit to GDP! Those treasuries are super safe investments for local governments (as well as widows and orphans) to hold their monies, usually short term. Anyway, folks can certainly disagree about how much debt is too much (relative to GDP) but not that hard to see that national debt would increase, much as our GDP increases.

    • James, you bring up some interesting concepts and I applaud you for your independence. It is refreshing to hear. But, let’s face it, your tax dollars are being wasted regardless. As a former military and civilian SAR helicopter pilot, with a very extensive background, I can assure you these types of calls serve a dual purpose for SAR assets. First everybody hopes these resources will lead to a happy ending or closure. Secondly, they also provide real world “training” scenarios. I can assure you those pilots aren’t cussing about flying, they love that stuff. They sit around waiting for calls like that. I cannot fault this couple nor call them stupid for wanting to explore the remote beauty Alaska has to offer. They may have been very experienced river crossers and got into a pinch or they may have been novices. It really doesn’t matter, they need or needed help and it is our job as individuals to help them, regardless whether it is from the taxes they paid or just a common citizen. It would be no different then your house catching fire or you having a heart attack. Local resourses paid for by the taxpayer would respond accordingly and rightfully so. I know I for one would appreciate their services.

      • James, as for the Wall, just think of the tens of billions spent annually on illegals. Want to know if a wall works, just ask the Israelis. They may have a different answer for you. $25 billion (which is wouldnt cost that much) would be money well spent.

      • Bryan,
        You know what Israel does? They have a one way mirror at their airports, they do full on facial recognition and profiling of all people, that go through customs. They do not use an inefficient, costly and ineffective program like, ie: our TSA.
        They have their military forces deployed everywhere along their borders, they armed to the teeth with tanks, armored vehicles and full assault weapons. They have been at war, with their neighbors, for thousands of years. That is why their barbed wire fences & cement structures work.
        We are not allowed to even use our National Guard, except in advisory roles. So, give me a break, you want to change that, then talk with your legislative representatives.
        Point is: we are not at war with either Mexico or Canada.
        If you would like to discuss the history of US colonial and imperialism in Central America, I would be happy to. You can start with the United Fruit company and Chiquita Banana and go from there. The damage big oil did in South America is beyond comprehension.
        The reason those refugees are fleeing Honduras, El Salvador, Panama etc. is partly do to our meddling in their countries. Remember Iran/Contra, Col. North (I am here to tell the good, bad and the ugly). Reagan was in full blown dementia, when he stated he did not remember. The White House staff and doctors kept this from the American people, during his last year in office.
        Take your frigging wall and put it where the sun does not shine.

      • James, you said a wall doesnt work and I am here to say it does. While we may not be in a declared war with our Southern neighbors, Id call millions coming across our border illegally an invasion. Wouldnt you? Salvadorians, Hondurans, Mexicans, etc.. are coming to America for the HIGHER STANDARD OF LIVING AND FREEBIES. I have been to Central America. It is full of drugs, corruption, and 2 bit dictators Listen, if America is so “imperialistic”, domineering, and destructive to both Central and South America, why do tens of millions want to flood into the “Great Satan”? You bring up Reagan, but leave off Obama or Democrats in general. Reagan and Dementia? Is that all you have? The man saved your paycheck from higher taxes by ending the Cold War. Give the best president since Trump a break. Didnt Obama take the National Debt to fund welfare programs from $9.5 trillion to $20 trillion in just 8 short years? Notice I said TRILLION!!!

      • Wow, Bryan, I can guess who you voted for. I will leave at that, rant away, if it makes you feel better.
        By the way, US multinational corporations, helped cause all the corruption in these governments of Central America. I would leave that are too!
        Are you able to say why we did business with Gen. Noriega? That worked really well.
        Our CIA has caused nothing but death, destruction and killings all over the world. We do these for freedom? give me a break!
        Over 1,000,000 Vietnamese were killed for what reason?

      • Well, of course, we had a successful Capitalist running for president, a lying Marxist criminal, and a senile ole Socialist hypocrite who makes over a $1 million year and whom honeymooned in the former Soviet Union. Gee, I wonder who I will vote for??? Hmmm! Sure glad I made the right decision. Ole Trump is turning out great. Well, for us patriotic Americans anyway. Maybe you should find your way to Venezula, North Korea, Nicaragua, or Communist Vietnam. I mean, since America sucks and all and is responsible for all the ills in the world. Ever heard of the KGB? Ok James, I was trying to compliment you on your independent thinking, but what I got in return was a salty Commie who hides out in the woods of the country he bad mouths. Carry on! Keep biting the hand that feeds you. You obviously do not realize how good you have it in this country or those woods.

      • Whoa! I got your stirred up. I will let it go, not worth it. I am done, good luck with that.

  3. I can’t help, but think they tried to cross the Sandford River soon after landing, cause otherwise they should have made their check in calls. Sat phones don’t always work, but given the terrain should be able to connect. A SPOT or InReach remote communicator, if used correctly, would have really narrowed the search area and increased SAR safety and cost effectiveness. Its good to “SPOT” before and after tricky river crossings so folks know where to look. Plus if you know people, and they know you and if they care about you they probably have looked at map and know the hazards you are going to face and its respectful to let them know your ok. And if your hurt, but not dead-it does happen, the SPOT or InREACH connects more often than a sat phone (especially the InReach). It is foolish for folks to look for you if they don’t know where you are and rude to put folks in that position. If you can afford a gun and the accessories and the training, you can afford a remote communication device.

    These devices do change the wilderness experience-especially the two InReach-but you might not care when and where you are dead, but others just might.

    It is also statistically more foolish to cross Alaska rivers without a life preserver, but with bear protection, though I have heard you can bring both or neither and not be a fool for decades until you make the newspapers. rant over.

    • but a good rant, Jeff. i’ve been a fool for decades, and only made the newspaper when i had bear protection and shot the damn bear off my foot.
      lack of calls is a bad sign. it shouldn’t be hard get a satellite up on the plateau.
      but, they could have drowned the phone in a river crossing and still be alive. let’s hope.

    • I second the utility usefulness of the inReach two-way sat communication devices. They work perfectly for both “I’m OK and this is where I am” and for emergency SOS messages that go directly to a SAR coordination center. They can also be useful in assisted “self rescues” where someone (a friend or family) on the outside helps and SAR authorities don’t need to be notified. Sometimes all you need to do is have the bush pilot or the water taxi notified to pick you up at a different location. It does help to be a gadget-geek to get the most value out of one, but worth the cost and trouble plus they are far more durable than a sat phone.

    • I’d also suggest considering a mini PLB that uses 406Mhz & 121.5Mhz in additon to the satelite based items mentioned avove… but in general, yes always consider those that care about you – they will want to know what happened even if you don’t want to be rescued. Leave detailed plans and use technology to check in when you can.

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