Three 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.”
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.