Twenty-two-year-old Anchorage hiker Ben Seaman can be thankful it is summer and the weather is friendly because in the mountains of Alaska help is often far away even if it appears close.
By all indications a fit young guy – someone tough enough to finish Resurrection Pass Ultra 50-miler run last year – Seaman ran into trouble on a Chugach Mountain ridge high above the Seward Highway about 30 miles east of Anchorage late Tuesday afternoon.
He was close enough to civilization to watch a steady summer stream of motor vehicles rushing along Turnagain Arm on the way from Anchorage to the now fish-crazed Kenai Peninsula or vice versa, and far enough away to make rescue difficult.
Seaman and an unidentified hiking companion were able to call 911 on a mobile phone, according to the Alaska National Guard.
In that respect, he was luckier than Vladimir Yakushin, an East Coast man now suing the satellite-service Globalstar because of what he claims was unreliable service in 2016. Yakushin was flown into a remote Alaska lake where he hoped to homestead.
Almost immediately, he realized the homesteading plan wasn’t going to work. Wanting out, he tried to call an air taxi to come get him. Calling a taxi was the most normal thing in the world for a thirty-something man who’d been living in New York City before starting his Alaska adventure.
Unfortunately, Yakushin’s satellite phone didn’t work. Why is sure to be a major issue at trial if his lawsuit ever goes that far because the unworkable phone produced an avalanche of consequences.
Yakushin panicked at being alone in the wilderness and decided to undertake a hugely misguided attempt at self-rescue. Had an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist failed to spot the man floating down an Alaska Range river in a marginal raft, Yakushin might well have died.
As it was, he was rescued as was Seaman….eventually.
Suffice to say that if Seaman had suffered life-threatening injuries in the fall, he might well be dead after spending Tuesday night high on the 3,000 to 4,000-foot Penguin Ridge between the small, ski-resort community of Girdwood and the even smaller, roadside community of Bird.
The website Hiking Project accurately describes a 16-mile hiking route along the ridge as “a grueling traverse across one of the most majestic ridgelines along the Turnagain Arm.” The author has done it twice and can attest there are several places where it would be easy to fall and twist an ankle, break a leg or worse.
Hiking Projects classes the trail “extremely difficult.” That might be a bit of an overstatement, but as William Finley notes at AK Mountain, there are “a couple places where you really have to be careful. That said…it is definitely 3rd class in spots and those unfamiliar with steep scrambling on loose Chugach rock may find it challenging.”
Seaman did not respond to a Facebook message asking him for details on how he got into trouble. Troopers said they sent a state helicopter out to look for him in the late afternoon on Tuesday, but “could not locate the hiker due to poor weather.
“LifeMed was unable to respond due to weather,” the trooper dispatch added. “The Rescue Coordination Center did not have any air assets available until the next morning.”
LifeMed Alaska is an air ambulance service that has two helicopters based in Southcentral Alaska that are “medically configured as flying hospital intensive care units designed for providing critical care and advanced life support,” according to the company website.
The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson is a full-time, U.S. military-led, command center for search and rescue (SAR) missions in Alaska. If asked by Troopers, who have the authority over civilian SAR missions in the state, the RCC has the authority to dispatch the fabled pararescuemen from the Rescue Squadrons of the Alaska National Guard.
Among the best SAR units in the world, the 210th, 211th and 212th are renowned for pulling injured people out of bad spots in the 49th state, which is what the 212th PJs did at approximately 5 a.m. today with help from the crew of a National Guard Pavehawk helicopter.
“Military air assets became available and extracted the injured hiker from the ridge top and transported him to a local hospital for treatment” is how troopers put it, although the mission was a little tricker than that.
Fortunately for Seaman, the weather was good this morning. He was lucky. Had it been otherwise, he could still be up on the mountain because even when your technology can reach rescuers in Alaska, there is no guarantee rescuers can reach you.
That is why most SAR organizations recommend everyone going into remote or hard to access areas carry with them certain essential items with an eye to “two basic questions,” as Grand Country (Colo.) Search and Rescue puts it. “First, can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? Second, can you safely spend a night—or more—out?”