Twenty-three-year-old Alaska newcomer Nate Newland challenged the glacier gods on Sunday by venturing inside the westward migrating ice at the head of the Knik River; luckily he lived to tell about the near-death experience that followed.
His one-word summary of the adventure? “Terrifying.”
Newland and friend Luke Daniels were an estimated 150-feet into a cave at or near the face of the Knik Glacier when the ice beneath Newland gave way.
Normally the risk inside ice caves is that the ceiling collapses, and cavers are crushed to death. Less than two years ago, 32-year-old Minnesota school teacher Brittany Katherine Boegel wandered into a popular cave near Portage Lake about 45 miles southeast of Anchorage.
The ceiling gave way and Boegel was buried under blocks of ice. She was eventually dug out and pronounced dead at the scene.
Ice caves are inherently dangerous, but that hasn’t diminished their allure. The caves in the glaciers in the Portage area and those at Knik, about 55 northeast of the Anchorage, remain popular despite warnings about their danger and a growing perception that it’s only a matter of time before they kill again.
Daniels has recounted his version of what happened inside the Knik ice in a Facebook post that has been widely shared among Alaska four-wheelers, snowmachiners and fat-tired cyclists.
Daniels said he is hopeful others “can learn from our experience.”
As with many Alaska adventures gone bad, this one started off fine. Daniels said he and Newland thought the ice was safe right up until the time they found out it wasn’t.
As the legendary dog driver Hudson Stuck observed of the Alaska wilderness at the start of the 20th century, everything is fine as long as it is fine. Stuck was referring specifically to travel on the trail at 50-degrees-below-zero, another inherently dangerous undertaking, but his observation applies to much beyond that.
When the ice broke, Daniels wrote, “Nate went into the hole. I couldn’t see him looking down, only open water with a 15-plus foot vertical drop to the bottom of the crevasse, and I only saw goggles floating on top.”
After falling through the ice, Newland said he landed in a “hollow area between what we were walking on and where the water was….I was right on water level.”
Daniels apparently couldn’t see his friend because of an overhanging ice shelf. He also recognized then that he was on thin ice and in serious danger, too.
“At this point, I realized that most of the 150-foot path we came in on was also thin ice with nothing but open space under it, and we might break through trying a rescue,” he wrote.
Given all of this, Daniels did about the only thing that he could. He dropped his jacket to Newland to help keep him warm and then beat it out of the cave to get help.
Alaska State Troopers were called, but even the near-wilderness on the edge of Alaska’s largest city is by Lower-48 standards remote. It usually takes hours to get an official rescue organized.
Knowing this, Daniels and his Jeep-driving friends put together their own rescue plan.
“We got as much winch line, ratchet straps and anything else we had, tied it together and made a long rope,” he wrote. “I tied one end around myself, (the) other end around Jorge’s jeep and tied an additional 20-foot tow strap in front of me with a loop in it to lower down to Nate. I crawled back into the ice cave approximately one and a half hours after the initial break through.”
By then, others had arrived on the scene. One of them was Mark Johnson, a retired Anchorage Fire Department paramedic who grew up in Alaska and has spent a lot of his life roaming the state’s backcountry.
“At this point,” Daniels said, “Mark entered and headed down to the end of the cave where I was. Even knowing the ice floor was paper-thin, he did not hesitate and kept coming forward all the way to the opening, even though he wasn’t attached with a safety line…like I was.”
Johnson, whose spent a lot of time on snowmachines running the sometimes sketchy ice of the Susitna and Yentna rivers in winter, knows ice.
Given how thin the ice where Newland fell through, Johnson “determined that he needed to break it in order to get back closer (to the walls of the cave) where there might be thicker ice,” Daniels said. “I’m not claustrophobic but being 150-plus feet down a tunnel with nothing but ice above you as you’re working to pull someone out of hole tends to scare the shit out of one’s self.”
That summary pretty well echoed the thoughts of Newland down in the hole. He was a thankful man when a rescue line was finally lowered to him.
“We all pulled on the line and were able to get him up,” Daniels said in his Facebook post. “I really want to thank everyone that helped…It was really incredible to see how none of you hesitated to put yourself in harms way to save another. I don’t think we would have made it out of there if it wasn’t for all of you.”
“I’m just lucky I had some really good friends with me,” Newland said, adding that “a lesson was learned for sure.”
Daniels now describes the cave as “unstable,” which would make it a good thing for others to avoid. Unfortunately, ice caves seem to emit a silent siren song.
Almost every time someone posts a photo from inside one on social media, the comments starting piling in from people saying “I want to do that.”
With the ice caves of the easily accessible Knik, Skookum, Spencer and Byron glaciers in the Anchorage area having now become a social media attraction, it seems likely to be only a matter of time before someone else ends up in trouble or worse.