AP Exclusive: Alaska Air Guard recounts skiers' rescue

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Posted: Apr 15, 2016 2:15 AM
AP Exclusive: Alaska Air Guard recounts skiers' rescue

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A locator beacon carried by two skiers stranded on an Alaska ice field made their rescue far easier than it might have been, according to members of the Alaska Air National Guard

The beacon with texting capabilities allowed a helicopter to fly to exact coordinates within the Harding Ice Field and land Tuesday within 50 meters of Christopher Hanna and Jennifer Neyman, who dug a snow cave after a blizzard wrecked their tent.

The skiers also had the foresight to mark the snow cave entrance with an orange blanket tied to a ski stuck in snow.

"We flew over and that grid was right where they were supposed to be," said Maj. Matthew Kirby, who helped dig the pair out. "However, I think I heard the survivors say, if we didn't have that grid and they didn't have that marking, I mean, we would have been searching for years to try and find them. It was such a huge expanse, even with that grid, digging under four feet of snow in a square mile, it would take forever to find them."

The ordeal began April 8 when Hanna, 45, and Neyman, 36, both of Soldotna, were dropped off by an airplane for a day of recreation on Harding Ice Field. Foul weather prevented the plane from returning.

The ice field starts at an elevation of about 1,650 feet and covers 700 square miles. It's a main feature of Kenai Fjords National Park.

Moisture-laden air blows off the Gulf of Alaska, hits the mountain, cools and dumps up to four times the snow that falls at sea level. By nightfall night, Hanna and Neyman were in a blizzard. Heavy snowfall collapsed their tent.

"The snow literally crushed and buried their tent three feet down, three to four feet down," Kirby said.

A snow cave was their only hope. As Neyman held up the tent ceiling, Hanna dug outside the door in older, harder snow, below the tent, Kirby said.

The cave was perhaps 7-by-5 feet and 3-4 feet high, Kirby said. The skiers used a tent pole to maintain the breathing hole but the cave would not have endured much additional snowfall, he said.

"They were running out of pole," he said.

Hanna used the personal locator beacon to text for help. Air Guard helicopters Monday could not reach the ice field but dropped off a four-man personnel recovery team 15 miles away. Hammered by 20- to 30-knot cross winds, moving up a glacier in whiteout conditions, maneuvering with instruments and probing for crevasses, they skied nine miles uphill until halting late in the evening, said Maj. Brock Roden. They were perhaps 90 minutes away the next morning when a helicopter was able to land.

The problem for landing was not the winds gusting to 30 knots, said pilot Capt. Kevin Kelly, but the flat, morning light that made it difficult to distinguish sky from snow.

A flight engineer, Master Sgt. Edward Downs, spotted the orange blanket at about 8 a.m., but blowing snow quickly blocked it from view. The helicopter refueled and waited near a glacier for clouds to clear. Crewmen brought along spruce boughs that could be dropped onto the snow and used as a landing reference point.

By noon they didn't need them. The helicopter swooped to where the skis marked the snow cave.

Kirby and Master Sgt. Shane Hargis approached on snowshoes and spotted a tent pole sticking out from a hole the width of a soda can. They called out, and from 4 feet below the snow, Hanna and Neyman answered back. The tent pole was maintaining a breathing hole to a snow cave.

"It was pretty cool how overjoyed they were," Kirby said. "You can just feel the relief on everyone. OK, we got them. They're OK."