One of four Juneau hikers rescued off a wind-scoured mountain earlier this month says the group was looking for a bit of an adventure, but may have gotten more than they bargained for.
It’s a little more than a week since Matt Callahan and three friends were rescued from a mountain ridge above Thane Road, and he’s laid up at his parents’ house in West Juneau.
He sits up in bed, wearing glasses and an Alaskan Brewing Co. sweatshirt. A plastic frame keeps the sheet from touching his feet, which are swollen and purple, covered in blisters from frostbite.
Callahan says the group started their adventure up West Peak on Saturday, Jan. 31, the first day in probably three weeks without rain in Juneau. Temperatures at sea level were in the 20s and 30s.
“It was a beautiful day, but it was really windy,” Callahan says. “And when we got to the top of the mountain it was calm there, and we decided to just camp there.”
The 27-year-old – born and raised in the capital city – says he’s been winter camping maybe a dozen times or more. He says the group met as members of Juneau Mountain Rescue, and was prepared for the elements with warm coats, boots and sleeping bags.
“We were kind of looking for a little bit of harsher conditions,” says Callahan. “And we definitely got more than we bargained for in that respect.”
He says they knew the forecast called for high winds, but didn’t consider they’d be stronger on Sunday than on Saturday.
“We’d built a snow wall that was probably about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and the wind ate through it in about an hour,” Callahan says.
About 4:30 Sunday morning, Callahan says the wind ripped up their tent and blew away a bunch of gear, including three sleeping bags and one coat.
At that point they decided to get off the mountain as soon as possible. But the wind was blowing 50 to 60 mph, and they only made it as far as a rock outcropping near their camp, where they took shelter until daylight.
When they tried to move again, Callahan says the wind was blowing probably 80 mph, so they figured it would be better to wait for help.
They huddled behind the rock formation, which he says was about 3 feet tall and 10 feet long.
“We hacked out about a foot of ice, down to the moss below it. But it was still windy in there,” he says. “The wind would whip around the bottom and blow up into it. But it was out of the full strength of the wind.”
Callahan sent their GPS coordinates to Juneau Mountain Rescue by text message, and JMR contacted Alaska State Troopers, the agency in charge of search and rescue.
A U.S. Coast Guard H-60 helicopter crew tried to airlift the hikers Sunday evening, but the wind was so gusty the helicopter was unable to land or get close enough to do a hoist.
A JMR ground team didn’t reach the stranded hikers until Monday morning.
“The high winds definitely was a challenge for us in figuring out a way to get a team there safely,” says Pat Dryer, JMR’s board president, who organized the search.
Dryer says the hikers actually were well prepared and did everything right in planning their trip.
“They left a travel plan with a third party, they were able to communicate to somebody when they did need help, they left with the proper gear, and they knew when to call for help,” Dryer says.
Callahan says he felt relief when JMR arrived, bringing extra clothes and ice tools to make crawling on the ridge more secure.
But he says the most important thing the rescuers brought was food and water, which the group had been without for almost 24 hours. Callahan says the extra nourishment gave them the energy to get off the trail safely.
“I was in a great mood coming down the trail,” says Callahan. “I basically ran down and got to the bottom and hopped in the ambulance to check out my feet and then realized that they were frozen.”
In the rush to gather his gear after the wind blew through their tent, Callahan says he failed to put on his gaiters – waterproof leggings that cover the calf and ankle. His feet got wet after snow got into his boots.
He and fellow hiker Amy Helm were medevaced to Anchorage with frostbite. He says doctors tell him it could be several weeks before he’ll know if he gets to keep all his toes.
“Eventually the tissue will turn into either nice, healthy toe again. Or it will shrivel up and kind of mummify, and that will have to be removed,” he says.
Callahan says Helm is in similar shape, recovering in Colorado with family. Her husband, Craig, also was on the trip, along with Schuyler Metcalf, neither of whom needed to be medevaced.
If he does lose toes, Callahan says so be it.
“I’m told you don’t really need toes,” he says. “There’s a lot of great mountaineers who don’t have toes. The doctor says they’re just cosmetic, but I’d still like to keep them if I could.”
And even though he got frostbite, Callahan says he’s happy no one in the group suffered hypothermia. He says he kept a positive attitude during the ordeal, and is trying to keep the same spirit through recovery.
If they had it to do over again, Callahan says they probably would’ve camped lower on the mountain. He says he would’ve made sure to put on gaiters. And he says, yes, they could have done a better job checking the forecast. But he adds people need to be prepared for the worst, no matter what the weatherman says.
“We knew it was going to be windy,” he says. “But just having a healthier respect for the wind.”