Two skiers were whisked off a glacier on the southern Kenai Peninsula Tuesday by an Alaska an Air National Guard helicopter. Crews found the pair after they became stranded for four days.
It’s a trip that Jenny Neyman and Chris Hanna of Soldotna had wanted to take all winter – hiking and skiing on Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward.
“We are well aware that the weather on the Harding Icefield is super dicey, so we’d just been keeping an eye on the forecast looking for a completely clear, calm-wind day with nothing coming anytime soon,” said Neyman.
Neyman says they thought they’d found that day on Friday, although there was a weather system predicted to hit the area later that evening, around 8 p.m. But they figured they could go up, ski for a few hours, and fly out long before then. So a friend with a plane dropped them off for a day of adventure late Friday morning.
“We were skiing around – you know we had three awesome hours up there. It was phenomenal. It was just beautiful, the snow was amazing. We were having a blast and I kept thinking, man, this is the experience of a lifetime – being able to cross country ski on Harding Icefield looking out over Kenai Fjords. I just didn’t realize at the time that that lifetime was potentially going to get much shorter in the near future,” said Neyman.
But around 2 o’clock the weather changed quickly, says Neyman. At nearly 4,500 feet, she says, the glacier seemed to create its own weather.
“These clouds just started materializing right behind the mountain, right on top of us. That weather just popped up literally out of blue sky within 15 minutes right over us,” said Neyman.
They tried calling their pilot friend to come get them but by the time they heard him overhead the clouds had descended and he couldn’t land. Then the snow and wind started. They grabbed their gear and decided to try to head on foot 20 miles to the North toward Exit Glacier and a road near Seward.
“We only made it about six miles by 8 o’clock at night. The weather had just kicked up so bad. We had like 10 feet visibility. It was snowing so hard and the winds were blowing about 35-40 [mph] at that point,” said Neyman.
They had no choice but to hunker down in their tent and camp for the night. The weather was even worse in the morning. Neyman’s companion, Chris Hanna had a GPS satellite locator beacon and a cell phone. They let a friend know via text message that they were in trouble and asked him to let search and rescue know they may have to push their SOS button on the beacon. Late Saturday afternoon he pushed that button sending out his coordinates. That evening their tent failed, they built a snow cave and got inside to wait and think about how they had gotten in such trouble.
“We had nothing to do but stew about that the entire time we were in there. It’s not like we brought a deck of cards,” said Neyman.
Alaska State Troopers handed the case over to the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The 210th, 211th and 212th National Guard Rescue squadrons loaded into an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, and an HC-130 King aircraft used for refueling. Rescue crews began communicating with Neyman and Hanna via text.
Staff Sergeant Edward Eagerton, a spokesperson for the RCC, says the satellite locator beacon that Neyman and Hanna carried with them was crucial in helping rescue crews find the two.
“They were able to communicate their situation to other people and they were able to communicate their location and so it gave us an idea of where to go as opposed to having to wait for the weather to clear so that they could perform a search which, you know, with the size of the area, could have added days to finding them if at all. So in this case it gave our people the ability to know exactly where they were going,” said Neyman.
Bad weather and difficult terrain hampered rescue efforts for three days, but Monday night four Alaska Air National Guard rescuers were delivered by helicopter onto the glacier. They camped overnight and located the two hikers just after noon Tuesday and flew them to a hospital in Soldotna.
Neyman says the satellite locator beacon saved their lives.
“That thing 100 percent saved our lives. We would not be here. Nobody would have found us. Nobody would have even found the remains of us without being able to get our GPS coordinates out,” said Neyman.
Neyman says she and Hanna are both in good condition and they say are grateful to the rescue crews and outpouring of care from the Kenai Peninsula community and people across the state. She says they’re resting and recovering from the ordeal and they’re not planning any more glacier adventures any time soon.
“Yeah, I don’t think either of us have any interest in ending up on the icefield anytime soon. My skis are now definitely put up for the season,” said Neyman.
Editor’s note: Neyman is a long-time journalist on the Kenai Peninsula where she is the owner and editor of the Redoubt Reporter. Neyman has also worked for KDLL public radio and the Peninsula Clarion newspaper in Kenai.