‘Send rescue now’: National Guard helicopter hoists two plane crash victims off frigid Alaska peak

Some of the rugged peaks and glaciers of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, pictured in May, 2021 on a commercial flight between Anchorage and Juneau. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Anne Northup’s husband survived a plane crash in one of Alaska’s most forbidding and remote mountain ranges, inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. He and the pilot of their small plane used a Garmin satellite device to call for help Saturday afternoon. 

But recovery efforts were stretching into a second day. Rain, snow and wind kept rescuers from reaching Fred Northup and James Feola.

RELATED: Group of 12 stranded mountaineers rescued from Wrangell-St. Elias glacier

The pair of New York pilots, both 62, had crashed their Cessna 182 into a mountainside at 6,000 feet — hard enough that one of its wings was gone, and their gear scattered across the mountainside. 

“His last communication through the Garmin was, ‘Send rescue now, we will not make it through the night,’” Anne Northup said in a phone interview Monday. “I was preparing my family for the worst.”

When Northup woke up early Monday morning, she still had no news about her husband. But half an hour later, she said, she got a phone call: The two men had been plucked from the mountainside by Anchorage-based National Guard members, who were part of three crews that worked round-the-clock on rescue efforts.

Northup and Feola were cold, but had only minor injuries, the National Park Service said.   

In a spring that’s proven unusually treacherous for Alaska adventurers, another group of climbers remains stranded from the side of Mount Bona, about 70 miles from where Northup and Feola were picked up. A National Guard official said the same bad weather has blocked that rescue, since the climbers are stuck at a higher altitude — on a glacier 10,000 feet above sea level.

In the mean time, though, Anne Northup is hailing her husband’s improbable survival.

“It was a miracle that they were saved,” she said. “I want to extend, just, gratitude to search and rescue for not giving up. They searched and searched.”

Anne Northup said her husband described a “loss of altitude” and a rapid descent as they were flying a roughly 400-mile leg from Talkeetna to Yakutat.

The village sits just outside Wrangell-St. Elias park, which contains North America’s largest non-polar icefield and America’s second-tallest peak, Mt. St. Elias. The area also gets hammered with storms from the Gulf of Alaska: Yakutat gets 150 inches of rain each year.

“These mountains will humble you,” said Paul Claus, a veteran bush pilot and climber who operates the Ultima Thule lodge inside Wrangell-St. Elias park. He said he was working with four climbers who finished a trip on Mt. St. Elias who have been waiting five days for a pickup in a remote bay due to bad weather.

Feola and Northup, who both have private pilots licenses, flew Feola’s Cessna 182 across the country to Alaska, with the high point of their trip a planned visit to a yearly air show in Valdez, Anne Northup said. They spent time in Ketchikan and Fairbanks, as well as Talkeetna, a town that’s known as the launch pad for climbing expeditions to Denali.

“They flew around Denali, and it was a little rougher flying than I think both of them were used to,” she said. “But overall, they could see the mountain and they liked doing what they were doing, and then they were going to be headed home.”

The two men took off from Talkeetna for Yakutat around 10:30 a.m. Saturday, the National Park Service later said in a prepared statement. 

Roughly three hours later, an international rescue coordination center informed park service officials that they’d received “rescue needed” messages from near a glacier on the north side of Mount Hawkins — a rarely-climbed, 10,000-foot peak a little further than halfway along their route.

Authorities initially asked Claus, the lodge operator, to see if he could find the crash site. But in his own small plane, Claus said he could get no closer than 17 miles away from the pilots’ reported location, after running into weather and wind he described as “not flyable.”

The National Guard, meanwhile, already had its own aircraft — a C-130 plane and a Pave Hawk helicopter — in the area, which were trying to retrieve the three stranded climbers from Mt. Bona, to the northwest. The weather was similarly problematic for them, though, said Maj. Greg Ulrich, one of the officers who coordinated the rescue.

“The ceilings were just below where the plane crash was,” he said. “There were times the helicopter got within .8 miles — multiple times, got within two miles of the crash site — but just could not get high enough onto the glacier to where they were.”

Video shot Saturday by a helicopter crew member just below the crash site shows a pair of rocky peaks rising out of a vast, foggy expanse of glacier with deep crevasses.

Guard crews spent all night trying to get to the stranded pilots, and early on Sunday morning, they finally had a window to fly over the crash site. But bad light and visibility stopped them from landing, and from dropping the parajumpers that were onboard, Ulrich said.

“I can’t tell you how many times they were like, ‘Hey, we’re going to go see if we can get up there, the weather looks like it’s getting better,’” Ulrich said. “And then 20 minutes later they’d call us on the satellite radio and tell us they had to turn around because of weather. And the whole time we’re standing by the radio hoping for good news.”

After working for nearly 12 hours, that crew had to return to Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. 

Another crew replaced them Sunday, but the weather continued to block a rescue, and they spent much of the day with the helicopter waiting on a snowfield below the pilots. 

Finally, around 2 a.m. Monday morning, a third crew — the one that had done Saturday’s original search for the pilots — got enough of a break in the weather to hoist Feola and Northup into their helicopter.

In total, Ulrich said roughly 30 guard members flew in support of the rescue, which relied on mid-air helicopter refueling and technology like night vision goggles.

“It’s amazing, the rescue community,” he said. “The amount of people that we brought back in on a holiday weekend and there were no questions asked — it was like, ‘This is what we do.’”

A National Transportation Safety Board official said investigators were still waiting Tuesday morning to speak with Feola, the pilot. Claus, the longtime bush pilot and lodge operator, also said he was eager to hear what happened.

“Those good, happy endings in the aviation realm don’t happen all the time — they’re more likely to be the other way around,” he said. “If these guys are alive and everything, I’m sure they’ll have a good story to tell.”