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Fresh Search Teams Arrive at Denali National Park to Help Locate Missing Women


ORVs on the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Photo by Southern Environmental Law Center.

Tuesday’s efforts to locate missing backpackers Abby Flantz and Erica Nelson in Denali National Park were fruitless, despite the best efforts of a 60-person contingent that included eleven ground teams and four aircraft crews. When the search resumes today there will be five new teams to help out.

The new resources include a team from the Anchorage-based Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and search and rescue teams from Grand Teton National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, and Yosemite National Park. The Alaska Search and Rescue Dog organization in Anchorage has also supplied two fresh dog teams to replace the PAWS teams from Fairbanks.

Today’s search, which will involve about 60 ground and air searchers plus 45 support and supervisory personnel, will continue to focus on the Savage River drainage area and the Ewe Creek drainage (just to the north of the Savage). The two hikers, out-of-state seasonal workers at the nearby Denali Wilderness Princess Lodge, headed into this trailless wilderness area of rugged, heavily vegetated terrain on an overnight backpacking trip and did not return as planned on Friday, June 13.

The 25 year-old Flantz and 23 year-old Nelson were last seen on Thursday at the Savage River Check Station. No one has reported seeing the two women since they left the check station. They had no cell phones, GPS devices, or emergency locator beacons with them.

The National Park Service search managers would like to speak with anyone who was hiking in the Savage River drainage between Thursday, June 12 and Sunday, June 15. Anyone who may have information to share is asked to call (907) 683-9648.

The arrival of the fresh SAR teams from the Lower 48 and Anchorage has allowed search managers to increase the size of teams assigned to high priority search segments that are to be more thoroughly searched. Ground teams will be also be sent for the first time into some steep, rocky, and snow covered areas of higher terrain previously searched only by air. Elevations in the search area are generally in the 2,000 to 6,000 foot range.

Finding anyone under such conditions is extremely difficult, so the search operation, which employs a grid system, is necessarily methodical and painfully slow. No clues have turned up to date, so the frustrated searchers don’t know whether the women got lost, accidentally injured, mauled by a grizzly bear, or swept away in an attempted crossing of the Savage River. Nothing can be ruled out, even human menace.

Wilderness trips are always hazardous to some degree, but the backpacking trip the women set out on was not inherently more risky than normal. The Mount Healy Wilderness unit that was the indicated destination of the overnight trip is located north of the Park Road (Denali’s only road) in the general vicinity of the park’s main entrance. At this time of year, daytime temperatures in the area are in the 60s and nighttime temperatures are in the 40s.

The women, experienced backpackers with only limited Alaskan hiking experience, had only planned an overnight trip. This means that they wouldn’t have intended to go very deep into the wilderness.

A required river crossing raises concern. To get to the destination indicated on their permit, the women would have had to cross to the east side of the Savage River. This is supposed to be done in an area where the gradient is gentle, the stream is braided (with multiple narrow channels), and the stream flow is not unmanageably fast. A crossing can be perilous, however, if the wrong site is selected or the river’s flow has been swelled by meltwater or rainfall.

The air search will continue today with up to five helicopters in addition to the park’s fixed-wing aircraft. A helicopter from the Alaska Fire Service Tanana Zone has been added to the three that were utilized in yesterday’s operations.

The high-altitude Lama helicopter is available again today. However, it may have to depart on short notice because it is scheduled to perform a medical evacuation from the 14,200 foot camp on Mount McKinley as soon as weather conditions on the mountain allow.

The diversion of aircraft to assist people in need is a fact of life at Denali, a Connecticut-sized park with vast areas of boreal forest, tundra, and alpine wilderness that are unreachable by road and don’t even have marked trails. According to the park’s Public Affairs Officer,

During the past two days, helicopters assigned to the search have been temporarily diverted to assist with two medical incidents in the park. On Monday, June 16 an incident helicopter was needed to transport a 54 year old man experiencing medical problems from the Eielson Visitor Center to the park airstrip, where he was taken by ambulance to the Canyon Clinic. Another helicopter was needed [Tuesday,] June 17 to evacuate a 53-year old man who had a possible broken leg two miles up the trail on Mount Healy. He was flown to the Healy airstrip and transported to the Tri-Valley Clinic.

Ironically, Nelson, who lives in Las Vegas, was due to leave Alaska on Sunday to be the maid of honor at her sister's wedding. Now the bride-to-be is at the park with her parents holding vigil for her missing sister.

Flantz is from Gaylord, Minnesota. Her parents were due to arrive in Fairbanks Tuesday night

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