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Lost Backpackers Reunited with Families at Denali National Park


Backpackers Abby Flantz and Erica Nelson were rescued after being lost for six days in the Denali National Park wilderness. The two women, who were in good condition and high spirits, used a cell phone to help searchers locate them and were reunited with their families Wednesday afternoon. See this site for videoclips showing the joyous reunion, interviews with the two rescued hikers, and comments by family members, the park's Publics Affairs Officer, the search Incident Commander, and others.

This is the second time in recent months that a heavily publicized SAR operation in a national park has yielded a happy outcome. On May 28, Grand Canyon National Park hikers Alan Humphrey and Iris Faraklas were rescued after spending 11 days in the canyon.

It was a good thing that Erica Nelson had her cell phone with her. Though she and Flantz were in a remote area with very spotty and intermittent service, Nelson was eventually able to get a call through to her mother and provide information that helped searchers locate and rescue them. (Nelson was told to switch to text messaging to save battery power.)

Do wilderness hikers like Nelson and Flantz become overconfident, plan less carefully, ignore obvious hazards, and take imprudent risks when they carry along cell phones or PLBs (personal locator beacons) that they might think of as an ultimate “safety net”? For discussion and commentary see this site.

Thousands of search and rescue (SAR) operations are conducted in the national parks every year. For interesting facts, statistics, and commentary, see Search and Rescue Trivia from the National Parks.

The National Park Service spends an estimated $4.3 million a year on SAR operations. Should rescued park visitors be billed for SAR services? For facts and commentary, see this site.


This does make for a compelling example of how better cell phone coverage in the national parks can save lives.

Previous reports have indicated that Ms. Flantz and Ms. Nelson were both experienced backpackers, and were working as concessionaires in Denali. It seems unlikely that they ever planned on using a cell phone as a safety net. Indeed, it took them many days to establish a signal. I know the issue of inexperienced hikers relying on cell phones to summon expensive SAR operations is one of the shibboleths of this blog - but it doesn't seem to apply in this case.

Yes, Traveler characterized Nelson and Flantz as experienced hikers with very limited Alaskan wilderness experience. And yes, Nelson took her cell phone with her. Why would she do that if she didn't entertain the notion that she might want to use it? Experienced backpackers don't haul extraneous weight around, not even on an overnight jaunt. They'll even whittle the extra plastic off a toothbrush handle, for crying out look. We'll see how this thing shakes out when we get access to facts gleaned from the debriefing. Meanwhile, Traveler does not back off on its position that wilderness hikers can get into trouble for reasons that include failure to appreciate the limitations of cell phones and PLBs as factors mitigating inexperience, lousy judgment, and other elements of risk. We do understand, as I'm sure you do as well, that any one instance, such as this DENA rescue episode, doesn't affirm or disprove that general observation. One last thing, Sabattis. As a defender of the English language I must insist that you stop using the term "shibboleth" incorrectly. ;-)

I repeat myself when I say that I'm truly thankful that these two women were found alive and well. But I can't help but wonder why they would venture out without a GPS unit considering that they cost less than $100 and only weigh five ounces.

Yes, it would be dumb to go hiking without a good map and compass and the knowledge to use them, but a little emergency backup technology might have been a real life-saver in this situation.

Another example of unprepared (no GPS, etc) hikers costing all of us huge sums of money for SARs. This needs to be addressed as the humans on this world become less responsible for their actions !

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