From a well-planned ski adventure to a mad dash underground, to an eventual rescue, eager peninsula listeners recently got an earful when two Soldotna residents shared their tale of an almost-deadly trip to the Harding Icefield last year.
Jenny Neyman is the general manager at public radio station KDLL. She’s also an avid adventurer who loves being outside, she said, which prompted her April 2016 trip with fellow Soldotna resident Chris Hanna to the Harding Icefield.
When weather took a turn for the worse and created white-out conditions, the pair found themselves stuck there for five days as opposed to their planned afternoon outing.
The two shared their story of the trip and eventual rescue with an enthralled crowd of people last Friday at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. The presentation, complete with photos and a table of hiking gear, is part of a new series by KDLL called “Adventure Talks.” The show will feature the outdoor adventures of Kenai Peninsula residents, whose interviews will be aired on KDLL the last Wednesday of each month, followed by in-person presentations the last Friday of each month.
On Friday, Neyman and Hanna brought their story to life for interested peninsula residents through photos, humorous and matter-of-fact story telling and examples of the gear that helped them survive the icefield.
Best laid plans
In the year since their adventure, Hanna and Neyman said they’ve been asked numerous times what they would have done differently, or if they’ve learned any kind of lesson. Their answer is that, looking back on their initial decision to ski on the icefield the afternoon of April 8, 2016, they didn’t made any seriously poor choices.
Neyman said they waited and watched the forecast closely to find a window of good weather during which to make the trip. The pair brought along an entire sled worth of gear for what was supposed to be a day trip, including the tent they originally took cover in and the food that sustained them for several days.
She and Hanna also had an InReach, a satellite device that can be paired with a cell phone and send pre-typed messages or real-time responses to a list of emergency contacts. This is what the pair used to communicate their location and condition to friends and emergency responders while they were stuck.
They also used a GPS device to mark the spot where their sled and gear sat on the icefield while they skied around, which Hanna said felt like unnecessary work on what started out as such a clear day.
“It seems dumb when it’s a blue bird day, but if we wouldn’t have done it, it would’ve been a short story,” he said. “It would have been over right then and there because without the gear, you’re done.”
Everything they brought with them became essential when things took a turn for the worse. Hanna described using the cap of a bottle of bug spray Neyman had packed together with a tent pole to create a push-shovel that he used to make a small hole for air flow through the top of their snow cave.
The only thing the two really regret not bringing on the trip is a snow shovel. When Hanna eventually had to dig a snow cave as their tent was caving under the weight of falling snow, he had to do so by hand.
“We’re shovel connoisseurs now,” Neyman said.
The pair have reconsidered their decisions multiple times, they said — whether they should have pressed on another 20 miles to safety in Seward after the weather turned sour, whether they should have pressed the SOS button on their InReach sooner, etc.
“I think we made the right decision to stop because we would have taxed ourselves too far, we’d have gotten too cold,” Hanna said. “And you get that hypothermic, that cold, you start making some bad decisions.”
Neyman and Hanna were on the icefield from when they were dropped off to ski around 12:30 p.m. Friday, April 8, to when they were picked up by an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter around the same time Tuesday, April 12.
After spending such a long time in the cold and damp, first in their tent and later in the snow cave Hanna dug, the conditions had taken their toll on their health and stamina. Neyman in particular was growing weaker with each passing day, Hanna said.
After their rescue was passed off from the Alaska State Troopers to the Alaska Air National Guard, a group of pararescuemen on skis were sent up to the icefield to retrieve them. The group was just a few miles away when a Pave Hawk helicopter was able to land through a short break in the weather.
Hanna said they had been hearing the occasional plane overhead throughout the ordeal, but that they always ended up fading away.
“And you strain your ear thinking maybe it’s going to turn … and it doesn’t, it just fades out, that’s it,” he said. “Then it’s back to the same silence you’ve listened to for the last 24 hours, or 48 hours. But this one doesn’t. It stays.”
Members of the Alaska Air National Guard landed and dug out Neyman and Hanna from their cave during the late morning of April 11. The pair were back in Soldotna being checked out at Central Peninsula Hospital that afternoon.
Hanna described hearing the rescuers crunching through the snow toward the spot where he and Neyman lay waiting. As they got closer, Neyman heard them yelling out as well.
“I was on the farther side (of the cave) so I couldn’t hear as well, but I think they yelled, ‘Hey, you guys got a shovel?’” she said, drawing loud laughs from the crowd at the visitor center.
After the storm
Neyman said she and Hanna were not aware of how fast news of their ordeal had spread through the peninsula and beyond. She described sorting through both normal work messages and those left by major media outlets upon her return home.
The pair told the crowd they were grateful to get back home to family and friends, and spent some time decompressing after the incident, enjoying the simple things like heat and running water.
Not soured on the outdoors at all by their experience, both Neyman and Hanna have been adventuring every since. They finally made it to see Exit Glacier during a follow up trip they took in April of this year. Neyman joked that she was shocked she was able to get Hanna back on a pair of skis.