A ROUGH TRIP THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS
My name is Dave Parker, Fish Biologist with the Central Yukon Field Office. I'd like to share a story that you may enjoy, and maybe even learn something from. A harrowing tale of a field trip gone awry in the beautiful but unforgiving mountains of western Alaska.
"When push came to shove, they walked off the job." – Sharon Sparks
Into the Storm
On July 8, 2008, Anchorage District Office Fish Biologist Tim Sundlov and I met up at Gold Run Lake in the Kigluaik Mountains, 40 miles north of Nome, Alaska, to conduct a study on the BLM Sensitive Species Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus). I should've known something was up after enduring a bumpy helicopter ride to the alpine lake, elevation approximately 1,675 feet. In seven previous summers of flying in that helicopter, I had never noticed it bouncing around in the wind.
It was sunny as I was dropped off at the beautiful site, ringed by sheer cliffs on three sides and overlooking the 30-acre lake that was formed by a landslide eons ago. But as I unloaded my gear, picked out spots for our tents, and waited for Tim to arrive, I realized erecting our tents would be a challenge in the stiff wind. Well, it was even windier by the time the helicopter returned with Tim and the rest of our gear, and as we started erecting our 10' x 10' extreme condition Arctic Oven tent to house our equipment, it clouded up and started to lightly rain.
By the time we finished erecting the equipment tent, we faced a steady rain that was coming at us sideways. The temperature dropped swiftly and we soon found ourselves just this side of freezing rain. Our North Face personal tents were thoroughly soaked as we put them up, and as we finally finished hail was mixing in with the rain. It was too windy to erect our larger 12' x 14' Arctic Oven tent, which we had planned to use as a kitchen/office/hunkering tent. Wind gusts of at least 50 mph buffeted us as we ate military-issue MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) for dinner. The Nome radio station called for high wind and rain for the next couple of days as a large storm rolled in off the Bering Sea. We suspected we'd be hunkering down in our 10' x 10' tent until the storm passed. As we retired to our respective personal tents at 11:00 p.m., Tim was blown off his feet for the first time.
The 10' x 10' Arctic Oven tent that served – at least for a while – as a shelter against the storm.
I had never been in such a storm; it was literally howling through the high alpine valley. The relentless wind would lift my rain fly, saturating my tent with water and allowing it to seep into the windward half. The restless night was spent waiting for my tent poles to snap. My tent was blown down on top of me several times during the night, soaking my sleeping bag on the outside each time. Several times the poles came out of their grommets and had to be reattached. Of course this required donning my wet weather gear and facing the heavy wind and rain.
Hanging by a Thread
Things finally began to let up around 4:00 a.m. I got up at 6:00, donned several layers of clothing, and worked on shoring up my tent. Several of the 15-inch tent stakes had been pulled out of the ground, and there was at least 5 gallons of water pooled in the low end of my tent. Not right.
After another crescendo, the wind and rain eased slightly by mid-morning. I was delighted to see the 10' x 10' tent still standing, although one of its 1-inch-thick poles was bent substantially. I hooked up the propane stove inside, warmed up, and dried out my sleeping bag. I attended to my North Face tent again and was confident it would hold better the coming night. Then the winds started increasing.
We spent the rest of the day attempting to shore up the Arctic Oven tent as it slowly gave up its ghost. Grommets were ripped away, two more poles bent, and the rain fly blown off. We were able to re-attach it, but we knew the weakened structure was doomed if the winds didn't abate. They only continued to grow.
Of course we erected the tent with the door opening to the lake, because you want a view from your tent, don't you? But this meant each time we unzipped the door, the interior was exposed to the wind's full force, filling it like a parachute and repeatedly stressing the structure. Tim was blown off his feet three more times as we continually attended to the faltering structure. As we sat in our "shelter tent", each gust collapsed it halfway onto us. It got so loud at times that you could yell at the person two feet away and not be heard.
Tim was adamant about taking pictures and video. I asked him why he was shooting so much footage. He said if something happened to us, he wanted rescuers to find documented evidence of just what we had been up against. That was encouraging.
The Arctic Oven's rain fly blew half off, and we knew we would soon have to give up the tent. We re-attached it and I went to move some gear back to my North Face tent... but it had been destroyed. Two snapped tent poles, a shredded rain fly, and two foot-long gashes in the ceiling. This left Tim's North Face as our only remaining reliable tent, and we started clearing out the Arctic Oven in anticipation of its imminent demise. An 80-pound, 10-horsepower outboard motor was blown off the top of a cooler. A 150-pound cooler of food was blown over a couple times. Food was scattered everywhere.
A shredded and collapsed North Face tent.
Tim said he'd make room in his tent for both of us; it was going to be cramped quarters, a nasty night. But he soon returned to the Arctic Oven (having been blown off his feet again) to report that his tent had also been destroyed. So at this point we were down to the failing Arctic Oven for our only shelter. (We also had the larger Arctic Oven tent, but there was no way we could erect it in the wind.) All the while the torrential rain was blowing through sideways. No bugs though.
At this point it was time to consider hiking the 7 miles to the Kougarok (Salmon Lake) road. As we were contemplating this… Rip! There went the rain fly for the last time. I got on the satellite phone to call BLM's man in Nome, Tom Sparks, and tell him we'd be hiking out, when… Crash! Another huge gust finally destroyed our last standing tent with Tim and me in it, knocking the phone out of my hand in the process.
As we recovered and sifted through the wreckage, I found the phone in a puddle of water. Are you kidding me?! Of course we bring two phones to our field camps, and I told Tim it looked like we'd be needing his. But Tim informed me that he couldn't get one from his field office as they were all checked out. Our errors were starting to pile up, and in the back of my mind I was thinking, "isn't this how bad things happen?" But hoping for the best, I changed the battery in my saturated Iridium phone, and remarkably it turned on. Unfortunately, no one could hear us talk in the howling wind, so we figured we'd call Sparks once we got out of this dead-end alpine valley wind tunnel.
The Arctic Oven tent after collapse.
At 6:30 p.m. we packed some food, water, and first aid supplies and started hiking out. Shotgun? Bear spray? Please. Maybe a bear would thankfully put us out of our misery! "Wait, let me get a walking stick," said Tim. "We can use it for a splint if we twist an ankle." I was impatient to leave, but I saw the wisdom in his words and waited in the howling storm as he retrieved the broken tent pole from the Arctic Oven. As he returned we found the first part of the hike required crossing a 200-yard-wide snow slide with a 45-degree slope that terminated in 6 feet of water at the lake's edge. We began hiking across and up the snow slide area to avoid a boulder field on the far side. But halfway across and 200 yards up the slope, Tim hit a patch of ice, slipped, and there he went down the slope toward the lake. He laid onto that broken tent pole for all he was worth and finally stopped himself about 50 yards above the water. I couldn't help but think that could've been kind of bad. Now I still needed to cross another 100 yards of the snow/ice slide, and I had no pole to stop me if I slipped. That was somewhat disconcerting, but I had no choice. I finally made it across without slipping.
Over the course of the next six and a half hours, we hiked across jagged boulder fields, high alpine tundra, thick and tangled alder stands, and low-lying tundra swamp and marshland, all while being buffeted by high winds and rain. We took breaks every 30 minutes, then every 15 minutes, drinking lots of water and devouring our snacks. Once out of the valley we tried the phone several times but it wouldn't turn on. We could see the Kougarok Road Bridge over the Grand Central River quite a distance away, but that didn't help our spirits because as we would cross one drainage and breach the next rise, another drainage would be between us and our goal, and that seemed to go on interminably. We finally got to the bridge at 1:10 a.m., absolutely wiped out, but not shivering and not cramping too badly.
Amazingly, at that point the satellite phone turned on, even though the battery registered zero. I got a call in to Sparks' house, then we made our way to a nearby cabin that was fortunately unlocked and had propane hooked up to its stove. We fired up two burners and finally started to warm up and relax. (We returned the next day and left a note with $10, thanking the owners.) Tom Sparks showed up 40 minutes later, and by 3:00 a.m. we were back in BLM's Nome warehouse, wondering what the heck had just happened to us.
We hung out in Nome for the next five days, at first hoping to go back in to do the project work, then just hoping to retrieve the abandoned gear. But during that time we were treated to nothing but strong winds, rain, and fog in the area. Admitting defeat, we finally retreated back to our field offices, thankful that we had been in a location in the mountains that had at least allowed us to hike out.
During the third week in August, I was able to return to the site and retrieve our abandoned gear. Amazingly, no animals had gotten into the food. I salvaged the potatoes.
Story by Dave Parker, Fish Biologist, Central Yukon Field Office. Photos by Tim Sundlov, Fish Biologist, Anchorage District Office.
On Tue, Dec 29, 2015 at 5:56 PM, XXX wrote:
A couple of questions for you as a field going BLM employee, who happens to work in difficult environments and as a former Military Survival Instructor I have a few of questions for you and figured I would ask them directly instead of in the public format.
Did you check the weather? It seems like with a storm of that magnitude, the NWS had to have known about it before hand.
Did you have gear checklist and communicate with your partner in crime before leaving since you readily admitted to only having 1 sat phone.
Did you have a radio, or was the sat phone your only mode of communication? If you had a radio was it in an area with reception?
I know the Arctic Oven tents come in two different configurations, standard poles and the heavy duty poles? Did you have any of the additional tie downs attached? Also were your NorthFace tents 3 season, 4 season, or Mountaineering rated?
Did you have a map and compass and know how to use them or were you relying on your knowledge of the area and/or a GPS as your mode of navigation?
How long were you expecting to be out for? Did you have a check in plan since you would be a in a remote area?
Do you have any formal "Survival" training in case you guys had been totally FUBARed?
You mention the Shotgun and Bear Spray, did you have them at your camp? What was your reasoning for leaving them behind?
How busy is the Kaugarok Road? If you hadn't found the open cabin (or a cabin), what were your chances of someone driving along finding you since you said your phone was possibly FUBARed and you hadn't been able to reach anyone. It was 0110 when you got to the bridge I wouldn't think a lot of people travel at that hour and you said you only grabbed food, water, and First Aid Supplies. You also stated that you were "absolutely wiped out" so that leads to the question of how much further would have had to of traveled to find help?
I know that being "In the Suck" and dealing with crazy winds, rain, and freezing temperatures we often make very rash decisions, specially if we don't necessarily have the training or experience in like conditions. Was this also part of the case?
If you wouldn't mind answering the questions or adding further details/comments I would appreciate it from a supervisory and educator/trainer roll. Back when I was in the military when "similar" situations would occur we would do a giant post-mortem to get answers and to improve our training.
Thank you very much,
Elko District BLM
Comments on BLM Daily Story ‘A Rough Trip through the Mountains’
David G. Parker
When we got to Nome on July 6, 2008, the town was in the middle of a heat wave, 2 weeks of near high temps. We spent a full day (July 7) going through the gear in blazing sunlight, and the morning of the day we flew to camp it was blue skies and calm winds, and did not start to cloud up until after I had landed. The pilot (who I typically depended on for a reliable weather forecast from the FAA), casually mentioned they were expecting a storm to come in off the Bering Sea (Norton Sound) that evening. Now with that said, this particular pilot was bi-polar and was either very chatty, or quiet and solemn. And on this particular trip he was quiet. But I did not get an accurate weather forecast before flying into the mountains. That was my bad.
2008 was my eighth consecutive year for setting up a remote field camp in the Kigluaik Mountains. The duration of the camps ranged from one to 8 weeks. This particular camp was scheduled for 10 days. We had 4 season Northface tents (Himalayan and Expedition models as I recall). The Arctic Ovens were the bombproof models with extra grommets for tie downs. But the ‘equipment’ (10 x 10’) tent had been used the previous winter as part of a check point for a Nome dog sled race, and as we set it up at the warehouse on July 7, I noticed that one upper corner support pole was slightly kinked. As we set the tent up out in the field, we got 5 of the heavy duty 15” metal corner stakes into the ground (between the rocks). But on the corner with the kinked pole, we could not sink a stake to anchor that well. So we sank two stakes off that corner at a right angle to the tent. Not ideal but the best we could do. Of course that turned out to be the weak point that the near hurricane force winds attacked. I think if we had been able to anchor all 6 corners of the tent properly, and faced the door away from the wind, it MAY have held up.
Iridium satellite phones were the only method of communication in 2008 at this location. We had always had a second phone in camp, and I assumed Tim had brought one. We had a checklist of gear, but I did not ask him if he had gotten a phone from his field office before heading to the field. Another bad on my part.
We call in to our supervisor or their designated back-up every day while at field camp. I had spoken to my supervisor early that afternoon and told him the situation we were in, and that I’d be in touch with Tom Sparks after that. I called Tom at the office in the late afternoon and told him it looked like we’d be hiking out if we lost the Arctic Oven tent. He recommended we stay put, while he and his Fish and Wildlife Protection Officer buddy figured out how to get us out of there. I called him again at home around 6 pm before we started hiking out. But that was in the howling wind and I don’t know if he understood anything I said.
We had inch to the mile USGS maps of the area, compasses, aerial photos, and familiarity with the area. We both carried Garmin GPS units.
The Salmon Lake area has 10-15 remote cabins scattered along 5 miles of road above the lake, and no year-round residents. Folks come to their cabins to fish in the summer, and pick berries and hunt in the fall and winter, but I knew in early July there was a good chance none of them were occupied. Most cabins are left unlocked, Tom Sparks told me later, for just the situation we were in. A remote cabin doesn’t do you any good if you can’t get into it, and the locals understand this. And Nome is a small enough community that if a cabin was vandalized, folks can pretty much figure out who did it.
I did not expect any road traffic. The story says I called Tom’s house, well, he was sleeping and I got in a broken call with his daughter and gave our location at the Grand Central River Bridge. But after that I actually got a call in to a Taxi Co in Nome and tried to convince them to come out and pick us up. But the bars were closing in town and that is when they make a lot of their money, so they gave me a run around. Oh they’d call me back later and see if I still needed a ride at 3 am. Yeah, right.
We had our office-issued Remington 570 12 gauge shot gun and a couple cans of beer spray, but we left them at the ‘camp’ when we hiked out. The shotgun was too much weight, and the bear spray would have taken up valuable food/survival gear space in our packs (yes I know we could have clipped one on to the outside of our packs). In early July there are no mature berries and the salmon are just coming into the rivers, so we weren’t hiking through any Kodiak bear country kind of situation. Yes we should have taken a can of bear spray with us, but in 7 previous years I had only 3 bear sightings in those mountains, and an encounter was not a major concern. The bedding down areas we saw in the alders may have been made by bears, but they were just as likely made by moose.
We have the entire cadre of BLM trainings, including Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness Survival, and frankly I started camping in remote Alaskan locations starting in 1988 and am comfortable doing so. We did not have personal bivouac shelter tents with us, and that was another oversight. We bought some of those immediately upon returning to Fairbanks, and they are always brought in the field now. But quite frankly, the rain and hellacious wind kept up for 5 days. We had a case of MREs with us, but eating and lying in a sleeping bag trying to stay warm for those 5 days would have been a challenge. I made the wrong call flying out to the remote location, but I believe I made the right call hiking out.