ANCHORAGE — Helicopters trying to rescue two skiers trapped on an Alaska ice field for four days waited out whiteout conditions that one pilot said were like flying inside a pingpong ball.
The winds and blowing snow subsided enough Tuesday to allow an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter to land in Harding Ice Field to pick up the skiers.
But the hard work wasn’t over. The rescue team had to dig down through deep snow to get Jennifer Neyman and Christopher Hanna out of their snow cave, where they took refuge after getting stranded Friday.
“They were under about 4 feet of snow in their snow cave,” said Guard Lt. Col. Matt Calabro, director of operations for the 210th Rescue Squadron, which flies the helicopters. “It was pretty deep snow up there.”
The Guard originally reported the rescue was on Bear Glacier, one of more than 30 glaciers in the largest ice field entirely within U.S. boundaries. It revised the location to 11 miles west of the glacier on Harding Ice Field itself, an expanse of thick ice at the high elevations of some mountain ranges.
Neyman and Hanna are experienced outdoor enthusiasts. Calabro said they were not injured and in good condition after braving fierce winds and snow.
Rescuers flew the pair to Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna. Hospital spokeswoman Camile Sorenson said Hanna felt so good, he didn’t check in. Neyman was treated and released Tuesday, Sorenson said.
“Being on the mountain that long, in the cold, in the snow, isolated, we are going to take them to the hospital,” Calabro said. “We just want to make sure they are safe.”
An airplane had dropped off Neyman, 36, and Hanna, 45, on Friday but could not return that night because of bad weather. Though planning to spend just one day in the ice field, the skiers carried a light tent and two days of provisions, plus communication devices.
Neyman and Hanna used a personal locator beacon with texting capability to contact a friend, who then alerted authorities. Satellite coordinates indicated the duo were at 4,300 feet.
Strong wind and snow shredded their tent Friday night. The skiers dug a snow cave for shelter but were out of food and cook stove fuel by Monday. They texted that they were near hypothermic.
Weather continued to hamper rescue efforts.
“The terrain there is pretty gnarly,” said Calabro, 38. “High mountain peaks, clouds, snow, icing and the glaciers, so everything is white-on-white. It’s like what we call flying in a pingpong ball.”
Besides whiteout conditions, there were 30 mph winds with faster gusts.
Calabro tried to put a four-man rescue team on the ground Monday when he couldn’t land the helicopter. He called off that attempt, about 8 miles from the skiers, because of huge crevasses on a glacier.
The team eventually was lowered to a nearby location that doesn’t have many crevasses. Rescuers were making the approximate 15-mile hike to the survivors when weather cleared Tuesday.
A Guard helicopter pinpointed the skiers’ location, and helicopter crew members spotted skis believed to mark the entrance of their snow cave. The crew dug them out of their cave.
Snow caves can be as simple as holes dug in packed snow banks. With enough time, entrances can be constructed with 90-degree turns so wind doesn’t blow inside.
The shelters use the insulating value of snow to retain body heat.
The Guard’s Rescue Coordination Center had received a satellite text message from the two earlier Tuesday saying they were “OK.”
Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report from Anchorage.
This story has been corrected to show that authorities revised the location of the rescue to the ice field itself, not Bear Glacier.