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Contact: Kris Fister, (907) 683-9583
After successfully locating missing backpackers Abby Flantz, 25 of Gaylord, Minnesota, and Erica Nelson, 23 from Las Vegas, Nevada on Wednesday, June 18, Denali search managers interviewed the pair to determine what had taken place during their extended stay in the backcountry. The point where the pair was last seen was on the trail of the west side of the Savage River on Thursday afternoon, June 12. They had gotten a wilderness permit for one night in a Mount Healy area backcountry unit.
The pair had decided to do a traverse of the unit, accessing it at the Savage River Check Station located at Mile 15 on the Denali Park road, and exiting via Dry Creek. They intended to hike back from there to their housing area in Healy. They didn’t inform anyone of their plan. The estimated distance of this hike is fifteen miles, all cross-country over rugged terrain.
They crossed the Savage River at a point with several channels, the recommended method for backcountry river crossings. Their first night’s campsite was in the Ewe Creek drainage, approximately four miles from where they had begun the hike. The next day they planned to go over a ridge and drop down into one of the drainages that lead into Dry Creek.
The only map the two hikers had was the Trails Illustrated map of Denali, which doesn’t provide detailed information due to its large scale. Instead of their planned route, the pair hiked down a different drainage that led back to the Savage River. They told search managers that on Friday and Saturday they hiked for eleven hours each day, traveling up the east side of the Savage River until it flowed into the Teklanika River and then traveling up the east side of the Teklanika. They remembered crossing an ATV track, which search managers believe was the Stampede Trail, the northern edge of the search zone, on either Saturday or Sunday. Hiking at this rate would have placed them out of the search area before the aerial search was initiated on Saturday.
Believing that they were in Dry Creek, and that it was just taking longer than they had thought to complete their hike, they continued to move north. They eventually followed ridges to the east, and when finally located were just north of the park boundary and approximately eight miles from the Parks Highway, the major thoroughfare between Anchorage and Fairbanks. They didn’t travel as far during the last two days, spending more time in their tent because of rain. With only two sandwiches and five granola bars between them for what was supposed to be an overnight trip, they shared their last granola bar over the last two days. They didn’t have a stove, and had supplemented their two bottles of water with rainwater and melted snow.
Erica turned her phone on daily to see if she could get a signal, which finally occurred when they were far enough to the east to hit the Nenana cell site. When Erica contacted her mom the second time on Wednesday, June 18, she was told to end the call in order to conserve battery strength and use the text message feature to provide information on what they could see and hear from their location. Technology based on signal strength and azimuth from the cellular tower gave searchers a general location for the pair and their description of the features they could see from their location - specifically the large domes housing the communication equipment at the U.S. Force Clear Air Station twenty miles to the north - and where they could hear and see aircraft assisted searchers in finally spotting them from the park’s fixed-wing aircraft. All told the women had hiked approximately twenty-five miles through very difficult and mostly trail-less terrain.
Media interest in the search was very high. Besides the major news outlets in the state, the incident was of high interest to outlets in Minnesota, Nevada, Texas and the national media outlets of all the major networks. Two Anchorage TV networks were present when the pair was reunited with their families, and Good Morning America and the Today Show interviewed the young women and their families early the next morning. The incident information officer fielded hundreds of calls from media and facilitated interviews with the family.
The women’s employer, Princess Tours, provided invaluable support and assistance to the incident by supplying all of the meals for the incident and housing for out-of-area resources. In addition to park searchers, resources were provided by various Alaska volunteer rescue groups, the Alaska State Troopers, and Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, Yosemite, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks. The search was managed by a Type 3 team consisting of Denali National Park and Preserve employees and technical specialists on contract. At the height of the search over 100 people and five aircraft were assigned.