June 23, 2011
Contact: Kris Fister
The two female hikers who were the focus of an air and ground search effort in the rugged terrain surrounding Mt. Healy, were located by an Air National Guard Pavehawk helicopter around 2:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 23 approximately five miles north of Mt. Healy. Sybill Senn, age 22 from Newberry, South Carolina and Liza Weeks, age 22, from Bellingham, Washington, were both tired, but uninjured. Had they not been spotted from the air, they were close to a “containment” point staffed by the Tri-Valley Volunteer Fire Department. This was one of five points where it was determined that the two women would most likely come out if they descended the mountain.
The women, both seasonal employees at the McKinley Chalets Resort in the Nenana Canyon located outside Denali National Park, were last seen at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 21 at the Bison Gulch trailhead on the Parks Highway. They had told friends that they intended to hike to the Mt. Healy summit, and possibly continue further along the ridge to the Savage River. They had not planned to camp during their hike, but were carrying some overnight equipment, including a sleeping bag and stove. Their plans went awry when they became disoriented above the treeline due to low clouds and rain around 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 22. The National Park Service was notified at 8:30 a.m. when the women used a cell phone to call “911”. The park’s communication center and search managers had intermittent cell phone contact with them until about 10:00 a.m., when the battery on their cell phone died. Prior to that, they had been instructed to stay where they were and make themselves visible to searchers.
Search efforts were underway by early afternoon. Senn and Weeks remained at their ridge location for hours, and they saw aircraft flying overheard. They tried to make themselves more visible by spreading their gear on the ground, and using metal pans to signal, but they weren’t spotted by the aerial searchers. At approximately 6:00 p.m. the two women began making their way down one of the drainages on the north side of Mt. Healy leading into Dry Creek. They had hiked approximately five miles through difficult terrain and dense vegetation when they were spotted from the air.
Approximately 35-40 people were involved in the total search effort, including ground teams, two helicopters, one fixed-wing aircraft and support personnel. Plans had been made to deploy more ground searchers into the field today, and increase the size of the area being searched.