Search for missing women in Denali Park yields no clues

Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Denali National Park and Preserve officials are trying to solve a mystery of how two women could vanish on a one-night backpacking trip not far from park headquarters.

Three helicopters, an airplane, dog teams and several dozen people on the ground have failed to find Abby Flantz, 25, of Gaylord, Minn., and Erica Nelson, 23, of Las Vegas. The search will continue Wednesday.

Holding a backcountry permit, Flantz and Gaylord hiked off the park road Thursday just 15 miles from the park entrance. They were spotted by other hikers a mile off the road, but have not been seen since.

When they did not show up for work Saturday at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, a hotel outside the park, they were reported overdue.

The search began that day, and park personnel have scoured a 100-square mile search area that includes dense alder and willow, some black spruce forest, but also miles of open tundra.

No gear connected to the women had been spotted as of Tuesday afternoon, said park spokeswoman Kris Fister.

"It's puzzling to us that we were not able to find any article of clothing, track, piece of equipment," she said, especially since the search started so soon.

Park officials are considering all possibilities, including criminal activity, Fister said. The park has people trained in criminal investigations and is keeping Alaska State Troopers apprised, Fister said.

"There hasn't been any evidence to lead us to think that took place," she said, such as use of a stolen credit card.

Nelson had an extra incentive to return on time. She was scheduled to fly Sunday night to Houston so she could be maid of honor in her sister's wedding.

The backpackers' jump-off into the wilderness was the Savage River checkpoint, the last parking lot open to cars before traffic is restricted to buses on the park road. Flantz and Nelson rode a park shuttle bus to the checkpoint, about a half-hour ride from park headquarters.

The Savage River runs south to north and perpendicular to the park road. The surrounding area is popular for day hikes. The park maintains a loop trail along the water that goes out north one mile and returns.

"A lot of people head farther downstream for a day," Fister said.

On the river's east side, cliffs prevent hikers from walking along the water. To cross the river, hikers typically start on the west side and wade in downstream where the river breaks into shallow channels.

The backpackers had a permit to camp in the Mount Healy wilderness unit, which starts where they stepped off the bus. They would have been required to camp out of site of the road at least a half mile away. Backpackers typically hike farther to more interesting locations.

The west side of the river is rocky but generally not precipitous, Fister said. Sprained ankles are a common hazard.

Crossing rivers is another, and swift, cold water is especially dangerous for hikers light in weight and unbalanced by a heavy pack. Rangers told the women not to cross the Savage before Ewe Creek about three miles downstream of the road. Rivers can rise quickly if hot weather increases snow melt.

However, the high temperatures have been typical, in the 60s. "We haven't had hot, hot temperatures," Fister said.

The river was among the first concerns of searchers. Local whitewater river experts hiked the bank Tuesday to recheck eddies and other river features. The river would have been expected to yield clues if the women were swept away.

"Typically, gear floats loose," Fister said.

High water last week may have discouraged a crossing, she said, and the women could have decided to camp somewhere else.

Flantz's father, Jim, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he would fly to Alaska to learn more his daughter's disappearance.

"We are hoping she will be walking out of the woods and we can give her a big hug," he said.

The women are equipped for surviving in the wilderness.

"We're presuming they're alive and waiting for rescue," Fister said.

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