Searchers find women missing in Denali

Two backpackers say they became lost and continued hiking

Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Two women missing in Denali National Park were found and reunited with worried family members Wednesday, six days after heading off on what they thought was an overnight hike.

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Courtesy Of Ktuu
Courtesy Of Ktuu

Park spokeswoman Kris Fister said the women were found about 5 p.m. Wednesday outside the park on the northeastern side. A helicopter picked them up about an hour after the mother of one of the women received a second cell phone call from her daughter.

The two backpackers, 23-year-old Erica Nelson of Las Vegas and 25-year-old Abby Flantz of Gaylord, Minn., were taken to park headquarters, where family members were waiting.

Anchorage television station KTUU showed the two laughing with family members and eating large, overstuffed deli sandwiches immediately after their return.

The women said they got lost and kept hiking.

"We spent a couple of days 11 hours of hiking. We kept seeing more mountains, more ridges," Nelson told KTUU.

"The terrain was a lot harder than we thought it would be, and it was farther than we thought it would be," Flantz said.

Nelson helped keep her spirits up, Flantz said.

"I thought everything was going to be fine, stay positive," Nelson said.

The women slept at night in a tent and hiked during the day.

"They kind of said they just kept walking," Fister said.

The women, who thought they were going on an overnight, had no food when found. At times, they melted snow to get water, Fister said.

After the second cell phone call, they powered down the phone to save battery strength and text messaged instead to communicate what they were seeing and hearing. At one point, they said they saw an airplane to the south of them, Fister said.

A park plane spotted the pair at 4:22 p.m. and a helicopter was sent to pick them up.

They arrived at the airstrip at park headquarters about a half hour later.

"They looked great. They were laughing and smiling," Fister said.

The two embarked on the hike June 12. A massive search began for them on Saturday.

Nelson's mother, Ellane, received an initial cell phone call from her daughter at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday as she listened to park officials give a briefing on the search.

Park officials had reported the women were not carrying a cell phone, but the call was not a hallucination. Caller ID indicated it was from the 23-year-old woman.

Nelson answered the phone and heard her daughter say she and Flantz were alive and well.

The cell phone's battery was weak but park officials were able to locate the signal coming from the eastern section of the 100-square mile they had been searching for more than four days.

Park Service officials told the women to stay put, make themselves visible and signal any helicopters that flew overhead.

The agency dispatched two helicopters to pick the women up, but hours later the two women had not been found.

Fister said it was thought the women were in the vicinity of a dry creek bed, but after the second phone call rescuers focused instead on a brushy area on the eastern edge of the search area north of Mount Healy, about five miles west of the Parks Highway, the main highway that connects Anchorage and Fairbanks.

The search area about 180 miles north of Anchorage is a mix of national park and state-owned lands.

"They were not where we thought they were," Fister said.

A helicopter, airplane, ground searchers and two dog teams were used in the search.

Nelson and Flantz left Thursday from the Savage Creek checkpoint just 15 miles from the park entrance, intending to return the next day.

They were spotted by other hikers a mile off the road before they vanished.

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

Searchers scoured a 100-square mile search area that includes dense alder and willow, some black spruce forest, but also miles of open tundra.

They found no indication that the women had left the park but were puzzled that no clothing or gear had been found, or that the women had not somehow signaled the three helicopters or park airplane that flew overhead.

Officials said it was unlikely the women merely decided to extend their camping trip. Nelson was scheduled to fly Sunday night to Houston so she could be maid of honor in her sister's wedding.

Nelson said she thought a lot about her sister when she was lost.

"The whole time I was just, we got to keep going. I got to make it to her wedding," Nelson told KTUU.

Fister said she believed the wedding was still on.



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