Adventure and rescue on the Juneau Ice Field
Editor’s note: The following from Kyle Dungan, who was rescued off the Meade Glacier on March 10, initially was a letter that he sent to friends and family, but he agreed to have it published in the News. It is presented in its entirety, except for a couple of small edits that you will notice. See our March 12 issue for the rescue side of the story. Here is what happened to the man on the ice field, how his journey turned due to weather, how the rescue unfolded – somewhat to his dismay – and how he came to appreciate what was done for him.
STORY & PHOTOS by KYLE DUNGAN
Thank you for the kind wishes everyone. In the midst of so many inquiries and circulating news reports I’ve come to realize how important it is to tell this story… I set out on February 20th for a 15-day ski traverse/circumnavigation of the Juneau Ice Field. The ice field encompasses roughly 1,200 square miles of glacier and virtually unheard of mountain peaks, the likes of which stem from the brightest and most creative reaches of the imagination. The route I proposed was essentially an 80-mile loop that weaved through seldom seen valleys and interconnected glacial streams of massive proportions. My drop-off point, on the Meade Glacier, was to also serve as my pick-up point 15 days on. I loaded the ski-equipped plane in Skagway with my personal gear, 20 days worth of food – a week’s extra in case of a prolonged stay – and 25 days worth of fuel. Under impossibly clear skies my pilot, Drake, threw on the iPod and we set out soaring through roughly 30 miles of the beautiful Alaska Coast range heading for what was to be the staging point of the expedition: an expansive plateau at the 4,000 foot level on the south branch of the Meade Glacier. I loaded my sled and packed my bags with 12 days of food and supplies to accompany me on the actual traverse and cached the extra week’s worth at my base camp along with some climbing gear to await me upon return. A week’s extra in case the weather moved in and the climbing gear in case I had some spare time to ascend some of the peaks that encircled the plateau. I also brought along a snow-kite which is basically a large canopy that I could deploy when the winds were right to help me sail across the glacial basins and cover maximum ground.
With an incredible weather window and perfectly still conditions I clicked into my bindings and pointed the tips of skis southeast, toward the endless horizon of ice and snow littered with the contrasting dark granite spires protruding like stalagmites 3,000 feet out of the glacial surface. In those first three beautiful days I managed to cover substantial distances and gorge my imagination on beautiful mountain vistas of unconscionable magnitude. In my journal I noted, “I am truly a lone explorer in an ocean of unseen and unheard of mountains and ice. Such a tremendous feeling…”
Then the weather began to set in. On the Llewellyn Glacier – the British Columbia side of the Icefield, at an elevation of roughly 7,000 feet – winds ripped through my camp and an arctic hurricane began to envelop the upper ice field. The following is a chronicle of the days that ensued as they where annotated in my journal: Day 4, Tuesday February 23- “Awoke this morning to a whiteout…” Day 5, Wednesday February 24 -clear, early start, and ascended the Nesselrode Pass Day 6, Thursday February 25 10am- “Stuck in a complete whiteout at the ridgecrest.” Day 7, Friday February 26- “Blizzard ripped through the pass last night.” Day 8, Saturday February 27- “things are calm but I can see weather moving in all around me. Tempted to move and try to find the access inlet to the Mathis Glacier, but the more the minutes pass the darker the skies become. 10 AM and weather has enveloped the upper plateau, whiteout conditions are imminent.” Day 9, Sunday February 28-“Another whiteout this morning…” Day 10, Monday March 1- “Sounds like a freight train is seconds from colliding with the tent. Been digging out camp every hour. The weather has gone from bad to worse.” Day 11, Tuesday March 2-” still in a damn whiteout. Winds have shifted coming out of the west now, barometer has risen to 994 mb.” Day 12 & 13 - Unable to journal, preoccupied. Day 14, Friday March 5 (written Friday about previous days) -“Hanging on by a thread… I ended up leaving Tuesday afternoon to make my retreat back down to the Meade. I was lured by a brief window of light which quickly became a full scale hurricane.
I ended up making it back to Nesselrode Pass where I collapsed exhausted late that evening. In my depleted state I didn’t build up high enough snow walls to protect the tent. I paid dearly for this. Winds roared down Nesselrode Pass that night flattening the tent no less than three times, each time I let out a pleading “NO, GODDAMIT, NO!” If the tent poles had snapped … can’t even imagine the struggles I’d be having. It would be survival. I started out at first light on Wednesday morning with still gale force winds and whiteout trying to descend the pass and get out of the wind tunnel I seemed to be in. Initially I could see mountainsides intermittently through the clouds, then all was completely obscured. Another whiteout. I did all I could to follow a direct compass heading but struggled nonetheless. With no horizon or clue as to what was up, down, left, or right I bailed on further travel that day for fear of getting turned around or wandering blind into a crevasse. Fierce, fierce winds kept roaring through my camp and given the circumstances of last night’s near disaster with losing the tent I decided instead to dig a snow cave and burrow for shelter. In my state the last thing I wanted to do was spend hours moving hundreds of pounds of snow, and getting dangerously wet in the process, but I figured it was better than destroying the tent and losing ‘home’. And so I dug and dug while the blizzard outside grew stronger and stronger around me. I was making good progress and about three quarters of the way through as I was smoothing out the ceiling I heard a loud whoomph then moments later it all came collapsing down on me, burying me in a grave I had dug for myself. Fortunately I was able to get out but was now completely soaked-snow turning into water the instant it hit my overheated body – exhausted and on the brink of all out hypothermia. I spent the remaining hours of that day laboring to build high walls before desperately escaping into the comfort and fragile security of the tent.
March 4- “I saw the slightest hint of sun and decided to make a run for it. Conditions quickly worsened and I got caught out again this time in a completely featureless whiteout. I had to keep my head down looking at my skis for some sort of reference. If I glanced up at the horizon for more than just a moment I would lose all sense of balance and fall over. Total whiteout. Total vertigo. Out of food, foolishly followed my digital GPS compass instead of the five dollar one I bought at Fred Meyer thinking it would provide a sort of auto-pilot for me during the whiteout … hours in, after unknowingly crossing crevasse fields I stumbled across the slightest bit of definition in what was otherwise a completely blank vista… my own (expletive) tracks!!” The GPS sent me in a huge, demoralizing, 3-mile circle, it made me sick to think I’d been gambling my life with this trinket. I know there are longitudinal crevasses on this section of the route. “Come on Kyle, you know better than this.” The aforesaid are excerpts from my journal while tent bound in a storm all day Friday.
Day 15, Saturday March 6-”Ferocious weather! Worsening by the second. Afraid I may lose the tent to the gales. Dug an emergency cave in case the tent goes. Its utter survival trying to dig as fast as I can but can’t keep up with the new falling snow. So very tired. Exhausted, starving and extremely nervous about getting out of here in one piece. Hope my mother is watching over me. I need her spirit to keep on enduring this.”
Day 16, Sunday March 7- Pick-up date, still roughly seven miles from pick up spot. “I survived the huge blizzard of yesterday but again another whiteout. It’s all so very impressive. Somehow there is so much beauty in this struggle.”
Day 17, Monday March 8- “This morning started with all the promise in the world: clearing sky. I hurriedly broke down camp at the crack of dawn to get down to the pick up zone. Looking down glacier I could see for the first time all of the peaks that had welcomed me on the day of my arrival. I started out from camp trudging through bottomless snow. About 15 minutes in I heard the sound of an airplane that soon came into view. It was Drake! He made two low passes over me and the relief began to set in. I wasn’t going to have to slog the last seven miles after all. Fortunately I had left him a detailed map of my route and hadn’t deviated from what I had outlined. On the third approach it appeared he was getting ready to land, but instead stayed 15 feet above the ground. Just as the plane passed me another figure sitting in the front seat reached out of the window and dropped a package. The plane quickly banked and then gradually began to disappear into the sea of swarming clouds. I skied over to the box, opened it up and found a hand-held FM Radio. No food. Turned it on and hailed Drake to see what was going. “That a boy, Kyle. How you doing?” I told him I had been without food for four days but was making my way back to the food cache at base camp 7 miles down glacier. “Ah shit, we actually have food here we were going to drop for you. “You gotta get to your food,” was the last thing I heard him say. He had just enough time to make it out. The extra minutes spent turning around to drop the food would have most certainly put them in a dangerous spot. We had very little time to communicate with each other before he had to fly out of range, away from the thickening clouds, but at least he knew my location and that I was making progress getting back to the pick-up zone.
Day 18 March 8. “Another whiteout of course. I heard the distant sound of an aircraft this morning. I tried to hail them on the radio but got nothing. As I dig out camp every hour I zone out and start replaying movie lines in my head to preoccupy my thoughts. When the digging goes on and on like it did last night – sleep for 15 minutes, unzip the tent get blasted by the winds, snow flooding into the tent and coating everything – I would often revisit scenes from the movie Fight Club and the line: “Martha Stewart? (Expletive) Martha Stewart. Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic, its all going down, Man.” As if my continual efforts in digging camp out were some kind of misguided chore in trying to fight my fate. Been monitoring the FM radio and have been picking up some vague traffic. Someone calling for “Patrick” and announcing themselves as “Government Helicopter” My initial thought and fear are that Drake crashed his plane trying to get out of the clouds yesterday and that “Patrick” was the other guy in the front seat that dropped the box. God I hope not.” These were the thoughts I had put down in my journal. Though conditions where adverse I still had the energy to fight and get back to base camp and my cache of food which was now just 4.8 miles away. It was such a mental game trying to occupy my mind and I felt I was actually coming out ahead. I had built up a great, secure camp and was just going to settle in and wait for the weather to clear or for Drake to find a break in the clouds and sweep on in. Though six days without food, I had fuel to last me another 10 days and was able to melt snow and stay hydrated. I just had to be patient and wait out the weather.
Wednesday morning dawned with clearing sky and sun so I lapped it up! Sun bathing, drying out my sleeping bag and translating Russian to pass the time just trying to be patient; ears poised for that unmistakable hum of Drake’s Cessna to greet me. If the weather held and Drake didn’t show, then I would ski down to base camp which at this point was less than five miles away and pig out! I had marked the GPS coordinates, which was the only functioning part of the unit, and had left bright orange wands sticking 10 feet out of the snow to guide me back to sweet Ramen Noodle bliss. My pilot knew I had supplies for 20 days and it was now day 19. I was in good shape. The helicopters caught me off guard and descended on me like something out of the movie Apocalypse Now. I had no idea what was going on, and before I knew it, I was a part of this military-style extraction, viewing my camp from above-tent still taut and wrapped in the beautiful walls of the snow fortress I had been sculpting for two resilient days, skis, camping and climbing gear neatly stashed within the protection of my snow castle and all of which I was forced to leave behind at the urgent presence of the military- It was heartbreaking. The Black Hawk helicopter had suddenly pulled me from the world I was finally getting used to and was now quickly escorting me to another, much more complicated realm. I didn’t hail for a rescue. I hadn’t even considered it. Conditions overall were adverse, but therein lies a lot of the allure of remote mountain ranges in the first place. The collision of beauty and volatility that create a world of triumph and trial all contained in this microcosm of an expedition is such a rare and beautiful experience.
All told, I spent 15 days in a blizzard, 13 of which were a consecutive and virtually relentless hurricane played out over the course of minutes – not days, but still I managed to cover close to 50 miles of the traverse… And I relished every second of it. My return to reality was punctuated by TV cameras, tales of a wandering “extreme hiker,” speculative radio reports and angry news blogs from strangers so very distant from knowing me or my intentions. All this within an hour of putting my book down and glancing out of the tent door to the direction of the “thump, thump, thump” sound of helicopters. I passed people who gave me hugs and said kind words, thankful I was still alive. I was fine. Hungry for sure, but otherwise fine. I had completed much of the traverse I had envisioned back in 2007, and I was proud of what I had been able to endure and accomplish and it felt like that sense of fulfillment was being taken away from me – overshadowed by this idea that I wasn’t self-sufficient enough and had to send out an SOS putting others in the path of the same storms I had endured.
Some of the most gratifying moments of the trip where those of simple utility where I would find a new method to keep the self-sufficiency going. Like finding creative ways of drying my down insulation, burying empty fuel bottles and tying them off to use as anchors to reinforce the tent. Or steaming my climbing skins while brewing hot water in the morning so that the adhesive would thaw and bond better to the bottom of the ski. I was transforming my time in the mountains from this foreign and initially awkward existence into this curious way of streamlining my new life and making it all second nature. Kind of like finding a light switch in the dark. We all know it’s there but we reach first for the wall and then let the smooth surface guide our fingers to the plastic. I did not want this “rescue” and I certainly did not want its implications to tarnish these silent accomplishments and valuable lessons I had learned.
All that said, I am grateful to my pilot, Drake, who called in the search out of concern on my behalf. He did the right thing, and looking out across the inlet to the dark, swollen plumes of cloud preparing their next attack on the mountains I was just in, I am relieved. I will continue to use Drake’s expertise in getting me into the mountains of Southeast Alaska I am also grateful to the Coast Guard and Air National Guard for the success of the three-day operation that I was completely oblivious to. They are such professionals at what they do. And to the guy from Juneau Mountain Rescue, who, through the deafening noise of the Coast Guard Jayhawk, reached across the cluttered space of the helicopter cabin holding the most conspicuous clear plastic bag marked “Subway”. My eyes buried under the folds of skin created by the breadth of the ensuing smile. By far the most expensive turkey sandwich I’ll ever enjoy.
I owe an apology to all those that worried about me over the course of those three days. I am sorry to have left you all with such a burden. The expedition was measured, calculated, and executed with sound judgement and a stubborn reluctance to give in. A solo winter ski traverse of one of the largest ice fields outside of the poles was attempted to embrace those difficult odds and to tax the stamina of every cell in my body, to explore, to learn, to evolve, to let everything go. It was supposed to be the challenge that it most certainly turned out to be and, in so doing, became the single most beautiful window I have peered through so far in this life. To Nicole, Matthew, Julie and my Father – my family: Those adverse days-the ones with questionable outcomes-put me in the hands of mom for the first time since she left, and it was worth risking it all just to feel her with me again. And finally, to all of those that have sent such kind words and thoughts my way I am truly honored to be the focus of such sincerity. It means more to me than I’ll ever let on.
Yours, Kyle Dungan
Photo 1 - Self-portrait applying skins to skis.
Photo 2 - The ‘Picket Gate Cracks’ of the Boundary Peaks.