Some say lack of attendant delayed response time to tragedy
Rescuers from the Valdez Fire Dept. performed what Dr. John Cullen said was a “a truly heroic rescue this weekend,” after a 16-year old tourist from Connecticut fell into a crevasse near the top of Worthington Glacier early Saturday afternoon.
The victim, Kurt Shenher, is said to be in guarded condition at Providence Alaska hospital in Anchorage after he was medivaced from Providence Valdez Medical Center early the next morning, suffering from hypothermia and other unspecified injuries.
Shenher fell into the crevasse after he and his 15-year old brother, Troy , took a leisurely climb up the face of the glacier wearing street clothes.
“They walked up,” the hikers’ grandmother said at the scene shortly after the first team of rescuers, consisting of Josh Larsen, Mike Weber, and Jennifer Weber – and Shenher’s grandfather - found the victim.
Shenher had fallen at least 50 feet down a crevasse where his six foot, five inch frame wedged between the walls of ice. During the fall, much of the victim’s inadequate clothing was ripped from his body, leaving him with what was described as “skin on ice” for nearly five hours.
“This young man could have lost his life quite easily on a fall like this,” Jennifer Weber said in an interview Monday afternoon.
Weber said the first team used cell phone cameras to take pictures of the area the brother believed the fall had taken place and began the climb up the glacier.
“As we got higher up on the glacier we could see footprints in the snow,” she said, which the team followed until it reached a crevasse field. “At one point we couldn’t see anything.”
When the tracks disappeared, the team simply began calling out to the victim. Fortunately, the victim was conscious and able to respond, helping the team pinpoint his location down one of many crevasses.
“We rigged up a rope system,” Weber said “We lowered in Capt. (Mike) Weber into the crevasse.”
Shenher was wedged in tight and it took a bit of manipulating before rescuers were able to pull him out of the crevasse.
“It was very cold and wet down there,” Weber said, but it still proved difficult to extract Shenher, who was in obvious distress. “We moved him a bit but he was pretty stuck.”
Meanwhile, a second team of Valdez responders were scaling the glacier while an Alyeska helicopter from the Copper Basin waited near the scene of the rescue as was safe.
The two rescue teams, made up of employees and volunteers of the Valdez Fire Dept. and its specialized rescue squad, rigged a series of ropes totaling 800 feet to lower the victim who was strapped into a rescue sled.
“We lowered him approximately 2,400 feet to the waiting helicopter,” Weber said, noting the team could not move their patient down in a straight line due to the geography of the glacier.
Weather in Valdez prevented the helicopter from transporting Shenher directly to Valdez so the patient was transferred to an ambulance waiting at the base of the glacier, where he was driven to the hospital.
Shenher, suffering from severe hypothermia, was later medivaced to Anchorage.
“I’m very proud of our efforts because for a while there is was daunting,” Weber said.
While the rescue was successful, there are some that are questioning if the incident could have been avoided completely or if the rescue would have happened sooner if an attendant had been present.
Last May, the Valdez City Council passed a resolution urging Alaska State Parks to restore funding to pay for an attendant at the glacier, which is outside the city limits of Valdez. The council’s resolution carried no legal authority but acted as a political message to state officials.
Valdez woman Nell Clayton ran a small bookstore and visitor center at the glacier for 11 years at a cost of less than $10,000.
“She knows what resources we have down here,” George Keeney, Valdez fire chief said after the rescue.
She also had access to a working landline telephone. Clayton also urged visitors that are inexperienced and ill-equipped for a climb to avoid actually climbing on the glacier.
There was no cell phone coverage on the glacier and the first call for help came from a satellite phone serviced by Matcom, which is based in the Mat-Su Valley.
“They do the dispatching for the Glennallen troopers,” Sgt. Bart Hinkle of the Valdez Police Dept. said in a phone interview Monday.
After a time delay, Matcom did contact the emergency dispatch in Valdez. A Good Samaritan with a cell phone called in the emergency closer to Valdez once service was available.
Rescue service from Valdez was delayed by a half hour or more due to the lack of a direct call for help.
Critics of the budget cut that left the glacier unattended also point to the fact the young hikers may not have made the trek up the glacier while ill-prepared in the first place if an attendant had been on hand to discourage such a trek.
Weber did not address the issue but described the lower condition of the glacier as fairly easy going for an ice surface and said she could see how inexperienced glacier hikers might think it was safe to take a walk to the top of the glacier.
“It was a pretty easy walking surface for ice,” Weber said. “It wasn’t glare ice.”
She advised visitors to the glacier – or any other wild place – to hire experienced guides rather than striking out alone or even in groups.