Hikers rescued by troopers in Hurricane Gulch recall ordeal

Tim Mowry

FAIRBANKS -- Four tired and hungry hikers were rescued by Alaska State Troopers after they got lost and ran out of food while hiking in the Hurricane Gulch area along the Parks Highway.

Phillip Low Sr., 75, of Fairbanks; Ryan Sommers, 21, of Eagle River; Lindsay Sommers, 22, of Eagle River; and Altaira Wilhelm, 22, of Fairbanks, were picked up by helicopter after calling troopers at 9 a.m. Wednesday to report they were unable to walk out because of lack of food and water.

The group had embarked on what was supposed to be an 18-mile day hike around the eastern edge of Hurricane Gulch on Tuesday. After starting at 171 Mile on the Parks Highway, they took a wrong turn. The hikers didn't realize they were lost until it was getting dark.

They called 911 and let troopers know they were overdue and out of food. They told troopers they would attempt to hike out in the morning and spent the night huddled around a campfire because they didn't have any camping gear, Low said.

On Wednesday morning, unable to find a way out of the area that didn't require backtracking 10 miles, the hikers called troopers and asked for help.

"Basically the only way out from that point was to hike down a gorge and cross a pretty swift river or to go back way we came, neither of which seem like a good option," Ryan Sommers said. "We were completely physically exhausted."

Troopers initially asked two of the hikers to hike out to the road to meet troopers and medics so they could lead them to Low and the hiker who stayed with him, but the hikers didn't feel comfortable doing that because of their own physical condition and the terrain, Sommers said.

"It would have been at least six to eight hours out to the road and another six to eight hours to get them back to Phil," Sommers said.

Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said the hikers "made it very clear to us that they could not hike out."

"They had told us they wanted to stay together," Peters wrote in an email. "They felt it was better to stay in a clearing and be rescued rather than risk trying to get out on their own."

Based on the hikers' assessment of the situation and the provisions they had, troopers chose to fly them out, Peters said.

Low, who has hiked in the area in the past and was leading the group, shouldered the blame for both getting lost and having to get picked up by state troopers. Low said there was no way he could have hiked out the way they had come, in part because much of the route would have been uphill.

"I'm 75, and my hips don't work as well as they used to," he said. "I just couldn't do it. We had gone so long without food; I was exhausted."

"It wasn't a matter of convenience," he said of calling for the rescue. "It was a serious matter."

On the helicopter flight out, Low said, the hikers realized they made the right choice by not trying to hike out.

"They had never done this section of the route before, and they could have made a wrong turn," Low said. "There's no trails up there. If you get into the wrong place, some of these little rivers that come out of the mountains just lock you in."

Low said he was the one who steered the group wrong by going through the wrong pass.

"I've been through that pass three times from this direction, and I've done it in the other direction once," he said. "I thought it was a piece of cake. I didn't realize coming from the direction we did that there were two passes.

"Once we took the wrong pass, it took us down a descending valley out to a place where we had a gorge on the left and a gorge on the right that joined together, and both were impassable," Low said.

The area, known as the Alaska Pinnacles Hurricane Gulch Loop, is becoming more popular among hikers, even though there are no trails to follow, Low said.

"It basically loops around the eastern Hurricane Gulch drainage," he said. "You go in at Mile 171, and you go up to a beautiful lake that's 2,000 feet long. We call it Pinnacles Lake. It's at the base of a ridge that's covered with pinnacles. It's pretty spectacular.

"Then you work your way over to a basin that supplies the headwaters to the Indian River, Hurricane Gulch and Honolulu Creek and follow a route up through a pass that will bring you out to the parking lot at the north end of the Hurricane Gulch bridge at Mile 174," Low said. "I didn't realize there two passes, not one."

The entire route is about 18 miles long, Low said.

Though he is extremely fit for 75 and still hikes regularly, Low said he may have bitten off more than he could chew this time.

"I guess I just can't do these long hikes anymore," Low said. "I don't think of myself as 75; I still think of myself as 22."

Which explains why he was hiking with three people in their early 20s.

"I like hiking with young people," he said. "They're so full of enthusiasm and will do anything."

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner