Alaska News

Musher rescued in Denali Park after weeklong snowfall

Alaska State Troopers and Denali park rangers rescued a musher Tuesday who was trapped in the backcountry by a recent torrent of heavy snowfall.

Denali National Park and Preserve said in a statement that experienced musher Iris Vandenham got stranded on a solo trip in a developed area near the Toklat River. That section of the park includes cabins used by summer employees.

The snow piled up waist high, and Vandenham was unable to navigate windblown trails, said Katherine Belcher, the park's public information officer. The musher brought six dogs on the trip.

On Sunday, Vandenham used a satellite device to request help getting out of the park, according to park officials. The device had limited one-way, outgoing communication capabilities, they said.

The musher was on a six-day solo mushing trip and had planned to finish the trip Monday.

"Vandenham, from Talkeetna, left the Stampede Trail on Feb. 21, 2017, with approximately six days of supplies," Denali Park said, adding that she is an experienced musher established in her hometown. She essentially entered Denali at its northern boundary, Belcher said.

Over the past week, snow dumped in the park. Nearly 2 feet of snow fell at the park's headquarters, park officials said. Rescuers reported similar depths near where Vandenham was picked up, Belcher said.

"We don't have good measurements out in that part of the park in the winter time, but the snow was definitely waist deep," she said.

Vandenham was unable to travel. She also lost her snowshoes on the way in, Belcher said, which further hindered her efforts.

Park staff used GPS coordinates transmitted by Vandenham's satellite device and determined she was staying at a temporary shelter used by park workers.

Belcher described the shelter as a very small cabin that staff call a quinzee, generally thought of as a snow hut. The quinzee that Vandenham holed up in was constructed of wood.

Troopers flew an A-Star helicopter to the shelter and picked up Vandenham and her dogs, park officials said. She was dropped off at her vehicle near Healy, they said.

"Both she and her dogs were in great condition," Belcher said.

She is the only person who has needed rescuing from inside the park this winter, Belcher said. Vandenham checked the forecast before her trip, and the outlook appeared calmer than the actual conditions in the park.

Denali Park officials generally do not caution people to avoid lengthy trips in the park if it's snowed heavily. But visitors are asked to fill out a backcountry permit, Belcher said. It's unclear whether Vandenham knew she needed a backcountry permit, as she did not come into the park through a normal route, she said.