When Kristina Clark decided to hike 42 miles through Thompson Pass north of Valdez on Saturday -- closed due to a series of avalanches that swept through the area, making the road impassable to vehicles -- she wasn't scared, or even aware that she and her boyfriend were walking into a dangerous area, she said Wednesday. The only thing on her mind was saving her cat, Ninja, whose health was failing fast.
The decision landed Clark, 22, and her boyfriend, Donney Carlson, 20, in jail in Valdez that night and facing misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway for temporarily halting avalanche mitigation work being conducted by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Ninja, now recovering in Valdez, was saved by a veterinarian after the group was flown via helicopter to Valdez and arrested.
Alaska State Troopers and the Department of Transportation stand by the decision to remove the pair from the area, and Clark stands by her decision to attempt the hike.
"It was definitely worth it," Clark said Wednesday.
Clark said the ordeal began Friday. Ninja seemed in good health in the morning, but he began to deteriorate quickly by the afternoon. The cat had a urinary tract infection, which can prevent urination and eventually cause the kidneys to become infected and possibly fail.
With the Copper Center veterinarian out on extended leave, Clark began to call Palmer and Anchorage vets who she said all required a down payment in order to begin her cat's treatment. She couldn't pay -- and didn't know what to do to save her cat. She called the Valdez Veterinary Clinic, where they told her that if she could get the cat to Valdez, they would treat it.
That night, Clark and Carlson discussed possible options for getting Ninja treatment. Carlson called DOT, and they were told the road might be open on Sunday. The pair were staying with Clark's mother, who was not happy when they brought up the possibility of walking to Valdez.
"I'm sure she didn't expect that we would actually do that," Clark said.
Clark said she was raised rescuing animals in Copper Center. Since the community lacks an animal shelter, she and her mother would pick up stray puppies and kittens, take them to the house and work to find homes for them, Clark said. Clark had rescued Ninja in Copper Center five years before, when he was a kitten.
When they woke up Saturday morning, Ninja's health was failing fast. Clark said she thought it was Sunday -- the day they believed the Richardson could possibly be open -- and they didn't learn until after landing in jail that they had gotten the day wrong.
"We figured maybe there was some possible way around," she said.
Walking the 42 miles to Valdez "definitely wasn't the first plan on the list," Clark said, but as the day went on, she became desperate.
"It got to the point where Ninja wasn't going to make it much longer," Clark said.
Clark said that she had called Valdez police dispatch, who told her that they wouldn't advise attempting to walk through the impassable area, but they said "if you want to go climbing we can't stop you," Clark said.
"We had no idea we were walking into a minefield, pretty much," Clark said, referencing the DOT's blasting efforts on the hillsides.
Sheri Pierce, Valdez city clerk, said that the dispatcher received two calls Saturday morning, one from a male who asked if he could climb through the avalanche area. "Dispatch said absolutely no," Pierce said. A second call was from a female checking to verify no climbing was allowed, Pierce said. "At no time did they mention an animal or a sick or injured animal."
The pair made the decision to walk through Thompson Pass out of desperation. "I really had nothing else on my mind except for my cat," Clark said.
A short trip
They drove south from Copper Center, parked the car at mile 42.2, and began walking. They walked, cat in tow, past a road closure sign and up over the first two avalanches that had trapped a truck driver the day before. The pair had walked for more than two hours, making it roughly 5 miles, before they were contacted by DOT.
"A plow truck stopped us first," Clark said, and told them the road was closed, and to turn around. Another DOT vehicle stopped them a few minutes later and told them he'd be calling DOT's supervisor. The supervisor drove up and told them to get into the car.
A state trooper relayed a message through the driver of the vehicle that Clark and Carlson had the choice to be taken back to their vehicle, or if they continued to Valdez "that we were going to have to speak to the trooper when we got there," she said. "We didn't know we were going to get arrested."
Alaska state trooper spokesperson Megan Peters said that the pair "were told essentially you cannot go here, you need to go back, it's an impassable area."
"They refused to listen," Peters said. "Finally, since they were not stopping, they were taken by a helicopter that DOT had chartered to use for their (avalanche mitigation) efforts."
DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow said that the right measures were taken in removing the pair.
"We stand by the troopers and our crews for doing the right thing," Woodward said. "It's not only dangerous for them, it's also dangerous for our crews."
The pair chose to head to Valdez. The helicopter ride took only a few minutes. They touched down to find a Valdez police car and an Alaska State Trooper waiting for them at the airport. The pair was handcuffed, and they were taken to jail, where they stayed overnight. Ninja was taken to the animal shelter.
Clark's first phone call in jail on Saturday evening was to veterinarian Kelly Hawkins, who agreed to pick the cat up from the shelter.
Hawkins confirmed that he picked Ninja up on Saturday and began treating the animal that evening. The clinic usually asks for a deposit when surgery is needed, but Hawkins knew Clark didn't have the money.
"We will always help these animals if it's an emergency like this," Hawkins said.
The cat stayed in the vet's care until Wednesday afternoon. In the meantime, Clark went to collect her backpack that had been taken to the animal shelter and subsequently thrown away. Inside the bag were her wallet and passport, she said. She and her boyfriend went to the dump site and searched through the garbage collected in the dump truck.
Louis Clark, supervisor of the Baler Facility in Valdez, confirmed the facility had let the pair search through the garbage and that they successfully located the dumped bag. A technician for the facility, Cal Comstock, helped the pair to search through the rubbish, which Clark described as "probably a couple of tons of garbage."
Kristina Clark is now staying at Carlson's grandmother's house in Valdez. She has to find a way to pay back the vet who saved her cat's life, and she's calling around Valdez, trying to collect debts that she is owed from belongings she sold off when she moved from Valdez to Copper Center a few weeks prior.
The pair pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of obstructing a highway and disorderly conduct and were released on an unsecured bond on Sunday. They have a hearing set for late March. Clark's car is still at the pullout at mile 42, as far as she knows, but she said she's "not extremely worried" about it. For now, Clark, Carlson and Ninja are stuck in Valdez until the road opens again, alive and well despite their multi-day ordeal.