Backpackers Abby Flantz, 25, of Gaylord, Minnesota, and Erica Nelson, 23, of Las Vegas, were rescued Wednesday in Denali National Park & Preserve after their intended overnight trip in the park’s Mount Healy Wilderness unit turned into an epic misadventure.
Their unplanned trek lasted nearly a week and covered many miles of difficult terrain before Nelson was finally able to use her cell phone to contact her mother and help rescuers locate them.
Flantz and Nelson were found in good condition, although lagging in morale, out of food, and having trouble getting good drinking water.
Kris Fister, Denali’s Public Affairs Officer, explained that the women had made some mistakes, but also did a whole bunch of things right. “They kept their cool,” Fister said. “They also stayed dry, stayed together, and made decisions together.” They thought they knew where they were and were confident that they could walk to safety if they just kept at it.
Debriefing revealed that the two women were using an inadequate map (not enough details), didn’t put enough faith in their compass, were far from where they thought they were, and didn’t know they were the subjects of a massive ground and air search that lasted four days and cost an estimated $120,000.
Flantz and Nelson had taken a shuttle to a trail head at the Savage River, about 15 miles west of the park’s main entrance. From there they had hiked north along the western edge of the Savage River, crossed to the east side of the river, and camped for the night.
The next morning they decided to take a different route back, and that’s when their troubles began.
On the surface of it, the decision to do this traverse seems reasonable enough. The two women were experienced backpackers, and Flantz had hiked and camped in other parts of the park. The two had a compass and map with them, and felt confident about using these tools and their wilderness skills to find their way.
But they lost their bearings and headed into terrain that was too brushy, hilly, and undifferentiated for them to navigate well. The problem is, they thought they knew where they were. So they kept on walking, up to 11 hours a day for the first few days.
The pair didn’t realize how badly they were lost. When shown on a map where they had been picked up, they were stunned to see that the location was not in the Dry Creek drainage where they thought they had been, and was in fact nowhere near the Dry Creek drainage. They certainly weren’t where the searchers thought they might be. In fact, they weren’t even in the park.
If you want to get a better idea where Flantz and Nelson were rescued, you’ll need to consult a decent map of the park and vicinity. The official map of Denali National Park & Preserve, available at this site, will do nicely. Zoom to 100% and put the Denali Visitor Center at the right center of your screen.
Tracing westward on the Park Road to the 15 mile mark, find where the road crosses the Savage River. That is where the women began their trek into the Savage River drainage north of the road. Now find the Healy community, which is on the George Parks Highway (state highway 3) north of the main entrance. That is the place the women decided to head for when they became disoriented.
Now find the northern boundary of the park, an east-west line nearly 20 miles due north of the Savage River bridge on the park road. Flantz and Nelson where picked up somewhere north of this line, a good distance west of Highway 3.
This tale is more than cautionary. It also has a dash of oddity and a dose of misfortune. Because the park border is irregular, being deeply indented due west of Healy, the pair’s northward trending trek actually carried them out of the park, back into it, and then back out of it again. That’s odd.
The unfortunate part? Well, that has to do with the fact that the women crossed the east-west trending Stampede Trail, which is an ATV track in the section where they encountered it. Had Flantz and Nelson simply turned east and followed that track, which turns into an unpaved road, it would have lead them to Highway 3 and safety. But they were so disoriented that they didn’t recognize the trail for what it was and just kept pushing on, heading further and further away from their destination and deeper and deeper into trouble.
As they say, all’s well that ends well.