Rescuers dug through 4 feet of snow to reach stranded skiers

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Helicopters trying to rescue two skiers trapped on an Alaska glacier for four days waited out whiteout conditions that one pilot said were like flying inside a pingpong ball.

The winds and blowing snow subsided enough Tuesday to allow an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter to land on Bear Glacier to pick up the skiers.

But the hard work wasn’t over. The rescue team had to dig down through deep snow to get Jennifer Neyman and Christopher Hanna out of their snow cave, where they took refuge after getting stranded Friday.

“They were under about 4 feet of snow in their snow cave,” said Guard Lt. Col. Matt Calabro, director of operations for the 210th Rescue Squadron, which flies the helicopters. “It was pretty deep snow up there.”

Neyman and Hanna are experienced outdoor enthusiasts. Calabro said they were not injured and in good condition after braving fierce winds and snow.

Rescuers flew the pair to Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna. Hospital spokeswoman Camile Sorenson said Hanna felt so good, he didn’t check in. Neyman was treated and released Tuesday, Sorenson said.

“Being on the mountain that long, in the cold, in the snow, isolated, we are going to take them to the hospital,” Calabro said. “We just want to make sure they are safe.”

An airplane had dropped off Neyman, 36, and Hanna, 45, on Friday but could not return that night because of bad weather. Though planning to spend just one day on the glacier, they carried a light tent and two days of provisions, plus communication devices.

Strong wind and snow shredded their tent Saturday. They dug snow shelters but were running out of fuel for their cook stove.

Neyman and Hanna used cellphone calls and satellite text messages to communicate with friends and rescuers. Satellite coordinates indicated the duo were at the 4,300-foot level of the 13-mile-long glacier, one of more than 30 in the Harding Ice Field, the largest ice field entirely within U.S. boundaries.

But strong winds and low clouds hampered rescue efforts.

“The terrain there is pretty gnarly,” said Calabro, 38. “High mountain peaks, clouds, snow, icing and the glaciers, so everything is white-on-white. It’s like what we call flying in a pingpong ball.”

Besides whiteout conditions, there were 30 mph winds with higher gusts.

Calabro tried to put a four-man rescue team on the ground Monday when he couldn’t land the helicopter. That attempt, about 8 miles from the skiers, was called off because of huge crevasses on the glacier.

The team eventually was lowered to a nearby glacier that does not have many crevasses. They hiked about 12 or 13 miles to the skiers when weather cleared Tuesday and spotted skis believed to mark the entrance of their snow cave.

Snow caves can be as simple as holes dug in packed snow banks. With enough time, entrances can be constructed with 90-degree turns so wind doesn’t blow inside.

The shelters use the insulating value of snow to retain body heat.

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Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report from Anchorage.

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