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Text message helps searchers locate lost hiker

Posted: August 12, 2014 - 9:06pm  |  Updated: August 12, 2014 - 9:12pm

Searchers easily located a lost hiker stuck atop a mountain near the Mendenhall Glacier on Thursday when the 28-year-old man texted Alaska State Troopers a picture of his surroundings.

Troopers showed the picture to a Temsco Helicopters Inc. pilot who was familiar with the area, and the pilot found the hiker in less than 30 minutes.

“He seemed like he was pretty excited and grateful,” pilot Eric Main said of the hiker’s reaction when the helicopter picked him up.

Troopers began searching for the hiker, whom they identified as Richard Lam, when Lam called them asking for help at about 4:45 p.m. Thursday. He was high up enough on the mountain to get cell phone service, said trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters.

“We had another rescue in a similar area the week before where someone didn’t have cell coverage,” Peters noted in an interview. “They were further down in the valley, but (Lam) was high up enough where his phone worked.”

Lam reported that he had been hiking East Glacier Trail and Nugget Creek Trail, which begin behind the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, and that he got lost and was stuck on a high ledge somewhere. He texted a picture of his location to Juneau-based trooper Christopher Umbs, who showed it to Temsco base manager and helicopter pilot Main.

Main instantly recognized the area as Middle Basin, one of the drainages off Heintzelman Ridge that feeds into Nugget Creek and Nugget Falls, the gushing waterfall to the right of the glacier.

Main guessed correctly that Lam was probably 2,800 to 3,000 feet up on the mountain in elevation in the upper Nugget Creek valley, based on the vantage point and the subalpine vegetation he could see in the photo.

“I was able to recognize what his perspective was or from thereabouts where he was, and I could see how high he was based on what the vegetation looked like,” Main said in a phone interview Monday. “It didn’t take really long to identify where he was. It took a little bit of flying around, but not long at all.”

“I think he hiked up, and then I believe when he was coming down, he got to a spot where he didn’t feel like he could continue safely anymore,” Main added of Lam’s situation.

The aerial search for Lam was hastened even further because he was wearing bright clothing.

“He had a bright orange shirt on, which makes it really nice for an aerial search,” Main said. “That was a big help.”

The helicopter swooped down and landed on the mountain, and Lam was able to climb in. He had a few scratches from bushwhacking through the trees but did not have any serious injuries that required medical attention, troopers said.

Lam was safely transferred to the Juneau International Airport. He couldn’t be reached for comment Friday or Monday.

Main, who has worked for Temsco for 10 years, assists with about six to 10 searches on average each summer in Juneau and the immediate surrounding area. The search for Lam marked the seventh or eighth search he has assisted with this summer, he said.

“Every search and rescue is a little bit different, but obviously we’re happy when one has a positive outcome like this,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t always find the people, and sometimes we find them when they’re in not such good condition, too.”

Temsco and other helicopter companies in Juneau are frequently asked to assist with searches and rescues since neither the troopers nor the U.S. Coast Guard have an operational helicopter based here. Troopers are responsible for coordinating all searches and rescues in the state, and they reimburse any company or person for the cost of the airfare. The Legislature created a special fund for that years ago.

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