Snowmachiner rescued after falling in crevasse

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Darrin Freeman knew something was wrong when he felt the back end of his snowmachine sink in the snow near Summit Lake.

It took only a few seconds before he knew he was in serious trouble.

''I went to turn out of it and the ground all around me just disappeared,'' Freeman said.

Freeman's brand new Polaris RMK 800 dropped back into the hole with him still on it. He jumped off the machine as it fell.

''I was kicking and waving, hoping that snowmachine didn't land on top of me,'' Freeman said. ''My face mask was closed, snow was falling and then it got dark.''

Freeman bounced off two different ice ledges as he fell. He landed 15 feet down in the crevasse with one leg wedged on a small shelf about two feet wide. He was able to reach over to the other side of the crevasse with both hands to prop himself up.

Freeman isn't sure how he landed where he did.

''I have no idea how I ended up on that ledge like that,'' he said Monday. ''Somehow my leg was wedged in there and my hands were out. I was too big to go down any further.''

Freeman spent the next three and a half hours perched on the ledge, holding one foot in front of the other while propping himself up with his hands on the opposite wall, waiting for a rescue helicopter from Fairbanks to arrive and hoist him from the dark hole.

''It was like standing in a door that's jammed,'' he said.

Freeman, a 35-year-old truck driver from Fairbanks, was leading three friends across the Isabel Glacier Saturday in the foothills of the Alaska Range when he steered his machine up a steep slope to see how high he could get before turning around, a practice called ''highmarking.''

When he fell into the crevasse, his initial concern was for his three riding partners behind him.

''I was hoping none of them would ride in on top of me,'' Freeman said.

Eric Olson, one of Freeman's riding partners, said Freeman's snowmachine tracks went right into the hole.

''We were thinking, 'He's gone.'''

Then they heard Freeman yelling to them, warning them to stay away.

''Hearing his voice was a relief,'' said Olson. ''Then it was like, 'How are we going to get him out of there?'''

The riders circled around on the other side of the crevasse and Davis, the lightest of three at 150 pounds, crawled as close to the crevasse as he could.

When Davis asked him what happened, Freeman said he was in big trouble.

Using a cell phone, Olson called his brother, Carl, to get the phone number of the 68th Medical Air Ambulance Company from Fort Wainwright, the same outfit which had plucked Carl Olson out of a crevasse two winters ago. The number was busy so Olson called 911 to reach Alaska State Troopers, who then notified the Fort Wainwright helicopter crew. The crew was in the air a little over a half hour later.

It took the Army helicopter about an hour to reach the area and they spent another 45 minutes searching for the spot Freeman fell through the snow.

All the while, Freeman stood on the edge of a ledge, afraid to move his feet because the ledge had become slippery.

Freeman used the cell phone he was carrying to call his wife, sister and mother.

Once the helicopter arrived, it took almost two hours to get Freeman out of the hole. At first glance, pilot Daniel Jensen didn't think it would be too difficult to retrieve Freeman.

''We were thinking this is going to be easy, we just hover over the crevasse and pull him out,'' said Jensen.

But when they situated the helicopter over the hole to try and get a better look, they decided a hoist rescue might not be safe. The downwash of the rotors might blow Freeman off the ledge, cave in the crevasse further or cause an avalanche, Jensen said.

Another factor was the 5,300-foot elevation level.

''Operating at that elevation we're on the outer limits of our power,'' the pilot said.

They decided to lower a harness down to Freeman and try pulling him out of the crevasse by hand. Flight medic Sgt. Tim Brady talked Freeman through the process of putting on the harness.

Brady, Davis, Olson and Huikka almost succeeded in pulling Freeman out of the hole but Brady's foot broke through the snow to reveal nothing but air underneath.

''I could almost get my hand out to wave to them when they lowered me back down,'' Freeman said.

That's when Jensen and his crew decided a hoist rescue would be the best way to go. Freeman clipped the rope onto the harness with a carabiner and Spc. Andrew Zanotelli hoisted him out of the crevasse from inside the helicopter.

''Everything worked out perfect,'' Freeman said of the hoist operation.

Freeman didn't need medical attention. The helicopter took him to a parking lot a half hour from a cabin he owns at Summit Lake and he walked back to his cabin where he met his friends.

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