Snowmobilers recount harrowing fall

Posted: Monday, April 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- When snowmobiler Mike Gribbon came to, he found himself standing on a wedge of ice 75 feet deep inside a glacier near Portage. Blood-streaked ice rose against his chest, hips and face. A wall pressed his back.

To either side, the crevasse entombing him fell away into blue darkness. Gribbon had no crampons, no ice screw, no ax -- no tools for climbing ice. But he thought he saw an escape.

Gribbon had split an eyelid and knocked himself silly, but he wasn't seriously hurt. He thought he could use bulges in the ice walls to support himself as he shimmied 30 feet to his side. From there, a narrow snow ramp appeared to lead upward.

The only danger was that he might slip into the abyss that loomed below.

As Gribbon contemplated whether to make his move, a helicopter with a pararescue crew was already scrambling at Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage, 70 miles northwest.

Snowmobiler Wendell Don Tipton, who was also along on the April 14 trip, had reported the disappearance of Gribbon and riding companion Gordon Woodard on Trail Glacier. Woodard's snowmobile had gone through a snow bridge over a crevasse with him on it. Gribbon had parked his own snowmobile and tried to go to Woodard's aid, only to fall into a different crevasse.

Not far from where Gribbon was wedged in the glacier, a battered Woodard was on a shelf contemplating his own plan for getting out.

''I wasn't going to sit there and die,'' he said later.

The pararescue specialists of the 210th Rescue Squadron at Kulis would later call these thoughts admirable but unrealistic.

''The chances of (Gribbon's) getting out on his own were slim to zero,'' said Master Sgt. Eric Sachs, who had to shimmy down the zigzagging crevasse to get to Gribbon. ''You just don't climb out of crevasses without the proper equipment. Plus he was bruised up. He was sore. He was tired.''

And night was coming on.

Hours earlier the men had been riding in bright sunshine on a Kenai Peninsula system of ice fields and glaciers about a dozen miles south of Portage in Chugach National Forest.

Long visited by snowmachiners, the area has become a riding hot spot in recent years, said forest spokesman Doug Stockdale. Only the day before Woodard and Gribbon fell in, a snowmobiler from Eagle River had died after falling into a crevasse on the Spencer five miles away. A second Eagle River man jumped to safety as his snowmachine was going into a Spencer crevasse the day Gribbon and Woodard were rescued.

Gribbon, a 44-year-old heavy-equipment operator, and Woodard, a 40-year-old heating and ventilation technician from Anchorage, joined Tipton, also 40 and a construction manager from Anchorage, on a trip that started up what has become almost a snowmachine highway on the Spencer. Then they turned south over a pass toward a wide basin above the Trail Glacier.

They were headed slowly down that glacier about 2 p.m. -- ''eyeballing things,'' Gribbon said -- when they decided to turn around. The move looked safe.

But what they were doing was plotting a course to near disaster. Woodard was the first to find it. The rear of his snowmachine broke through.

''The last thing I saw,'' Gribbon said, ''were his hands, the handlebar, the windshield, and he disappeared.''

Unseen in the glacier, Woodard had dropped almost 45 feet straight down without touching anything and landed on his feet. He came to a stop, he said, in a fetal squat on an ice bridge. His face hit ice rising in front of him, breaking his nose.

He wondered when his 500-pound snowmachine was coming down. Then it hit the rising part of the snow bridge in front of his face, bounced over his head and wedged in the crevasse behind him.

Gribbon stopped about 60 feet from Woodard's hole, got off his machine and, unroped, walked toward the opening.

About 25 feet from his machine, he thought he might be on another weak snow bridge.

''I started seeing blue ice through the snow,'' he said. ''I went to turn, and the last thing I remember, I fell and grabbed for whatever I could.''

From his snowmachine, Tipton watched the disaster, then headed back along the incoming tracks of the three riders for help. At the bottom of the Spencer, he finally got a cellphone call through to Alaska State Troopers. He did not know whether his friends were dead or alive.

Woodard had no idea what the others were doing, no idea Gribbon was also entombed. He hoped they would get help, but he began trying to dig steps in a jumble of ice blocks, using a hot-dogger food-heating pan from his snowmobile.

He was still at it when he heard a helicopter high overhead. Then he heard voices and a pararescuer poked his head into the hole to ask about his condition and attach Woodard to a special collar and hoist him out by helicopter.

Gribbon was another matter. He had fallen about six stories below the surface and bounced down the narrow undulating crack. The crevasse was claustrophobically narrow, so narrow that when Sachs was later lowered in, he had to maneuver to find enough room to turn his helmeted head. Gribbon struggled to get into a rescue harness while Sachs worried about snow and ice falling from above.

Gribbon had poked only a manhole-size opening in the snow. Lots of the snow bridge remained. If it came down, it would crush or bury the two men.

Sachs was relieved when he got Gribbon into the harness and other pararescuers above were able to help pull the pair out of the crevasse.

Everyone escaped with minor injuries. Gribbon's left eye is nearly swollen shut and his ankle is sore, but he is otherwise fine. The pararescuers credit his helmet. Woodard is still waiting to find out whether his ankles are fractured.

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