'There's always hope': Snowmachine trip ends with harrowing rescue

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2011

One minute, David Joerg stopped his snowmachine on Nelchina Glacier and walked toward some blue ice to snap a photo.

The next minute, the Eagle River man was hurtling down a slick chasm, his helmet slamming against glacial walls.

Out for a late-season trip on a bluebird Saturday, Joerg had fallen into a crevasse, a deep crack in the glacier. His snowmachining buddy, Rod Hansen, watched his friend disappear into the ice.

Sixty feet down, Joerg came to a sudden stop, wedged so tightly that he could hardly breathe and couldn't turn his head. One leg hung free into an abyss to his right.

Joerg took off his helmet and used the visor to scrape the ice so he could move his head and fill his lungs.

He would spend seven hours trapped in that icy vise, blackness yawning below, the light of the surface six stories above.

'Don't look down'

Both men, together with Joerg's wife, Jamie, sat down for an interview Monday evening at the Star.

Joerg and Hansen, both 54, have known each other since 1983. Both live in Eagle River. Joerg is a heavy equipment operator, Hansen is a pipe fitter welder for Enstar.

Joerg is a daredevil, Hansen more cautious, their wives say.

On Monday, Hansen still looked shaken.

The trio agreed to this interview, and interviews with other media, to help others not make the same mistakes, they said.

Jamie Joerg's message was simple: "Stay off glaciers."

David Joerg hopes his experience will inspire young people, particularly teenagers who might be facing dark times of their own.

"Don't give up -- there's always hope," Joerg said. "Don't look down. I had the choice of looking down to nothing but darkness but I kept looking up, and that gives you hope."

They all also encouraged the public to donate to the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, the volunteer organization that extracted Joerg from the crevasse with help from the Alaska State Troopers on April 16.

Lure of powder

The men left Eureka Lodge around 8:30 a.m.

They rode up the snowy river bottom to the toe of the glacier, where others rode too. They could see rocks and figured that meant solid ground.

The men were actually on the glacier, and about to enter a treacherous -- and unseen -- mix of solid ice and rotting snow bridges.

They stopped for lunch. Hansen, feeling uncomfortable, told Joerg about an Enstar employee who fell into the glacier and was never found. But they kept going.

"The more you traveled there, the prettier it got," Hansen said. "It kind of lured you in."

The men saw snowmachine tracks, though they couldn't tell how old they were. Animal tracks, too. The powder was perfect.

Then the tracks stopped. The men travelled over what looked like a series of hills separated by benches. Hansen said he later realized they were just snow bridges over crevasses, with ice ledges between.

Joerg stopped his machine and got off. He waved Hansen over.

Hansen stopped. "I told him, 'No, no, no,'" he recalled Monday. "Each guy kind of pushes the other. I didn't want to go but I didn't want to be thought of as this or that."

Still on his machine, Hansen rode out and around where Joerg was standing. Joerg walked over to photograph some ice.

He gestured at Hansen -- come over!

Then Hansen heard a whoomp. He looked at Joerg. His friend's hands rose to his hips in a sudden, surprised motion. His head spun around to look at his feet.

And then Joerg just disappeared.

Decisions

Hansen didn't panic, he said, but his mind was racing.

Does he try to rescue Joerg and risk the same fate, or turn around and get help, leaving his friend all alone and potentially injured or even dead?

He looked at his watch. It was 1:15.

He thought about getting on all fours or using snowshoes to reach the spot where Joerg fell in and drop some heat packs.

But he realized he was in a "horrible" situation, he said, when a probe he took out to poke the snow didn't hit anything solid. Hansen had no phone; it probably wouldn't have worked out there anyway. The men had survival gear but no ropes or other gear that might have helped with an ice rescue.

Hansen "punched it" the 17 miles back to the lodge, again crossing what he now knew to be potentially unsafe snow bridges.

At the lodge, he called the troopers. He called his wife, Becky, and asked her to call Jamie. She called the tone of his call "anguished."

"Then I just sat and beat myself up in the room," Rod Hansen said. "Did I do the right thing, the wrong thing?"

Prayer line

The troopers got the call at 2:38 p.m. and called the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group about a man stuck in a crevasse.

In a lucky break, the volunteers were already assembled at a rescue training at McHugh Creek. That reduced response time.

They took off for Eureka in the troopers helicopter.

Becky Hansen arrived at the medical office where Jamie Joerg worked before 3 p.m. The women sat down together and prayed. They called on friends to pray, too. The Joergs worship at Kings Way Assembly of God and sometimes Community Covenant Church, the Hansens at Peters Creek Christian Center.

"I called several people to put it out on the prayer line," Joerg said.

The women and two friends got to the lodge around 5:30 p.m.

Hansen told his wife in a private moment at the lodge that he thought Joerg was dead.

Jamie Joerg said she wouldn't let herself think the worst.

"But he was feeling the whole weight and burden and the responsibility of having gone away," she said, patting Hansen on the back as she spoke Monday evening. "I kept telling him it was not his fault."

Rescue

Joerg didn't know just how far he'd fallen.

The parallel walls of ice around him angled slightly, so he could see light but not the surface.

"I looked up and I hollered for Rod," he recalled. "'Rod, can you hear me?? Go get help!'"

Joerg wedged his helmet next to him for leverage -- he knew it wouldn't crumble beneath him -- and got one foot on some snow. He dug out ice above him and tried to pack snow under his foot.

"I did make progress doing that," he said. "You gotta do something."

He had dressed warmly for the outing: wool pants, snowpants, down vest, heavy sweater. Still, the clothes soaked through with melting icewater. He was cold and wet.

Then he heard the helicopter fly over. He knew Hansen had made it out. "That was my first relief," he said.

The rescuers roped up and made their way to Joerg's "rabbit hole."

Rescue chief Bill Romberg lay on the glacier and shouted to him. Joerg shouted back: he was OK. No, there wasn't any room down there for another man. Yes, he could put on a chest harness.

On the surface, the team rigged two anchors to pull out Joerg using a trail between the crevasses that lurked on both sides of the hole.

A harness dropped to Joerg reached him in one try. He wriggled into it and the team started pulling, dragging him back up through the narrow chute.

With Joerg about 10 feet from the surface, rescuers told him to wedge himself in with his knees and elbows as they re-rigged the anchors.

Then, finally, his head popped out. Several rescuers pulled him up onto the glacier. He was cold and tired and sore.

Joerg got into the troopers helicopter around 8:30 p.m. with pilot Mel Nading and Romberg.

"After Dave was on the helicopter, we all high-fived on the glacier," said Randy Howell, a mountain rescue volunteer.

By the time the helicopter landed at the lodge, Jamie Joerg knew only that the rescuers had found the hole where her husband fell into the crevasse.

"Jamie was frantically drilling a rescuer, 'Is David in there? Is he alive? Is he in there?'" Becky Hansen wrote in a description of the day, which she sent to friends and family.

Then Nading and Romberg flashed the thumbs-up sign.

The men climbed out with Joerg between them.

"He was WALKING!" Hansen continued. "His first word was, 'Jamie.' We all took a collective breath, it felt like we hadn't breathed all day, and then we fell apart in a bundle of tears and laughter."

The clinic in Glennallen treated Joerg for minor injuries.

The Joergs and Hansens stopped for gas and food on the way home.

David Joerg wanted ice cream.



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