Fairbanks man has close call on Baranof Island hike

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2005

FAIRBANKS — When the wind snatched his empty tent and it sailed away ''like a kite,'' a wet and hypothermic Schaeffer Cox figured he might die.

''At that point, I knew I was no longer self-sufficient,'' said Cox by cell phone from Sitka, three days after being found by a search and rescue team on Baranof Island.

The 22-year-old Fairbanks mountaineer was three days into a 14-mile hike across the Southeast island to Baranof Warm Springs when he stopped to set up camp in the rain, sleet and snow.

Soaking wet and cold after hiking all day in the 35-degree weather, Cox knew he had to get his tent up as quick as possible so he could get inside to warm up and dry out.

''At that point that's what I was trying to do,'' said Cox. ''Stop, keep active, get the tent set up, get inside, cook some hot liquid and get dried out.''

The skies were clear when Cox started his hike on Tuesday but that changed on Wednesday when rain and fog moved in. The rain turned to sleet and snow as Cox moved up the mountain on Thursday. The wind was blowing about 20 mph both days.

Visibility was only about 50 feet most of the time, forcing Cox to navigate with his compass and map instead of relying on landmarks.

It was about 3 p.m. Thursday when Cox decided to pitch his tent. Pulling it out of the stuff sack, Cox grabbed a guyline out of the heap of nylon so the tent wouldn't blow away and pounded a stake into the hard-packed snow. After hooking the guyline to the stake, Cox put the tent poles in the tent to give it its shape.

As he prepared to put a second stake in the snow, a gust of wind came up and blew the tent tight against the one attached guyline and snapped it.

''The tent did a somersault, bounced once and went up in the sky like a kite,'' Cox said. ''It didn't tumble along the ground so I could chase it. There was nothing I could do.''

It wasn't until after it happened that Cox realized what had happened. The guyline that broke had evidently rubbed against a rock in the wind where Cox camped the night before and frayed, weakening it. None of that mattered now, though.

''When that tent blew away, the first thing I said was, 'God, do you realize what you're doing? I'm going to die without that tent,''' said Cox.

An experienced climber who has scaled 20,320-foot Mount McKinley twice in the five years since he moved to Fairbanks from Colorado, Cox used a hand-held VHF radio he had picked up from the Sitka Fire Department before the trip to contact a boat in a nearby bay to get a message to the U.S. Coast Guard. The battery lasted just long enough for Cox to relay his latitude, longitude and elevation.

''I turned off my radio and I was just praying,'' he said.

Arranging his sleeping pad on the snow, Cox sat down with his knees up, covered his legs with his backpack cover and fired up his cook stove. It didn't necessarily warm him up but it prevented him from getting colder, said Cox, a residential contractor in Fairbanks.

Cox pulled out his down sleeping bag and crawled in to warm up.

Thee Coast Guard had to wait a half-hour for the four-man search and rescue team to mobilize in Sitka and the weather forced them to take a longer route and drop the rescuers off at the 1,300-foot level instead of higher up, said Lt. Pete Melnick.

It only took a matter of minutes for Cox's sleeping bag, meanwhile, to be rendered useless by the rain. He waited 1 1/2 hours before deciding he had to keep moving if he wanted to stay alive.

''I was getting pretty deep into hypothermia,'' said Cox. ''I've had it before and I knew what it looked like.''

He began shivering violently for a while and then stopped when his body turned numb. Then he lost the dexterity in his hands and feet.

''I figured I can stay here and die crumpled up on a Thermarest in the snow or keep going and try to stay warm enough by moving,'' Cox said.

He looked down at his wedding ring and thought about his wife, Marti, who was supposed to accompany him on the trip but couldn't.

''I thought, 'I can't widow my wife at 22,''' he said.

Dumping everything but food and any other survival essentials out of his pack, Cox said a prayer and pressed on at around 6:30 p.m.

Searchers, meanwhile, were dropped at the 1,300-foot level of the mountain at around 5:15 p.m. After using a rope to climb out of the steep bowl they were dropped in, the searchers began looking for Cox, whistling and shouting his name in hopes he would hear them in the near-zero visibility.

They hiked about 1 1/2 miles up the mountain when they ran into Cox walking along a narrow knife ridge around 8 p.m.

To his credit, Cox was right on course, said Don Kluting, captain of the Sitka Mountain Rescue Team. When rescuers found him, Cox was talking about a river he had seen that was flowing uphill, an indication he was extremely hypothermic.

''He was very happy to see us,'' Kluting said.

Rescuers backtracked to set up a shelter and warmed Cox up by wrapping him in space blankets and sleeping bags. They put heat packs and warm water bottles in the sleeping bag. Other than being cold, Cox was in good shape, said Kluting.

The Coast Guard helicopter returned Friday and hoisted Cox and his rescuers into the chopper.

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