Trio survive glacier fall

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010

JUNEAU (AP) -- When Sharon Early saw a 6-foot-high wall of ice and rock careening toward her, she could only think one thing: "It's still coming, it's still coming, if it keeps coming there's nothing we can do."

The boulders and ice chunks fell around Early and the two others in her party of three; her husband Dennis, 55, and their longtime friend, Michael Schlechter, 48, all of Juneau.

At the head of Lituya Bay Wednesday, May 26, the hanging Cascade Glacier had calved, and the party was directly below.

It was a pleasure outing turned disastrous in the heart of Alaska's wild, but by pooling experience, education and keen planning, the trio survived to tell their story. At 5:30 a.m. on a clear Juneau morning, the Earlys and Schlechter departed from Auke Bay to begin their eight-hour run to Lituya Bay, located inside Glacier Bay National Park and about 120 miles northwest of Juneau. It was a trip Dennis had pondered for years after he first flew over the famed bay years ago.

Lituya is the same bay that made history on July 9,1958, when a large earthquake along the Fairweather Fault struck Southeast and triggered a series of events that created a megatsunami that reached heights of over 1,000 feet.

Today, the bay draws visitors for its fishing, shrimping, hiking, camping, exploration opportunities and its exclusivity.

Dennis Early and Schlechter both work aboard the Alaska Marine Highway System's fast ferry, the Fairweather. Schlechter as the skipper, and Early as an engineer. Hence, both are required to undergo extensive training in first aid, firefighting, rescue and emergency what-if scenarios. To be safe, the group took two boats that day, Schlechter's hand-built, 23-foot Tolman skiff and the Early's custom 21 1/2-foot long aluminum boat.

The group headed out under blue skies, paused halfway to the bay in Elfin Cove to refuel and continued northward.

On the outside, the seas were relatively calm. Swells rose to only about six feet. And their arrival to the entrance of the bay came appropriately with the flooding tide. The two boats navigated the narrow passage easily, but in only 40 feet of water.

Inside, Sharon Early remembers the awe she felt upon seeing the bay for the first time.

"It was glass calm," she said. "Of course you could see the treeline (from the tsunami) as you enter, but we went straight to the head of the bay."

The trio of explorers this day anchored 200 feet off the beach between the Gilbert and Crillon inlets, organized a few belongings for a hike, then set out in an inflatable dinghy, in the direction of the Cascade Glacier.

This glacier is one of three at the bay's head, centrally located, and flanked by both the two neighboring inlets. A small river empties into the bay here, and the group began hiking uphill to get a better view of their surroundings.

"We were interested in getting some elevation so we could plan what to do next," Sharon said. "(We thought) look at the waterfall, let's go up there."

Schlechter said he took note of warnings on the walk up: bear sign, ice chunks -- anything that might signify "this was not a good place to be."

But he said there was none, and they hiked higher.

After gaining 318 feet of elevation according to their GPS unit, they stopped for photos and to take in the sights of the wilderness that surrounded them.

Nearby, a glacier-fed waterfall cascaded into a pool about 20 feet below. Above, the terminus of the glacier could be seen, dirty gray and blue where fresh ice had been exposed. "We'd been up there for about 25 minutes," Schlechter said. "And we were getting ready to go back down -- I think Dennis was taking some last pictures -- when I took one last glance up at the pinnacle of the glacier, which was almost directly in line with us, I saw it beginning to fall to the left. I said to Dennis, 'It's falling."'

The large pinnacle of ice, which the trio guesses was as large as a house, toppled sideways and fell out of sight.

"I didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "But just seconds later rock and ice debris started coming over the ledge above us."

Ice and rock boulders flew down the mountainside toward the trio, but there was no protection on the scree-covered slope littered with shin-high alders.

Schlechter began to run. Sharon Early, 12 feet below him, cowered in a fetal position. Dennis Early, next to her, laid flat on his belly. A hunk of ice the size of a human head had already cracked him in the skull.

But Schlechter got the worst of it.

"I took one step, maybe two, then I was on the ground," he said. "I thought I tripped, and thought 'I should stay on the ground.' Then I couldn't breathe, my arm was underneath me, I couldn't feel my fingers and my right leg was really hurting."

Schlechter tried to stand but collapsed from the pain.

Sharon Early looked up just as the wall of ice and rock surged toward them. The sound was like rolling thunder and she could feel chunks peppering her body.

When the thunder rolled passed, she looked up to see Dennis Early's head next to hers. He was bleeding. She heard Schlechter moaning.

"I was lucky," she said. She got up, told her husband to keep his hand on his head and press hard, and turned her attention next to Schlechter.

Upon close inspection, she could see his arm, bent and twisted in the wrong direction, was badly broken.

"Don't move," she said to him. "Wiggle your toes, wiggle your legs."

Schlechter sat up and put his arm in his lap.

"I was still in shock (at this point)," Schlechter said. "I knew my leg hurt. I knew my ribs hurt, but I could not move my arm."

Contained in the Stormy Seas jacket he wore, neither Early nor Schlechter knew the extent of the break -- whether there were punctures, blood or worse -- but they knew it was time to go, and fast. Early took off her lightweight rain jacket.

"This is going to hurt," she said and wrapped it tightly around his arm to help support it against his body.

The journey down the slope began, with Early leading the way, and Dennis Early and Schlechter following.

"We didn't know if there was going to be another one," she said. "So I tried to pick an easy path that took us away from the river where most of the debris went."

In the aftermath of a traumatizing event, Dennis Early, who has experience as an Alaska Marine Safety Education Association instructor, said some would panic in a similar situation. But the trio stayed calm, he said, and quickly made it to the beach. It was on the beach that Schlechter said he faced the most dire challenge: Being alone. Shock was setting in: His face had gone pale with the pain, his mouth dry, his core temperature began to drop, causing him to shiver in the hot sun.

But the Earlys had no choice. The only opportunity for rescue was the boat radio and they had to both make the trip in the dinghy. The pair made Schlechter as comfortable as possible before departing, with the promise to return with blankets, water, a VHF radio and cushions to help support his body on the rocky beach.

"That was the hardest thing, laying on the beach," Schlechter said. "I was so uncomfortable, but the worst part was being there by myself. I kept peaking out under the brim of the hat, I could see the dinghy tied up, and all I could think was, 'Oh come on, hurry up."'

Back on the Early's boat, Sharon Early loaded supplies into the dinghy while her husband got on the radio to call for help.

Because of the mountainous terrain that surrounds Lituya Bay, communication is nearly impossible from inside. The party's only chance for rescue was if a boat directly within their line of sight heard the call. A longliner 40 miles away answered immediately at about 4:30 p.m.

Back on shore, Sharon Early watched as Schlechter began to deteriorate. She dribbled water into his mouth, attempted to make him comfortable in any way possible and kept him abreast of the communication happening between her husband and the longliner. Before long Schlechter was shivering so badly, she crawled under the blanket next to him.

Two tedious hours later, Schlechter said he heard the sound of the U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter sent from Sitka to retrieve the party.

"It was like a movie," Early said. "There were these guys in the door, I'm waving and they gave me a thumbs up." Dennis Early was retrieved from the boat, Schlechter was treated, made comfortable with a series of splints, prepped for an IV and placed on a backboard.

The party was medevaced to Sitka Community Hospital for treatment and their boats were retrieved by family and friends the next day.

Schlechter sustained a black eye, a compound fracture of the humerus of his right arm, a severed nerve and four broken ribs on his left side.

He has limited use of his right hand due to nerve damage, but doctors say the nerve graft should begin to take effect within two months. Physical therapy, he said, should begin for his arm in a few weeks.

Doctors said he is lucky to have his arm.

The Earlys feel lucky, too.

Dennis Early sustained a concussion and received 25 staples to close the laceration on his head.

"We consider her our hero," Dennis Early said of his wife who stayed so calm. The group has already planned a trip back to Lituya Bay in May of next year. It's a decision that was reached without hesitation, Schlechter said.

"We were only there for three hours and we had a long list of things we wanted to do," he said. "It was just the wrong time, the wrong place. You can't hide from life, I might rethink some things a bit, but this won't stop me from wanting to go out more."

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