As things went wrong, hike became a deadly adventure
HYPOTHERMIA: Helicopter probably saved cousin's life.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER
Anchorage Daily News
Published: July 6th, 2005
Last Modified: July 6th, 2005 at 02:23 AM
WASILLA -- Richard Kelley awoke Monday morning to find his 20-year-
old cousin, Hezekiah Kelley, cold and still. It was the second rain-
soaked night the two had spent outside, lost and wandering the rugged
backcountry of the Talkeetna Mountains.
Richard knew Hezekiah was dead.
The slightly built 19-year-old in baggy cotton clothes remembered his
father's advice: If you get lost, follow a stream until you hit a
That's why he was miles down Peters Creek -- at least 12 miles from
the hut where the cousins started a quick hike Saturday -- when state
parks ranger Kym Miller spotted him from the helicopter that probably
saved his life.
The Kelleys' story illustrates the skills of scores of rescuers
involved. But it also shows just how wrong things can go -- and how
fast -- for people ill-prepared to deal with the fickle terrain and
weather of Alaska's wilderness, even at the height of summer.
Neither Richard nor Hezekiah, both of Wasilla, carried rain
protection or food. No compass. No map. They wore tennis shoes, not
boots. One wore jeans and one wore cotton pants -- clothes that can
get soaked, then provide more chill than warmth.
The 17-year-old girl who watched the cousins disappear over a ridge
Saturday afternoon didn't report them missing until Sunday evening.
Ultimately, the Kelleys were out for nearly 30 hours in fairly
constant rain and clouds before the rescue got under way, several
search participants said.
By then, hypothermia had likely set in, especially for Hezekiah.
"They were completely soaked," said Alaska state troopers Sgt. Craig
Allen of Palmer, who helped recover the body Monday from a boulder
field above Peters Creek. "You don't need freezing temperatures to
have hypothermia," he said. "It's a deadly environment -- even though
it seems like it's summertime everywhere else."
Kelley family members, as well as the girl who reported the cousins
missing, could not be reached Tuesday.
Richard Kelley told his story Monday afternoon to ranger Miller as
they flew the high reaches of Peters Creek, looking for the gap on a
snowy boulder field where his cousin's body lay.
The whole thing started Friday night when the cousins, with a male
friend and Hezekiah's 17-year-old girlfriend, made the easy 1.5-mile
hike to the Lane Hut at the end of Archangel Road, according to
interviews with state parks officials and troopers.
The group slept in. Around 2:30 p.m., the cousins announced they
planned to "climb a mountain" nearby. Hezekiah's girlfriend watched
them disappear around a ridge.
Richard said the two climbed to the top of a nearby peak and started
playing in the snow. Then they got distracted. Somehow, they ended up
descending about 2,000 feet to Purches Creek, on the Willow side of
At some point, Richard told the ranger, they realized they couldn't
see the hut any more and knew they had gone the wrong way.
Searchers later spotted tracks from a high ridge above the hut: one
person slid down, the other stepped. The tracks led to a big hole in
boulders jumbled on a slope below, a sun-melted spot in front of one
big rock. That's where the cousins spent their first night.
Meanwhile, the two people with the Kelleys slept at the cabin. The
girl wondered when they didn't come back Saturday night, but later
told Miller "those guys have played tricks and disappeared on her
Sunday morning, the girl drove the male friend into Palmer for
church. She came back to the hut and spent the day yelling for the
That day, the Kelleys decided to cross Purches Creek heading north
and go uphill into the Peters Creek drainage, thinking that was the
Archangel Valley they had come from. They spent the day chilled and
wandering, climbing steep passes only to realize they were still off
track. Clouds sometimes obscured all vision, at times reaching the
ground, other times clearing.
Hezekiah's girlfriend called 911 at 6 p.m.
Rescuers descended on Hatcher Pass. Volunteers from the Alaska
Mountain Rescue Group and Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs joined the
troopers and state parks staff. Several troopers searched the ground
on all-terrain vehicles, and the air from a helicopter and a Piper
Sunday night, the search focused on the area around the hut.
As rescuers tromped through pouring rain, the cousins huddled
together miles away, high above Peters Creek in a "cave" beneath car-
sized boulders. Water dribbled into the opening. Snow covered the
Monday morning, Hezekiah was dead. Richard started to walk out.
Miller somehow spotted Richard from a troopers helicopter piloted by
Mel Nading headed down Peters Creek to pick up a volunteer dog team.
The ranger, a veteran mountaineer and pilot, wasn't looking for
Richard. But she glimpsed a flash of blue on ground that should have
Nading brought the helicopter near the ground, but there was no place
to land. As the pilot hovered just above the ground, Miller stepped
onto a skid, then jumped down. She helped Richard climb into the
The ranger and pilot probably saved Richard's life -- frail, hungry
and rattled, he wouldn't have survived another night out, Miller
"It was heartbreaking when we found him. He grabbed onto me just like
a 4-year-old and cried and cried and cried," she said. "I held him
and told him it was gonna be OK now, but we really needed to find
Hezekiah and we really needed him to show us where he is."
The helicopter made a second trip to recover Hezekiah's body.
"They didn't realize how serious the mountains can become so
quickly," Miller said by phone Tuesday, back in her office at Finger
Lake. "They just struck me as being very young ... and unfortunate."