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Skiers rescued after snowstorm leaves them stranded on Harding Icefield

Gareth Leah shoveling snow from the entrance to a snow cave. Leah and an expedition team were stranded on the Harding Icefield in April 2024.
Josh Thomas
Gareth Leah shoveling snow from the entrance to a snow cave. Leah and an expedition team were stranded on the Harding Icefield in April 2024.

The Harding Icefield is a massive glacial ice cap that spans between Homer and Seward. Few people have crossed the icefield, with the first documented case happening more than 80 years ago by Eugene “Coho” Smith and Don Rising. Last April, an intense storm left six people stranded during an attempted crossing of the icefield last April.

Seven hikers initially set off last month on a 75 mile trip across the Harding Icefield from Seward to Homer. The plan was to create a documentary about Levi and Eivin Kilcher, two brothers following their grandfather Yule Kilcher’s footsteps. Yule — also a former state senator — was part of a team that successfully crossed the icefield from Homer to Seward in 1968. Levi said plans changed partway through the trip.

“All of us got together and we said, ‘wow, this is going to be really fun. We want to make a documentary about this adventure across the ice field, where, Levi and Eivin are kind of following in their grandfather's footsteps,’” he said, “and as it turned out, we got two days in and Eivin decided that the trip just wasn't for him. He wasn't having fun. And so he decided to leave.”

Josh Thomas was part of the expedition along with Ara Howard, Gareth Leah, Randy Lee and Mike O’Laire. He said they planned on doing the crossing for years, and the weather seemed good enough to do it last month.

“This year, we thought, we had a good weather forecast,” he said, “we had just sunny skies, across the board, and within 48 hours, we got the team together, we got our gear together, and we made a start on the icefield starting at Exit Glacier on the Seward side.”

But the weather took a turn. On the fourth day, the six remaining members were about halfway across the icefield when they received weather updates of heavy wind and snowfall. They had no good way to turn back, so Thomas said they decided to stay put until the weather improved.

“We had a game plan. We had the resources. We dug a snow cave. We built wind walls. We thought we were in a good position to wait it out. The problem became when the storm would not quit,” he said.

While two members camped out separately in a tent at first, Levi said the weather became bad enough that everyone crammed into a snow cave. The cave entrance kept filling with snow, so everyone worked around the clock to keep an opening for airflow. Thomas said that became more challenging as the hours went by.

“People would come in wet and cold. And in most cases, we were able to warm up quickly with a little bit of food, a little bit of a hot beverage. But sometimes we didn't warm up so easily,” he said, “things progressively got wetter and warming up became hard to do. It could take several hours to get somebody back from intense shivering.”

After two days in the cave, the weather still hadn’t improved, so the team called for help on a satellite communicator. The Alaska Air National Guard began coordinating the rescue. Lt. Col. Paul Rauenhorst is part of the 210th Rescue Squadron and helped coordinate the rescue team. He said the first rescue attempt didn't work.

“We diverted one of our training lines to go up and try to pick them up on the 18th, but the weather didn't allow him to get any closer than probably six miles to the survivors,” he said.

The next morning, conditions improved and Rauenhorst flew an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter to the site along with a HC-130J Combat King that provided refueling and communication support.

Rauenhorst was able to land about half a mile from the cave and sent parajumpers, or PJs, to rescue the group. Thomas said seeing the rescuers was a huge relief.

“We had little hope that we were going to be rescued,” he said, “and when we saw the helicopter land, and we had the visibility to see the two PJs, the two skiers coming up to us. There was just an immense sense of relief. We knew that we were going to get out.”

Expedition members going towards a helicopter during a snowstorm on April 19, 2024.
Josh Thomas
Expedition members going towards a helicopter during a snowstorm on April 19, 2024.

The Air National Guard took everyone to Providence Medical Center in Anchorage, where Thomas says they were all treated for hypothermia and frostnip, an early stage of frostbite. No one had any serious injuries. Rauenhorst says the group did well adjusting to the dangerous conditions. The Air National Guard had also rescued skiers from the icefield before in 2016.

“The weather changes very quickly up here and we've seen that happen before” he said, “they did an outstanding job of digging the snow cave and basically improving their chances for survival.”

Levi returned to his home in Colorado. During an interview in late April, he said he’s still working through the trauma from the expedition.

“I'm still in the process of processing, you know, the trauma of the experience and the, the fear that I felt when I was standing out there,” he said, “and the wind was just absolutely hammering me. And I knew I just had to keep digging to survive. And with every shovel, I was thinking of my, my children and wife, and just fighting to see them again.”

Thomas said this trip made him evaluate the risk of exploring the state. He also hopes sharing this story will help other people in the future.

“A lot of these rescue stories don't get shared because people, you know, it's an embarrassing thing, to not be capable to get yourself out of the bad situation,” he said, “but I think there's a lot of, there's a lot of things we can share by just communicating exactly what happens. And hopefully it can help people down the road.”

Levi and Thomas both plan on returning to the icefield by plane at some point to retrieve supplies they left behind, but another crossing attempt is still up in the air.

Jamie Diep is a reporter/host for KBBI from Portland, Oregon. They joined KBBI right after getting a degree in music and Anthropology from the University of Oregon. They’ve built a strong passion for public radio through their work with OPB in Portland and the Here I Stand Project in Taipei, Taiwan.Jamie covers everything related to Homer and the Kenai Peninsula, and they’re particularly interested in education and environmental reporting. You can reach them at to send story ideas.
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