Denali hikers finally rescued |

Denali hikers finally rescued

Dan Joling
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Johnny Nelson of Las Vegas hugs his daughters Erica, left, and Alecia Wednesday afternoon, June 18, 2008, at the Denali Park airstrip in Alaska. Erica and Abby Flantz were found Wednesday, six days after heading off on a planned overnight hike in Denali National Park in Alaska. (AP Photo/ Laurent Dick)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska ” When Erica Nelson and Abby Flantz lost their way during an overnight hike into Denali National Park, they decided to keep hiking.

“We spent a couple of days (doing) 11 hours of hiking. We kept seeing more mountains, more ridges,” recalled Nelson, 23.

“The terrain was a lot harder than we thought it would be, and it was farther than we thought it would be,” added 25-year-old Flantz.

The two backpackers’ misadventure spanned six days and concluded Wednesday evening when a rescue helicopter airlifted them from the rugged terrain.

A massive search for the women began Saturday soon after they were reported overdue at their summer jobs at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, a hotel outside the park some 180 miles north of Anchorage. Searchers scoured 100 square miles of open tundra, black spruce forest and hillsides of dense alder and willow.

The women slept in their tent at night and hiked during the day. At times, they melted snow for drinking water. They had no food when they were found.

Flantz, of Gaylord, Minn., told Anchorage television station KTUU after the rescue that Nelson had helped keep her spirits up.

“I thought everything was going to be fine, stay positive,” said Nelson, of Las Vegas.

Two cell phone calls that Nelson made to her mother led to their rescue. Park officials didn’t know the women had a cell phone with them.

Ellane Nelson received the first call at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday while listening to park officials give a briefing on the search. She heard her daughter say she and Flantz were alive and well.

The cell phone’s battery was weak, but park officials were able to locate the signal coming from an area where they had been searching for more than four days. Park Service officials instructed the women to make themselves visible and signal any helicopters that flew overhead.

The agency dispatched two helicopters to pick up the women, but hours later there still was no sign of them.

“They were not where we thought they were,” park spokeswoman Kris Fister said.

Hours later, the women called again. They then powered down the phone to conserve battery strength after sending text messages about what they were seeing and hearing. At one point, they reported seeing an airplane to the south of them.

After the second phone call, rescuers focused on a brushy area about five miles west of the Parks Highway, which connects Anchorage and Fairbanks.

A park plane spotted the pair at 4:22 p.m. and a helicopter was sent to pick them up.

They arrived about a half-hour later at the airstrip at park headquarters, where they joined family members and feasted on overstuffed deli sandwiches.

“They looked great. They were laughing and smiling,” Fister said.

Nelson said she thought a lot about her sister while she was lost. She had tickets to fly Sunday night to Houston to be maid of honor in her sister’s wedding on Saturday.

“The whole time I was just, ‘We got to keep going,'” Nelson said. “‘I got to make it to her wedding.'”