A team from Haines and Skagway early today climbed within shouting distance of a fallen hiker who’d spent 12 hours braced against a tree on a Mount Ripinsky cliff face, unable to move due to injuries and his precarious position.
Keith Hutchins, 40, of Haines used a cell phone to call for a rescue at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday after falling off the mountain and into a steep ravine at about 1,800 feet elevation. His position is roughly at 4.5 Mile Haines Highway, below the mountain’s south summit.
The team -- including Scott Sundberg and John Binger of Haines -- started up the steep face of the mountain near the Schnabel Pit at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and by 3 a.m. were at the base of the cliff where Hutchins was perched.
Rescue efforts were to resume early Thursday, with options including use of a Coast Guard rescue helicopter or descending on Hutchins with ropes from nearly 1,000 feet above.
On Wedneday evening, two teams of searchers were on the mountain and a Coast Guard helicopter with heat-seeking technology was hovering above the mountain’s west flank.
Hutchins phoned rescuers that he had fallen down a ravine and that they might have difficulty reaching him. "He said it would be extremely tough to get to him," said state trooper Josh Bentz, who was leading rescue efforts.
Hutchins reported he could see the helicopter below him, but clouds prevented the chopper from reaching his elevation. Its heat-seeking, locator technology works only when the helicopter is above its target, Bentz said.
The chopper left for Juneau to refuel around 7:45 p.m. and was scheduled to return 6 a.m. Thursday with a crew from Juneau Mountain Rescue.
But Hutchins’ spotting of the craft gave rescuers a better idea of his location on the mountain’s west flank. "Based on that, we think we know what valley he’s in and we’re sending teams there to try to close in on him. They think they’re still about an hour away," Bentz said at 8 p.m.
Rescuers later used a cell phone reading from Hutchins’ phone to more closely pinpoint his location, using computer mapping and Google Earth. As the night wore on, rescuers used texting instead of phone calls with Hutchins to conserve his phone battery.
One search crew reported they may have located the site of Hutchins’ fall, but were still hundreds of feet above the cliff where he was perched.
Cheri Hutchins said her stepson was able to provide his general location and could hear a police car siren from his location. "They know about where he is, because of information he was able to give them."
Hutchins was holding out hope for her stepson. "They may not be able to bring him down the mountain tonight, but they’re hopeful that a team can reach him so that they can make sure he has warm clothing and has hot drink and water, food … warm blankets … maybe a tent," she said.
Fellow mountain snowshoe hiker Gina St. Clair reached Hutchins on his cell phone at 4 p.m. "He didn’t sound great. He sounded pretty distressed. He said he was fighting for his life."
Bentz said Hutchins’ spirits seemed to have lifted when he saw the helicopter. "Now that they’re gone, I don’t know how he’s going to do. Hopefully our teams will get to him tonight." Bentz said Hutchins reported being cold and didn’t have food, survival gear or heavy clothing for spending the night. "He was wearing regular snowshoeing gear."
St. Clair said Hutchins has been up the mountain dozens of times, including in winter, and knows the trail well. "I was the first person who took him up Piedad two years ago. He’s been going up almost every day for the last couple of months." He typically takes the Piedad trail, a steeper, but shorter alternative route to the main trail that follows the mountain’s spine and starts on Young Road.
Cheri Hutchins said her stepson had gone up the Piedad trail earlier in the day. "As far as I know, he doesn’t really do technical climbing. He doesn’t use ropes and crampons and ice axes and stuff like that, but he’s very athletic."
Keith Hutchins reported he’d become disoriented during the hike when weather closed in on him, a factor that may have led to his subsequent fall.
Hutchins is a carpenter and the son of Haines magistrate John Hutchins. He most recently worked for Stickler Construction.
Cheri Hutchins said her stepson also has worked as a commercial fisherman and hikes Ripinsky almost daily, often alone. "He’s like most Alaskans. Nobody says he can’t do stuff. It’s his life. He can do what he wants with it, as long as he doesn’t break the law."
The profile picture on Hutchins’ Facebook page shows him on the Mount Ripinsky summit.
Ground rescue teams on the mountain Wednesday night included residents Sundberg, Sean Gaffney, C.J. Jones, Dave Swift, Roy Josephson, and Greg Palmieri. Skagway’s search and rescue team was arriving late Wednesday and a third ground team including Haines and Skagway members was to head up the mountain.