One day away from a two-week holiday in San Diego, Keith Hutchins was braced against a sheer face on Mount Ripinsky, playing mind games with himself to stay awake and alive.
Beneath him was an avalanche chute and a vertical drop he doubted he could survive. To either side of him were rock walls. Above him was the section of steep mountainside he’d fallen down.
"I was afraid to sleep. If I loosened up the tension, I was going down the cliff," Hutchins said.
"At seven o’clock I said to myself, ‘I’ve made it from two to seven and I haven’t fallen off or frozen to death. I can make it another five hours…’ Five hours later, he told himself, "I’ve made it 10 hours. I can make it another nine hours until it gets light."
Hutchins also focused on his 17-year-old daughter he was planning to visit in California. "I thought of her the whole time, and I thought, ‘I’m going to see her again. I am not going out like this.’ She was a lot of my inspiration."
Hutchins’ fall to this precarious perch was his second since making the 3,600-foot north summit of Ripinsky at about 1:30 p.m. Jan. 5. He’d started up the mountain’s Piedad Trail at 9 a.m., imagining the novelty of standing on an Alaskan mountain one day and a California beach the next.
He had taken a few cookies and donned an old snowboarding jacket and pants that had lost their waterproofing. He packed no liquids and – when he discovered it had no batteries – left behind a hand-held GPS. "Like a knucklehead, I got complacent. I’ve been up there a million times. I didn’t think it would take much time."
In an inside pocket, deep in his coat, he carried a new iPhone, a Christmas gift from his father that would put him at risk but ultimately help save him.
Hutchins made the 2,000-foot mark by noon and clipped into snowshoes for the summit hike. Clouds were closing in and his tracks were disappearing behind him in heavily falling snow. He told himself to turn around, then ignored his own advice.
Conditions deteriorated as he climbed, but from dozens of prior trips up the peak – including snowboarding outings – Hutchins could still make out trail landmarks. "As soon as I got to the top, I turned around. Things didn’t look right. For some reason it was easier to see where I was going up than it was going down."
With only five feet of visibility, Hutchins headed downward, aiming for a pond that lies between the peak’s north and south summits. When he dropped steeply for a long time, he realized he wasn’t in line with the pond and assumed he’d instead gone down the mountain’s east side, toward Lutak Inlet.
He turned 90 degrees, thinking he’d intersect the trail. Instead, he stepped into a gully and got caught in an avalanche that dragged him 200 feet and partially buried him. With one arm left above the surface, he dug himself out. He phoned his father, Haines magistrate John Hutchins, reporting that he was lost, and he’d try bushwhacking his way down. "I just wanted to be away from cliff danger."
Ten minutes later, Hutchins had climbed to a treacherous spot, with no way up or down. He was out of cell phone range and realized he was nowhere near where he’d thought he was.
Climbing over a rock outcropping, trying to get within phone range, he fell backwards, he thinks maybe 500 feet or more. "I went head over heels several times. I lost all sense of reality during that. I felt my back snap. Through the corner of my eye I saw my snowshoes go off a cliff. I thought I’d keep tumbling until I died or got stuck."
When he stopped, he was looking down at the Haines Highway. He realized he’d been on Ripinsky’s sheer west flank, all along. "I knew I was on the main cliff and I was in trouble." But he also discovered he’d fallen back into cell phone range. He dialed the police station. It was 2:15 p.m.
In time, Hutchins was talking to state trooper Josh Bentz, who assured him that a Coast Guard helicopter with heat-seeking radar was on its way. That gave him some faith, as he figured a ground crew’s chance of finding him was "a needle in a haystack."
Two ground crews were on the mountain by 5 p.m. and the helicopter was on site a half hour later. But hemmed in by low clouds, the Guard suspended its search and returned to Juneau around 7:30 p.m. Hutchins had seen the helicopter about 1,000 feet below him. "That was a hard, heavy hit to take. When I heard it leave, it was tears at that point. I couldn’t see ground crews getting to me that night. I was just hoping for some water or a sleeping bag."
Hutchins made himself as comfortable and secure as possible. Slowly and carefully, he brushed the few inches of cliffside snow around him to a spot beneath his feet, tamping it down with his boots to create a ledge to hold him up. "I knew if I made the wrong move, I’d go down that cliff. Every movement I made was on eggshells the whole night."
Through the night he managed to turn from side to side, relieving pressure on his back and warming one side against the mountain, then the other.
When the Coast Guard left, Hutchins got to work sending his location to rescuers. Through a series of instructions relayed from his brother John in Juneau, and others, he sent a text message of his geographic coordinates, a feature of the iPhone. At 9:34 p.m., he received his last phone communication from rescuers, a text message reading, "Okay!!! We got your location."
Two hours later, his cell phone battery died. Unbeknownst to him, four climbers set out from 4.5 Mile Haines Highway at 10:30 p.m. and by 3:30 a.m. were about 500 feet or more below him, at the bottom of a cliff. Through the night they blasted an air horn and Hutchins yelled back, but he figured they were down on the road.
The sound of the horn excited him, Hutchins said, and seemed to give him adrenaline that warmed him. He longed for the security of a tree he’d seen about 100 feet away, and he became punchy.
"I saw a blinking light (in the sky) and I started thinking it was a UFO and that aliens were going to save me and I didn’t care if they probed me or did experiments, because I was going to live. I was losing my mind."
Also, the sky cleared at times, giving him a view of stars and the Big Dipper. "It was actually pretty beautiful."
By 9 a.m. the next morning, Hutchins could hear the voices of the ground crew, in trees hundreds of feet below him. "That’s when I thought I was going to make it. Some way, some how, I was going to get off the mountain."
The Coast Guard helicopter returned about an hour later, maneuvering over the ravine he was in, but having obvious difficulty. "The wind was blowing them around up there, and I saw the weather was coming in, so when they left, I thought I was screwed."
Instead, the helicopter crew was off dumping about 1,000 gallons of fuel, a technique for making the craft more maneuverable. The chopper returned and approached close enough for Hutchins to wave to a crewman. Then he saw a Guardsman dangling from a cable, heading toward him.
The craft’s propeller wash was sending snow and rocks down on him, and he allowed himself to be buried in the snow, partly as protection from rocks. The dangling crewman landed on the rock wall about 30 feet away, then bounded over to Hutchins.
"He touched me, and sheer joy took over," Hutchins said.
The ravine Hutchins was in was too narrow to lower a basket or "litter" preferred for rescues of back injury victims, so the crewman attached himself to Hutchins with a harness and the pair lifted off, spinning and bouncing off a cliff before being hauled into the helicopter.
Hutchins said he was parched and had a headache, but curiously, hadn’t felt the pain in his back from the moment the Guardsman reached him until he was laid out on the floor of the chopper. Landing at the Haines airport, he said he just wanted to go home and get warm.
Instead, he was flown to Juneau’s Bartlett Hospital, where he was diagnosed with one fractured and one shattered vertebrae and a crushed tailbone. He’ll be in a back brace for three months. Doctors told him he would never snowboard again and that he may not be able to return to his job as a carpenter. "It might be time to go back to school."
Hutchins said he can’t express in words his gratitude to rescuers and he’d eventually like to serve on the local search and rescue crew to return the favor. Some people have been surprised he wasn’t hypothermic after the ordeal, but Hutchins said three winters of crewing on the back deck of longliners built up his immunity to cold.
"My hands and feet, it takes a long time for them to get cold." Other people have told him they couldn’t imagine surviving the same ordeal, but he said he thought they were mistaken. "At some point you accept the fact that this is really happening to you, and you deal with it."