August 15, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 32

Chopper lifts hikers off Ripinsky flank

A Coast Guard helicopter lifted a Haines woman and her father off Mount Ripinsky 3:30 p.m. Tuesday after the pair spent a night lost on the mountain.

Kelly Williamson, 44, and father, John Hamilton, 66, of Melrose, Fla., were exhausted and dehydrated when a search crew on foot reached them at a spot on the mountain near 1,600 feet elevation parallel with 6 Mile Haines Highway.

Rescuers determined that the pair was unable to continue bushwhacking down the slope there due to terrain and Hamilton’s medical history.

Williamson, Hamilton and her husky Crockett left on Skyline Trail 8:30 a.m. Monday, planning to traverse the mountain to 7 Mile Haines Highway by nightfall. They arrived at the summit and during their descent stepped off the main trail and onto an apparent game trail, losing their way.

Two hours later, they realized their mistake and decided to follow a streambed downward, a route they took for four hours. At 8:45 p.m., with darkness falling, they realized they wouldn’t get home before nightfall.

Around the same time, Williamson’s husband, Bill Williamson, phoned Hamilton, who reported their predicament. Bill Williamson called authorities, and the local search and rescue team gathered and advised the pair to stay put.

Williamson found a spot on a ravine to bed down. They were advised to find cover, don all the clothes they had and use the warmth of their dog to stay warm. Williamson said she and Hamilton didn’t get much sleep, but their dog was a great comfort.

“He’s not super snuggly, but he could almost sense when we were struggling,” Williamson said, and he would lie up against them when they were cold.

A ground search started up the mountain around 5 a.m. Tuesday. Two spotters and a pilot in a search plane took off at 8:30 a.m. and within 20 minutes, after speaking on the phone with Williamson, were able to spot the pair as she waved a white sweater.

Ground searchers arrived on scene at 11:15 a.m., providing the pair with water and food, and after assessing the situation, relayed the need for a helicopter rescue.

Williamson and Hamilton were transported to the Haines clinic where they were treated for scrapes and bug bites. They were both at home Tuesday night.

Williamson said she’d previously hiked Ripinsky several times from downtown but hadn’t before crossed to 7 Mile. Hamilton, a retired Navy intelligence officer, is an experienced hiker making his first ascent of Ripinsky.

Williamson said a game trail that looked like it had been cleared caused them to take the wrong route. “It looked like a real trail,” she said.

Without the cell phone, the rescue would have been extremely difficult, said John Norton, a spokesman for the rescue effort. The stream in the ravine the hikers had come to muffled their cries for help and kept them from hearing searchers’ whistles. Also, it would have been impossible to have known where the two hikers left the trail, Norton said.

Late Monday night, rescuers attempted to locate the party using the noise of the siren and lights but the two hikers were unable to see any of the signaling devices.

“We could see the light from the airport beacon,” said Williamson, but not the beacon itself.

Norton said the hikers weren’t equipped for overnight, particularly in terms of food or water. Williamson and Hamilton drank water from the nearby stream Monday night.

Jenn Walsh and Vince Hansen were on the team that found the pair. “It was loose rock next to a river in a steep sided gully, thick with alders and so much devil’s club,” Walsh said. “I don’t know how they got themselves where they got themselves. It was class 5 climbing in certain areas.”

Friends of the Williamsons helped look after and distract Williamson’s two children, Eli, 10, and Avery, 9.

“When I got home Melissa Ganey made a plate of brownies,” said Williamson. “Everyone was amazingly wonderful to my husband who was having a hard time.”

Norton said there were lessons to be learned from the pair’s misadventure. “Being prepared for unanticipated consequences is critical to everyone who goes into the back country.” Hikers shouldn’t expect to rely on cell phones or a swift rescue, as numerous things can delay a rescue.

“As soon as you realize you’re disorientated, stay put,” Norton said. “The farther you travel, the farther you get from a known location.”

Williamson said that the most important thing was that survival became a joint effort between herself and her father. When one would begin to fail, the other would take over, she said. “Biggest thing was we were looking out for one another.”

It took the search and rescue crew one and a half to two hours to hike straight down with Crockett, coming out at 6 Mile. Crockett did not willingly leave Williamson, she said. “He freaked out when I got in the basket.”