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2 Fairbanks residents charged in March mushing trip gone awry

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Posted: Saturday, July 28, 2012 12:02 am

FAIRBANKS — Two dog mushers who guided a Georgia couple on a mushing trip in the White Mountains in March have been charged with reckless endangerment.

Charges against Darrell E. Harpham, 49, and Peggy Billingsley, 47, both of Fairbanks, were filed last week in Fairbanks District Court. Reckless endangerment is a class A misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail and up to a $4,000 fine.

The two mushers were hired to guide Todd Surloff, 43, and his wife, Chontica Tanapornsakul, 28, both of Atlanta, Ga., on an overnight trip in the White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks.

The group mushed to a cabin about 20 miles into the recreation area, spent the night and were mushing back out to the trailhead the next day when they became separated, according to News-Miner interviews with the mushers and their clients after the March incident.

Harpham, who was in the lead, mushed out to the trailhead ahead of Tanapornsakul, who became lost and stranded on the trail. Billingsley, who was traveling with Surloff, was injured on the trip back out to the trailhead and sent Surloff ahead on a snowmachine. When Surloff arrived at the trailhead, he found Harpham, but Tanapornsakul was nowhere in sight.

Harpham backtracked on the snowmachine and found Tanapornsakul and her dog team stuck on a patch of overflow abut 8 miles from the trailhead. After helping her get across the ice, he told her to keep mushing toward the trailhead while he went to check on Billingsley.

Harpham found an injured Billingsley camped on the trail about 15 miles from the trailhead. She had a fire going and wasn’t in danger so he returned to the trailhead. On his way back, Harpham found Tanapornsakul’s team stalled again about 6 miles from the trailhead. Cold and tired, she pleaded with him to let her ride with him on the snowmachine and said the dogs wouldn’t run any farther. Instead, Harpham urged her to continue on to the trailhead and continued on the snowmachine.

When Tanapornsakul’s dog team got tangled and quit again, she curled up in her sled bag wearing only a light parka and waited for help to arrive.

Alaska State Troopers were notified of the two overdue mushers at 8 p.m. after receiving a call from Surloff. They said they found Tanapornsakul “barely breathing and unconscious” inside her sled about 5 miles from the trailhead. They hauled her out to the trailhead and she was transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for severe hypothermia and mild frostbite. Billingsley was also rescued by troopers.

The two guides, who did not return a phone message Friday, blamed the inexperience of the two clients for the problems, in interviews this past winter. The clients hadn’t mushed dogs before coming to Alaska for a trip with the guides.

Troopers said Harpham and Billingsley weren’t prepared and didn’t provide the two novice mushers with the proper survival gear.

The guides did not have a Bureau of Land Management permit to operate tours in the White Mountains and BLM rangers are still investigating whether to cite them, ranger Jonathan Priday said.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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