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Fairbanks researcher rescued after falling 75 feet into crevasse

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Posted: Friday, April 5, 2013 6:36 am | Updated: 1:10 pm, Sun Apr 7, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — A Fairbanks researcher performing ice and snow tests fell more than 70 feet into a crevasse on the Jarvis Glacier on Thursday.

He survived the fall uninjured and was helped out of the deep hole with help from the Air National Guard Rescue Coordination Center.

Tom Douglas was leading a group of three snowmachiners doing research on and around the Jarvis Glacier near Delta Junction when he and his machine fell through a snow bridge.

Douglas, 41, said he was ahead of the others on a bench above the glacier when he fell in. It was about 3:30 p.m., and he was collecting a final snow sample for the day when he decided to turn around out of concerns for another potential hazard — avalanche danger.

“The area I was on, it was like, man this just doesn’t feel right,” he said Friday by cellphone from a field site where he was back at work gathering lower-elevation samples.

“I turned to get out of there, and boom, I fell through the air. If 300 feet prior to that I had that same inference I probably would have saved a whole lot of hassle for a whole lot of people.”

Douglas fell some 75 to 80 feet before landing on a ledge, with his snowmachine wedged in a narrow space about 30 feet above him. He landed uninjured and on his feet.

He was able to communicate with the other members of his party and tell them he was unharmed. The group lacked the equipment to help Douglas out of the crevasse, but were able to get cellphone reception service farther down the glacier and request a rescue.

A helping hand

During the next seven hours, Douglas stood and waited in what he described as a canoe-shaped hole. He could see blue sky high above and calculated that he might have to spend the night in the crevasse before he likely would receive help. He’d bivouacked on mountaineering trips before so it would not have been a new experience, though he wasn’t looking forward to it.

“I hung out and just tried to maintain my composure,” he said. “You get little bubbles of freaking out, and I’d just tell myself you’re totally fine, there’s a lot of good rescue people out there.”

About 9 p.m. a Pave Hawk helicopter from the Alaska Air National Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage arrived.

The rescue team landed the helicopter about 100 meters from the crevasse. Two rope teams crossed over to the crevasse, according to an Air National Guard news release. They lowered a harness and climbing tools down to Douglas, who was able to ascend the rope to the depth of the snowmachine and was then helped to the surface.

The Air Guard team was all business with the rope work, but also was a friendly, funny group.

“The first thing I said was ‘I’m really sorry to take you away from your families on a nice Thursday night,’” Douglas said. “They said, ‘No way man, we love this; we live for this stuff.’”

Lessons learned

Douglas works for the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory and is working on a project alongside the Delta Soil and Water Conservation District and the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study how melting permafrost and receding glaciers are affecting the Jarvis Creek watershed, which flows from the glacier into the Delta River.

It was the third year they surveyed the glacier, though it was the highest point on the glacier they’d worked and the first time they had used snowmachines.

Douglas was quick to blame himself and not the research team for the crevasse fall, calling himself “the moron who fell in the crevasse.”

He said he’s spent a lot of time on the glacier for both research and mountaineering. He’s studied satellite maps to look for crevasses. On Thursday, his mistake was venturing into an area he did not know was safe.

“We had ample safety gear, the snowmachines were in good shape, we’d been there before, we had all the imagery we needed,” he said. “The decision to go up there was mine.”

The Air National Guard was not immediately able to provide the coordinates of the rescue, but Douglas described it as a bench on Mount Silvertip (north) side of the 7-kilometer, hook-shaped glacier.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.

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