Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Family recounts Alaskan rescue

By William A. Weathers
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ANDERSON TOWNSHIP — The Gilbert family returned home to Anderson Township this past weekend from a “routine” two-week camping and backpacking trip in Alaska. Well, maybe not too routine. There was that day they were stranded in the Alaskan wilderness by an unexpected snowstorm.

Clyde Gilbert (right), with Josh, 16; Ashley, 11; and wife, Cammy.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        The Gilberts — Clyde, 42, his wife, Cammy, 41, and their children Josh, 16, and Ashley, 11, were trapped on a rugged mesa in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park July 9 after bad weather prevented their pickup airplane from landing.

        After being trapped for more than 24 hours — their attempt to hike out thwarted by a swollen river — a helicopter arrived and whisked the family to safety.

        “We never felt like we were truly in jeopardy, that we were going to lose our lives,” Mr. Gilbert said Sunday evening, less that 24 hours after the family returned home. “We knew we had the capability to stay warm and dry and we had enough food. We did have the right gear.”

        In fact, the family never real ized their plight was the subject of national news until the boat they hired for a halibut fishing excursion in Valdez received a ship-to-shore call from a local newspaper in Anchorage the day after their rescue.

        “Someone was trying to contact the Gilberts,” said Mr. Gilbert, a salesman for a Napa Valley wine company.

        An unseasonable 4-inch snowfall overnight caught the family by surprise one morning halfway through their two-week vacation. They were at 6,200 feet on the rugged Jaeger mesa — a 3-by-10 mile area that's marshy and rocky.

        The Gilberts had to be flown by small airplane to their select ed rugged camping/hiking spot. The snow, sleet and rain and cloudy conditions made it impossible for the plane to land to pick them back up.

        “We were at a point where we should have had visibility for miles,” said Mrs. Gilbert, a nurse at Bethesda North Hospital. “I think the hardest part for the kids — for all of us — was not knowing (when they would be rescued).”

        “This national park has no roads or trails to speak of,” Mr. Gilbert noted.

        Their pilot arrived later that afternoon and dropped them a black trash bag with yellow cau tion tape on it. His message said they could stay put and wait out the weather or hike to another landing area. The Gilberts preferred the latter option.

        “We were actually excited that we were going to get out of there rather than staying put,” Josh said.

        But their way out was soon blocked.

        “We came to a spot were we had to cross a creek,” Mr. Gilbert said.

        An 800-foot drop to the creek and a river swollen by the snow and rain made crossing the creek too dangerous.

        Discouraged but not panicked, the Gilberts set up camp nearby.

        “We still had plenty of water and food,” Mr. Gilbert said.

        Their pilot, who had tracked their progress from the air, dropped another package for the family with a message “to sit tight” because a helicopter was coming.

        “The kids enjoyed that drop because they got potato chips and candy,” Mrs. Gilbert said.

        The family got a good night's sleep — although the skies never actually got dark.

        “We woke up (Monday morning) to a beautiful sky,” Mrs. Gilbert said. “About 11 a.m. we heard a 'copter.” The National Parks Service had dispatched a small helicopter to pick up the Gilberts.

        After the rescue, the Gilberts continued their otherwise uneventful vacation.

        “We've all done this before,” Mr. Gilbert said of camping/hiking trips to rugged wilderness areas.

        Do the Gilberts plan to go backpacking in the wilderness again?

        “Yes, southwest Colorado next summer for two weeks,” Mr. Gilbert said enthusiastically.


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