Monday, March 26, 2012

White Mountains Train Wreck - the Short Form

A bit more than a week ago Alaska State Troopers and a BLM Ranger were called into the White Mountains National Recreation Area to rescue two people after their dog mushing trip went awry.  This incident was initially reported in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner as a brief news story written by Tim Mowry on Tuesday, March 20th.   Within hours after the news article was published, it became a topic of interested on the Sled Dog Central forum

Part of the reason this story captured so much of my attention is that I’ve had to confront my own challenges while taking others into the White Mountains.  In 2008 I became separated from my traveling companions on a trip to the Moose Creek Cabin, which led to a couple of hours of anxiety, which I shared on my personal blog.   
The Thursday edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Minor included a feature story in the Outdoors section that provided more detail, and left me flabbergasted.
 (  As you read the story please remember that the author, Tim Mowry, was writing as a columnist, not a news reporter.

Without question the article is neither flattering nor forgiving of the guides.  The accuracy of the article is disputed by Peg Billingsley, the female half of husband/wife guide team.  In a post on the Sled Dog Central forum thread referenced above, Ms. Billingsley wrote “Tim Mowry's story is quite a piece of creative fiction. When he "interviewed" me he asked and answered his own questions - he was argumentative and I finally had to tell him to be quiet. Then he admitted he had already written the story and I wouldn't like it.”  Billingsley also wrote “There is much more to this story and in time the facts will be presented. There were a series of circumstances set into motion that quite honestly could have happened to any one of you I can't wait to be able to tell the whole story.” 

The News-Miner story evoked a strong emotional reaction, just as an opinion piece by a columnist should, but it implied an attitude that runs contrary to my perceived ‘ideal’ (paradigm) of a back-country dog mushing guide.  It certainly didn’t seem to describe the kind of judgment I’d expect of someone who claims to have 24 years of mushing experience, most of it acquired doing long distance back country expeditions. Cognitive dissonance is that jangling in the brain that occurs when reality clashes with one’s ideals – and in this case I was having a really hard time convincing that jangling sensation to move along.

Like a couple of others who posted in the Sled Dog Central forum thread, I found the story confusing and difficult to follow.  It seemed to jump from vignette to vignette in a way that made it difficult for me to follow the chronology of events, and left me with more questions than answers.    In order to make better sense of the situation and better analyze each decision that had to be made in the field, I tried rewriting the chain of events excluding everything that was not directly attributed to one of the people who were actually out in the woods or served to sensationalize the impact of the event rather than describe the actual situation.  Please remember that it is strictly speculative - based on information that I personally can not verify. 

According to the News-Miner story, after three years of planning a client and his fiancé’ came up to do a dog mushing trip into the White Mountains NRA.  Based on text message exchanged between the clients and guides, both guides became ill, allegedly with food poisoning as a result of bad hamburger.  This forced the husband and wife team of guides to delay the trip and (in my own opinion) may also have limited their ability to train the clients to properly drive and care for their teams.  Clearly the client was not happy, and I’m thinking he probably put quite a bit of pressure on the guides to try to salvage his long-anticipated dream vacation.  In any event, the guides agreed to take the client and his fiancée on an overnight dog mushing trip to the Borealis LeFever cabin in the White Mountains National Recreation Area.

As nearly as I can determine from the DNM article, guide Darrel Harpham was driving one team of dogs.   The client and his fiancée were each driving a team of 8 dogs, and Harpham’s wife, guide Peg Billingsley, was riding sweep on a snow machine. I can’t be certain that was actually the order of travel, but it is one which would make good sense.

The route they followed began at the Wickersham Dome Trailhead at 28-mile Elliott Highway and then follows the Wickersham Creek Trail past the intersection with the Trail Creek Trail, the side trail to Eleazar’s Cabin and the Wickersham Creek Trail Shelter to reach their destination of the Borealis LeFever Cabin, 20 miles from the trailhead.  You can get a better feel for the route by downloading the BLM White Mountains Trail Map at

The trail had been recently groomed and no significant new snow had fallen since that grooming, however the area is known for high winds, which were also noted at my work place, not very far distant from that area.  The trail conditions report on the BLM website described the trail as “This trail was groomed March 14. Trail conditions are good. There is some overflowing ice developing at the first Wickersham Creek crossing (bottom of the big hill by Lees Cabin) and just past the Wickersham Creek Trail Shelter.”

During the trip out to the cabin the guides noted that the client seemed to have difficulty controlling the speed of his 8-dog team and felt he was driving the dogs too fast.  Apparently this became something of an on-going issue, but it did not prevent the party from continuing to their destination.

The major train-wreck occurred the next day, when the party was returning from the cabin.  Apparently the plan for the day was for guide Darrel Harpham to travel at the head of the procession, with the client’s fiancée following, the client third in line and guide Peg Billingsley riding ‘sweep’ on the snow machine.

While harnessing and hooking up the dogs for the day’s travel, the snub line on the Harpham’s sled broke, releasing the dogs prematurely.  As they bolted down the hill the guide gave chase.  After a short while the snow hook bounced from the sled and caught well enough to stop the team.  Rather than turning the team around and returning to help his wife prepare the other teams Harpham elected to keep his team under control and proceeded down the trail, slowing their progress by riding with both feet on the drag brake.

According to the article, when asked why he didn’t stop Harpham reported that in stopping the runaway team the snow hook had been damaged to the point where it would no longer anchor the team.  When asked why he didn’t hook or tie off to a tree, Harpham said that he probably could have tied off, but that he didn’t anticipate the other members of his party taking so long to launch from the cabin.

Meanwhile, Peg Billingsley helped the client’s fiancée  finish hooking up her team and tried to send her on her way, expecting that she would catch up to Harpham just a short distance down the trail.  The lead dogs on the fiancée’s team balked and tried to turn back, so Billingsley told the client to start hooking up his own dogs as she ran over to the to help the fiancée line out and launch her team.   

Once the fiancée was well on her way, Billingsley returned to the male client, who apparently hadn’t harnessed or hooked up any of his dogs.  No doubt it took some time to get his 8 dogs on the line and on the trail before doing a final policing of the cabin and leaving on the snow machine.

So, at this point the story, the order of travel is guide Harpham with a dog team well ahead and out of sight of the finance’, who was well ahead of the client,  who in turn was a moderate distance ahead of guide Billingsley.  The whole crew had left Borealis Cabin heading back toward the Wickersham Dome Trailhead.  To get to the trailhead they would pass the Wickersham Creek Trail Shelter followed shortly by the side-trail to Eleazar’s Cabin.  Harpham had no idea what was going on behind him, but expected the other members of his party to overtake him any minute now.

Billingsley caught up to the client roughly 5 miles from the Borealis LeFever Cabin.  He was stopped on the trail and reported that one of his dogs had collapsed, and now the team refused to continue on.  Apparently the team was indeed played out and in no condition to travel. On the SDC forum, Billingsley wrote “I made the decision to send the male guest on the snow machine for help because he was not skilled enough to have handled the 8 hours on the trail that I spent caring for injured and demoralized dogs.”

Meanwhile, down the trail and well ahead of his charges, guide Darrel Harpham’s team apparently passed both the Wickersham Creek Trail Shelter and the turnoff to Eleazar’s cabin without incident.  The client’s fiancée wasn’t so lucky.  Running essentially out of control, her dogs apparently dove off the main trail and followed the two mile side trail to Eleazar’s cabin.  A party of extreme bicyclists were staying at the cabin, and were able to help the young lady untangle her dogs and get turned back around.  During the time they were doing so, the male client on the snowmachine passed the side trail completely unaware that his fiancée was at the cabin.  Although it was with some difficulty, the fiancée managed to get back out onto the main trail and headed in the correct direction.  I don’t know how far she traveled before her dogs balked at a patch of aufice (aka “side hill overflow”).

Further down the trail and probably somewhat later, Harpham arrived at the trail head and put his dogs into the truck to rest while he waited for the remainder of his party.  About 20 minutes later the client arrived on the snowmachine that, according to the original plan, his wife was supposed to be driving.  That’s probably when the both men realized that their women were stuck somewhere back in the White Mountains.

Harpham headed back up the trail on the snowmachine while the client (described as in a panic in the DNM article) ran out to the Elliott Highway, flagged down a passing truck and asked the driver to call 9-1-1 for assistance.  This makes perfect sense as there is no cell phone coverage at the trail head, and only sporadic coverage along a few of the White Mountains NRA trails.  Harpham found the fiancée about a mile up the Wickersham Creek Trail from the intersection near Lee’s Cabin – roughly 8 miles from the trail head.  He helped her get the dogs across the aufice and sent her on her way while he continued up the trail to check on Billingsley.

The fiancée traveled about a mile or so when her team tried to turn the wrong direction, apparently onto the Trail Creek Trail.  Not knowing how to turn the dogs in the proper direction, she stopped her team and sat down in the sled to wait for assistance.

Having determined that Billingsley and her team were safe and that his wife had that situation under control, he returned to the fiancée and found her stopped at the intersection.  He helped her get her dogs untangled and the team lined out toward the trailhead and then continued on to the trailhead himself.  By the time he returned to the trailhead, Alaska State Trooper Justin McGinnis had arrived on scene.

McGinnis and Harpham headed back up the trail, and found the fiancée not far from where Harpham had left her.  Her dogs were again tangled, and she was in the sled.  McGinnis reported that he couldn’t tell whether she was asleep, unconscious, or hypothermic.  The two men took the fiancée back to the trailhead and turned her over to waiting EMTs.

With the fiancée and presumably the client safely en route back to town, McGinnis and Harpham then returned to the trail to pick up Billingsley.  By then the dogs were rested and able to travel, so Billingsley returned to the trailhead on the snow machine while Harpham drove the team back to the truck.

Let me again stress that is just MY perception of how the events may have come down, based on the information I’ve read in the articles and forum thread referenced in the introduction.  I wasn’t there and I haven’t had an opportunity to interview those who were.  It is very possible that the scenario I present purely fictitious, and with no resemblance to the actual events at all.  We won’t know for sure unless Harpham or Billingsley take advantage of a future opportunity to tell their version of the story.   That isn’t likely to happen until they have settled various legal issues that are the fall-out of the incident.

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