Being prepared beats being rescued

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shad Eidson
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Sometimes, four decades of experience in the wilderness aren't enough to survive Alaska winters, and other times that's exactly what brings a person home.

Even though Mrs. Ellie Tempel knew her 56 year-old husband had been trapping, hunting and fishing since he was in high school, she grew concerned at midnight when he didn't return from a trapping run one Friday in February.

354th Security Forces Squadron first learned of Mr. Dan Tempel's situation around 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning when Mrs. Tempel stopped by the security forces dispatch center to ask them to open the quarry hill gate. It wasn't anything to be too concerned about, she and her grandsons needed to look for him since he had failed to return the night before, she told them.

Instead the on-duty controller, Staff Sgt. Douglas Weber, informed the flight sergeant, Tech. Sgt. Chandler Pash. The pair contacted a patrol team including Staff Sgt. Kevin Winget and Airman 1st Class James Kunzi who responded and asked Mrs. Tempel for a detailed timeline, description and possible whereabouts of Mr. Tempel.

"Mrs. Tempel provided everything we needed and offered to show us where he usually staged his vehicle prior to getting on his snowmachine," said Capt. Ryan Bodge, security forces squadron operations and training officer.

Once all the facts were determined, security forces requested helicopter assistance from the Alaska State Troopers and Fort Wainwright. Mr. Tempel was suspected in an area closer to the Army base. At the same time, the Remote Off-base Disaster Team, or ROBDT, was recalled and organizing the necessary gear.

"The reasons for Mr. Tempel not returning home or his condition were unknown. We brought everything we could think might be needed including food, water, extra winter clothing and medical supplies," said Maj. Gerald Mulhollen, 354th SFS commander.

Sergeant Winget, Mrs. Tempel and her grandsons went to the staging area at approximately 9 a.m. to see if Mr. Tempel was at his truck. After arriving, the ROBDT members began checking radio and cell phone reception in the area when evidence that Mr. Tempel was alive came in the form of a voice message.

Ms. Tempel received a voice message from her husband saying he was cold, hungry and thirsty and on his way back to the truck. It was unclear exactly what time the message was sent but it had been sent sometime that morning, meaning he had survived the night.

Shortly thereafter, the AST helicopter arrived and a search pattern was coordinated. The ROBDT members, which included Master Sgts. Shawn Cox, Alexander Dunsire, and John Reiland, Captain Bodge, Senior Master Sgt. Chris Bostrom and Staff Sgt. Paul Thompson, headed into the woods to look for Mr. Tempel.

After 20 minutes of searching, the AST helicopter crew located the snowmaching right where Mrs. Tempel indicated it would probably be. And not far away from the searching ROBDT members, the AST spotted Mr. Tempel who was slowly treading back to his truck.

"The success story here is Mr. Tempe and his wife," said Major Mulholand. "He had the proper equipment and experience to survive and she knew all the details so we could successfully look for him. If either of those hadn't happened, things could have gone much worse."

The only trouble on the trap run started and ended when Mr. Tempel's snowmachine broke through some overflow ice and into a few inches of water at about 3 p.m. Friday afternoon. For the next hour and a half, he tried to move it out by using a chainsaw to cut at the ice and to cut some small tree branches for traction and leverage.

A stuck snowmachine would pose no problem for Mr. Tempel and his trapping buddy. Unfortunately, his son-in-law was on a business trip and Mr. Tempel realized he couldn't fix the situation on his own.

"I was able to pry maybe three inches but couldn't get the tracks to where they could get a grip on anything," Mr. Tempel said. "I decided to stop trying as I would only wear myself out and get more water on me."

Mr. Tempel decided that if he started walking to his truck, which was 12 miles away, it would be dark before he got there and he was already tired from trying to move the snowmachine.

"I knew the area well and decided the best thing to do was to head to a radio station shelter about six miles further into the woods," said Mr. Tempel.

Mr. Tempel was able to find the shelter before the nightfall and the dropping temperatures. It was a dark tarp material so it had trapped some heat from the day, which was exactly what was needed, Mr. Tempel said. Dog-tired, thirsty and hungry, he was able to fall asleep to regain his strength for tomorrow's trek back to his truck and home. The snowmachine would have to wait until another day.

At first light around 7:30 a.m., Mr. Tempel headed back out to begin the long 18-mile trek back to his truck. Traveling through four inches of snow on the switchback paths that lead up and down the hills began to wear away his strength. On top of one of the hills, his cellphone was getting reception, so he tried to call his wife and let her know what was happening.

"I was able to finally get a call through to the voicemail and game my current condition," he said. "But I had to keep it short because the battery was cold and looked like it would die. I needed to try and save enough for another call later if I couldn't make it out."

After making it about two and a half miles past his stuck snowmachine, Mr. Tempel was running out of steam and knew he just reached the halfway point. He deciding he could afford to take one break to regain his strength and still have enough daylight to make it to his truck before nightfall again.

About that time, he heard the AST helicopter and waved to them when they came over the next hilltop. They signaled back that they had seen him and disappeared back over the hill. Shortly there after the ROBDT members pulled up to Mr. Tempel.

His first words to the team were, "I guess your looking for me."

While Mr. Tempel was fully prepared to get himself out of a dangerous situation, he was appreciative of the water and the ride back to his truck.

When asked what he had done right ahead of time, he said "being prepared is good but always tell your 'where and when' plan to someone."

He added that the buddy system works well to get out of situations like this one.

When all was said and done, Mr. Tempel was found about 28 miles away from the main base and had spend a little under 24 hours exposed to Alaska's winter conditions, which had reached negative 18 degrees during the night. At this time, the snowmachine has been recovered and Mr. Tempel is back to checking his trap line.