A bad situation with a good ending
This article originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer, Thursday, January 12, 2006
A bad situation with a good ending
By TIM MOWRY, Staff Writer
At first, Dave Lacey thought it was just your normal, everyday wipeout.
The 60-year-old Ester hippie was skiing down the first of two steep hills on the 11-mile trail to Tolovana Hot Springs
north of Fairbanks when his right ski boot popped out of the binding on his cross-country ski.
And even though he is an accomplished skier with more than 25 years under his boards, Lacey has never really
picked up the knack for skiing down a steep hill on one ski.
In other words, he bit it. "It wasn't a bad crash," said Lacey who knows a bad crash when he has one. "I wasn't
going that fast or anything. I didn't land that hard."
What followed was a classic example of how anything can happen in Alaska and how important it is to be prepared
when it does.
It was Jan. 8 and Lacey was part of a five skier expedition to Tolovana Hot Springs, a popular winter-time trip for
skiers, skijorers, snowmachiners and dog mushers.
For the record, the trail into Tolovana is not for wimps. It's a demanding 11 mile ski that features two steep, gnarly
downhills, each lasting 2 or more miles, as well as a grueling climb up 2,386-foot Tolovana Dome in the middle.
The hills are steep enough that most skiers, unless they are experts, end up walking part way down.
Having made the trip several times before, Lacey knew what he was getting into, which is why he chose to walk
down part of the first hill that begins almost immediately after you leave the trailhead.
"I knew it was dangerous conditions," he said. "I got down to where it flattened out a little bit and put on my skis
A few minutes later, as he made his way down the hill, his right ski boot suddenly popped out of the binding. The
problem, Lacey suspects, was a pair of overboots he was wearing over his ski boots. The overboots have straps
that run under the ski boot, making it hard to clip the bindings on, he said.
It wasn't until he tried to get up and put some weight on his left leg that he realized something was wrong.
"I couldn't move," he said.
Almost immediately, he knew what had happened. That's because Lacey had broken the femur in his other leg 14
years ago in a bike crash on the ice, which is precisely what happened this time too.
"Right away, I recognized it as an emergency situation," Lacey said.
Fortunately, Lacey was the second skier to leave the trailhead. He knew help would show up within a matter of
Unfortunately, Lacey's husky, Gulliver, had already disappeared down the trail in pursuit of Yoshi Nishiyama, the
first skier to depart. Even more unfortunate was the fact that Gulliver was pulling a sled loaded with all of Lacey's
gear, including his sleeping bag and most of his cold weather gear.
Lacey did have a pile jacket and anorak in a small backpack that he put on, and he also had a Therm-a-Rest Ridge
Rest sleeping pad he pulled out to sit on until help arrived. The leg didn't hurt unless he moved it.
About 10 minutes passed before the other three skiers- Tohru Saito, Yumi Kawaguchi, and Masaki Hirokawa-
arrived on the scene. While Saito is savvy to traveling in the Alaska backcountry, the two women are just
beginners, especially Hirokawa, who was visiting from Japan.
The first thing Lacey told Saito was that he needed help and would probably have to be taken out by Medivac.
Studying the situation, Saito knew that wouldn't work. They didn't have a satellite or cell phone to call for help. That
meant that somebody would have to drive to town, which would have taken more than two hours. By that time it
would be almost dark.
Though the weather wasn't particularly bad--about zero with a slight wind--Saito said the spot Lacey crashed
"wasn't a good place to the hunkering down waiting for help."
Instead, Saito, 36, made the decision to pull Lacey back up the hill in a Siglin Sled that Saito was pulling behind
him. They unloaded the plastic toboggan sled, wrapped Lacey in a sleeping bag, put some chemical handwarmers
into his mittens and loaded him into the plastic toboggan sled, Therm-A-Rest and all.
"I just laid there with my hands wrapped across my chest," Lacey said.
Pulling in short, coordinated bursts, they yanked Lacey 30 or 40 feet at a time before stopping to catch their
breath. Every time the sled would stop, the three human sled dogs would jerk in unison to get it moving again, only
to stop 10 feet later, huffing and puffing.
"It wasn't easy," said Saito, who has climbed Mt McKinley. "If it wasn't for that sled, it would have been much harder."
It was only by chance that they had the sled too. Hirokawa had borrowed it at the last minute from someone she
was housesitting for.
It took the trio more than two hours to pull Lacey-who is 6-feet, 3-inches tall, but skinny as a fence post at 170
pounds- up the hill.
"We started pulling him up at around 2 pm and when we got to the top of the hill the sun was already down," said
Throughout the ordeal, Lacey maintained his composure, not to mention his sense of humor, Saito said. While
some people go into shock when they break a bone, that didn't happen to Lacey.
"Every time we stopped, every 30 or 40 feet, he'd say, 'Hey, did the dogs stop pulling?" said Saito.
Once at the top of the hill, the trio used a ramp thatsnowmachiners use at the trailhead to slide Lacey into the back
of his 1989 Toyota Camry station wagon. They were able to put the back seats down and barely squeeze Lacey
into the back of the car. The sled served as a stretcher, he said.
"They just slid me right in," marveled Lacey. I couldn't have gotten in a truck or regular vehicle."
Stuffing some handwarmers inside Lacey's feet to keep his feet warm, the trio then headed to town. They arrived at
the hospital at around 7 pm.
Lacey shudders to think what might have happened to him had no one been behind him.
"That would have been it," he said. I couldn't have laid out there very long. I only had ski gear on. After another
hour I would have gotten pretty cold."
The biggest lesson Lacey said he learned from the ordeal is not to let your dog run ahead of you with all your
gear. Had he been forced to bivuoac overnight on the trail where he was hurt, he would have been in serious
Another lesson he and Saito took home was the importance of staying in contact on the trail. Nishiyama, the first
skier to leave, ended up sitting at the hot springs for two days wondering what had happened.
"After they didn't come for a long time, I figured they went back to Fairbanks for some reason," said Nishiyama.
It wasn't until the next day, when Saito, Hirokawa, and Kawaguchi arrived a day late, that he discovered what had
played out on the trail behind him.
"We needed a little more coordination," acknowledged Saito. He described it as "a bad situation with a good
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