Hikers to Into the Wild bus speak out about rescue

Credit: Ted Aslund

Credit: Ted Aslund


Author: Steven Shaw
Date: 06.30.16

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Ak. - Two Denali National Park visitors are safe after hiking to the abandoned bus immortalized by Chris McCandless and “Into the Wild.”

The hiker identified as 25-year-old Michael Trigg of South Carolina and 27-year-old Theodore “Ted” Aslund of Georgia  were found uninjured  near the Denali Park Road after a ground and aerial search.  

The Trip and Rescue

Trigg and Aslund tell TrailMob they started their hike to the bus from within park boundaries along the west side of the Teklanika River beginning on June 20.  “They were expected to return from the backcountry by June 24, 2016 and their Facebook post contained instructions to contact emergency responders if they were not heard from by that time. Rangers were contacted on June 24, by friends of the two, and an investigation was initiated the same day.” Said Denali Public Information Officer Lynn McAloon.

Trigg and Aslund hiked to an abandoned Fairbanks Transit bus that is located on Alaska state land along Stampede Trail, found just outside of Denali boundaries. According to a Facebook post on Trigg’s page they got to the bus “after about 3 days 5 hours, a little later than expected but still had plenty of resources at that point.”  With likely no cell service and their deadline to exit the backcountry looming they decided to deviate from plans to return the way they came (through the park) and instead attempt to hike out along the Stampede Trail in order to meet their deadline. Original route plans avoided having to cross the Teklanika River, which is swift and ice-cold as it originates at the Cantwell Glacier in the Alaska Range.

To get to the bus along the Stampede Trail hikers must ford the Teklanika River, a task that is extremely difficult and dangerous. In August of 2010 a Swiss hiker named Claire Ackermann drowned attempting to cross the Teklanika along the Stampede Trail. There have been numerous other rescues along the stretch of trail near the river.  The National Park Service tells us the two realized they were behind schedule and left a note at the bus saying they had safely made it there.  After departing the bus they hiked along the Stampede Trail until they reached the Tek. “This is where it got hairy. We had a bunch of rain on the way up and the river was high and fast. We knew the town of Healy was only 18 miles beyond that point so we decided to attempt a crossing.” Writes Trigg. Already behind schedule, this is when things went from bad to worse. “We stacked and faced upriver like you should, with Ted in front of me. About halfway across, the rocky bed took a steep drop from knee deep to about chest and a rock supporting Ted's foot slipped out, if anyone is familiar with the Tek, that is not a position you want to be in. It only took about half a second and Ted was almost neck deep in 40 degree water and getting swept to my 7 o'clock. I was able to grab his pack then my foothold gave, swinging me around. I can't accurately say how many seconds we were getting swept but in only a few we were already about 15-20 yards down river. We were able to inch back to a shallow spot. Now we're freezing and bad weather was rolling in so we decided to set up camp for the night, inventory our stuff…”

At this point, realizing they were going to miss their exit deadline regardless, the pair decided to change plans again and head back the way they came through the park “in order to not work harder than needed under the now somewhat limited food supply.” Trigg writes of the return hike out: “everything was going great on the route until the last range we had to cross over. Got to the summit to find a rogue storm on the other side, so again, cutting our day short we had to set up camp again on top of a peak. Really exposed but had to get shelter before it started coming down. The night was windy and cold but altogether fine and we continued our route next morning. That's when we saw SAR helicopters. We didn't get lost, just had to improvise and pushed our schedule past the emergency deadline.”

Speaking to TrailMob, Denali PIO Lynn McAloon echoes Trigg’s statement that the two were not lost but simply past their emergency deadline. “They were not in any immediate danger, and were uninjured on their way out. They were simply past their exit deadline.” Said McAloon.  She went on to note the media has been “quite hard” on the two, when in fact they did something that many veteran backpackers don’t always do, leave a trip itinerary. “They put a general trail plan out on Facebook and let people know when they were expected. Filing a trip plan is always a good idea.” Said McAloon.

Aslund and Trigg at the bus.  Credit: Ted Aslund.

Aslund and Trigg at the bus. Credit: Ted Aslund.

Harsh Portrayal in the Media

Reading other media articles regarding the rescue we are inclined to agree with McAloon that they are being “hard” on the two. Furthermore, it appears that most neglected to even attempt to reach out to the pair to hear the full story. TrailMob contacted both men and had lengthy conversations about their trip to the bus.

The Fairbanks Daily New-Miner writes in an opinion piece  “The two men might have suffered a crueler fate if they hadn’t had the sense to let friends and family know when they expected to be back.”

Both men and the NPS tell TrailMob they were perfectly fine and would have made it out safely.

In a particularly inflammatory article, the website Jezebel writes they were not “carrying a satellite phone or location device.” And “next time you follow the trail of a 24-year-old who died alone in the wilderness, perhaps consider bringing a GPS.” 

TrailMob asked Trigg and Aslund about this. No, they did not have a satellite phone or GPS.  They had maps and a compass. Trigg served in the U.S. Marine Corp from 2010 - 2015 as a MV22 Osprey Crew Chief specializing in insert, extract, casevac (casualty evacuation), para ops, resupply and fast rope during tours in Iraq and Kuwait. It’s safe to say he knows how to use a map and compass. Additionally, Aslund is a Denali park vet having worked and hiked around the park a previous summer.

The Inquisitr writes “They were unsuccessful, and when they failed to check back in, a ground rescue team found them and led them to safety.”

They were were successful and  “when found by search and rescue we were a stone’s throw from the park road.” Said Trigg.

Were they prepared for the hike? Yes they were. Did they make some mistakes? Yes they did. Clearly they under-estimated the amount of time it takes to get back to and return from the bus when traveling through the park. Speaking as someone who has done this trek, and hiked many miles in Denali, four days is not enough time. Or, as McAloon politely put it, “their timeframe was quite ambitious.” A mistake both Trigg and Aslund acknowledge.

Many of you are likely wondering if they will be billed for search and rescue's time and efforts.  This is the statement Denali PIO Lynn McAloon sent to TrailMob:

“Some pro rescuers worry that people will hesitate to call for help if it costs.  If people believe that they are going to receive a large bill for a SAR mission, they may hide from rescuers, delay calling and possibly put rescuers at greater risk if the situation deteriorates, i.e. gets dark, weather gets worse, condition of person needing rescue worsens, resources such as food and fuel gets used up, etc.

The other consideration is there is no hard  rule for what counts as negligence. It can be difficult to decide when someone "deserves" to pay or not. I think it all sits squarely in the realm of burden of proof, negligence or avoidability, as well as the fact the costs of a search are well beyond the ability of most people to pay.

On all federal public lands, search and rescue costs are funded by U.S. tax dollars. Whether a climber suffers from high altitude illness, a boater is stranded, or a child wanders from a campground, it is the intent of the NPS to assist those in need.

NPS has had instances in which a rescued party does turn around make a donation for the rescue, or a portion thereof, out of gratitude or recognition of the costs.”

Credit: Ted Aslund & Michael Trigg

Credit: Ted Aslund & Michael Trigg

Background on the “Into the Wild” or “Magic” Bus

The 1996 Jon Krakauer book “Into the Wild” and later Sean Penn movie of the same title chronicles the story of Chris McCandless, who in 1992 died inside the abandoned bus. In early spring of ‘92, a then 24-year-old McCandless wandered off the Parks Highway down the Stampede Trail. His body was found found inside the bus 5 months later by a moose hunter. It’s estimated McCandless perished in August.

“Into the Wild” turned McCandless into a cult icon. Each year dozens upon dozens of people make the arduous trek to the “Magic Bus.” Each person has their own reasons, however there is one consistent, everyone snaps picture after picture of the place where the immortalized Chris McCandless died.  (Years ago TrailMob editors, then young Denali park employees, made the trek back to the bus, likely following a similar route as Trigg and Aslund through the park.) McCandless is a very polarizing figure. In general, there are two camps.  One saying he was a free spirit living his life the fullest. The other, steadfastly maintaining McCandless had a death wish.

Decades after his death, both sides are still correct and both sides are still wrong. There are valid arguments in each camp and debating it seems foolhardy as neither side is going to budge. Regardless, of this, one thing is clear.  Each year, people trek back to the bus and get in over their heads. Each year search and rescue has to be called out. Each year there are calls to remove the bus. Whether or not that will ever happen, who knows. But what we do know is that while Christopher McCandless has both inspired and irritated, his death has nonetheless caused people truly think about about their lives, both the good and the bad.

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  1. From Into the Wild to The Wild Truth - An Interview with Carine McCandless