Overdue Backpackers Missing in Denali Wild

The search for a pair of missing backpackers who failed to return from an overnight hike in Denali National Park enters a third full day today.

Abby Flantz, 25, and Erica Nelson, 23, were last seen on Thursday, June 12. The two women, both working in Alaska for the summer at a local wilderness lodge, were dropped by a shuttle bus at an access point to Denali's backcountry hiking area.

The driver confirmed to officials that the pair had been dropped at the park Thursday, and other hikers reported seeing them on the trail about 15 miles from the park entrance.

Flantz and Nelson had obtained a wilderness permit that morning for an overnight backpacking trip in the 9,500-square-mile park. They did not emerge from their trek on Friday, June 13, and their employers at the lodge reported the pair overdue to the National Park Service on Saturday when they failed to show up for work.

A search began that expanded Monday to cover a 100-square-mile footprint around the Savage River. The trailless terrain, described by park spokeswoman Kris Fister as rugged, fluctuates in elevation from 2,000 to 6,000 feet and is dotted by spruce trees and heavy bush. The search was called off at 7 p.m. last night and resumed first thing this morning.

More than 30 searchers in teams of three or four -- some equipped with scent-sniffing dogs -- were combing the area on the ground, Fister said, with pilots scanning the footprint from the air and another 20 people providing support staff logistics.

Authorities know what color backpacks the two women were carrying in addition to a green tent. Fister said that the weather conditions have been typical of Denali for this time of year, with daytime highs in the 60s and nighttime lows in the 40s. There are also several places where the backpackers could get drinking water, Fister said.

While the two women are described as experienced hikers who recently spent a night in the park, Fister said that most of the area where they set out to hike -- in fact, most of Denali -- is unmarked.

"Part of the issue here is that Denali has very few developed trails," Fister said. "This is their first summer in Alaska, so their experience is limited."

There has been no recent criminal activity at the park, which is 240 miles north of Anchorage, but Fister said that authorities cannot rule out the possibility that someone may have attacked the two women.

"As part of the investigation process, we never rule that out," she said, "but there has been nothing to date to show that there was any foul play."

Fister also could not rule out the possibility that the women were confronted by the park's wild animals, which include wolves and grizzly bears.

The area where the women had a permit to hike only allows a handful of hikers to camp each night, but wilderness where they entered the Denali backcountry is a popular spot with day hikers.

Nelson is a native of Las Vegas, while Flantz is from Gaylord, Minn. Nelson is expected in Houston for a wedding this weekend, Fister said.