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Reckless endangerment charges filed against Alaska sled-dog adventure guides

Craig Medred
Photo courtesy Peggy Billingsley

A media and online thrashing of Fairbanks musher Peggy Billingsley and her husband, Darrell Harpham, this spring apparently wasn't enough for state officials, who have charged the couple with reckless endangerment for guiding the mushing trip from hell.

Billingsley, 47, and Harpham, 49, in March organized an outing into the White Mountains north of Fairbanks for a Georgia couple they'd come to think of as friends.

The trip went badly awry. Three people ended up getting rescued. "Thankfully nobody died," Harpham told Alaska Dispatch back in April. Billingsley and 28-year-old Chonticha Tanapornsakul did, however, end up in the hospital, where they were treated for hypothermia and released. The sled-dog and guiding communities in Alaska went all abuzz about the cascade of bad decisions that led to the rescue. 

And Todd Shurloff, a 43-year-old Atlanta chiropractor and Tanapornsakul's fiancé, made a huge stink. Billingsley said she organized the sled-dog trip into the mountains north of Fairbanks as a favor for Shurloff, who she thought of as an Internet buddy. But Shurloff clearly thought of himself as a client endangered by a guide.

Alaska State Troopers and the Fairbanks District Attorney came to share that view; on July 20, they filed reckless endangerment charges against Billingsley and Harpham.

Such charges are unusual in Alaska. The actions of Mount McKinley guide Dave Staeheli, for instance, left one client dead on the mountain last year, another maimed, and one seriously injured, but no charges have been filed in that incident despite a National Park Service report that concluded the guide violated rules specifically intended to ensure the safety of clients high on the mountain.

The only rule Billingsley and Harpham appear to have specifically violated is one requiring guides to obtain a U.S. Bureau of Land Management permit before conducting tours in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported BLM rangers are still investigating whether to cite the couple. Meanwhile, the News-Miner reported that it is the contention of troopers that "Harpham and Billingsley weren't prepared and didn't provide the two novice (Georgia) mushers with the proper survival gear."

Billingsley disputed that claim in an April interview with Alaska Dispatch, saying she'd sent the couple to a Fairbanks store to buy proper gear before leaving on the sled-dog adventure, adding that when Tanapornsakul complained of cold hands during a pre-trip check ride, she was provided better mittens.

Billingsley said she also tried to cancel the trip, but was pushed into going by Shurloff.

Once on the trail, she claimed, Shurloff turned into the expedition's biggest problem. And in the clear light of hindsight, she confessed to Dispatch she should have called everything off before the real problems began, although she didn't.

"When you're in the tour business, when you're trying to help someone realize a dream ... It went from something we were all looking forward to, to this, to this, nightmare. We probably should have turned this whole train wreck around," Harpham said, "but at that point, I was going, 'Things are going to get better.'"

They didn't.

And now, for Billingsley and Harpham at least, they've gotten even worse. Misdemeanor reckless endangerment won't necessarily result in serious fines or prison time. But bookings with her business, little such as there were before, look to have disappeared altogether, along with the business itself.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com