Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween SAR mission

It's been a long time since OMTRS has had a good mission. We got a call the night before Halloween, and it was supposed to be "just outside Silver City". This is pretty far, but reasonable, so I opted to join in. Turns out the mission was closer to the Cat-Walk trail, an hour past Silver City. Oh well. Another piece of mis-information from the middle-of-the-night call was that we were searching for 3 gay hikers. Our sleep-deprived brains didn't realize until 2 hours into the drive out that this was actually "3 day hikers". At least we had lots of laughs about it.

We arrived at the trail-head to Mineral creek around 8:30 am. The hikers had spent a chilly night somewhere out on this trail. They were attempting a thrrough hike, hiking a few miles up MIneral creek, and then taking the log canyon trail out of the canyon to the south. this would have put them on a rd a mile or so east of the town of Mogollon, where they were staying at an inn. When they hadn't come in from their hike, we were called out. Due to another SAR mission the same day, not many teams had responded; OMTRS brought 7 people, and 2 other people from Grant county had also arrived. The initial plan was to send a team up the Mineral Canyon trail, and another team in from the other end (log canyon trail). I was to be on the team starting at Log canyon, so we hopped back in the car to speed off to Mogollon, about a 40 minute drive on circuitous roads. Not 5 minutes after leaving, we got a call on the radio that one of the hikers had made it out and was at the Mogollon Inn. We were to interview him and report back.

The hiker who had made it out was Bud, an 80 year old hard-man. His daughter and son-in-law were still out. The group had made slow progress and the hike up the steep log canyon trail had really taken something out of them. His son-in-law (who also has a prosthetic leg) was immobilized by leg cramps near the top of the canyon's rim. It was about 4 in the afternoon. Bud left them at a spot near the top of the canyon rim to go get help. The trail back to Mogollon wasn't that far, but somehow he got off trail. When it got dark, he hunkered down for the night with his dog, and in the early morning, bush-whacked his way south until he reached the road. He told us his companions did not have warm weather clothing nor matches to make a fire, and were not in good enough shape to descend back down the log canyon trail. Based on this information, the entire SAR team opted to move the incident base to the trailhead to log canyon. I was put on a hasty team with Bob Cort and Marta, and we were to quickly locate the subjects and bring them warm clothes, hot food and drink. A second team was on stand-by and was prepared to help with extraction. Due to their close proximity the the trail, we were guessing that they were in pretty bad shape and would need assistance getting out. We also learned that two locals had already headed down the trail to try to locate the subjects.

Bob, Marta and I found our first "clue" only a short ways up the log canyon trail. A note had been written with rocks on the ground in a clearing. It stated "Went To Car". It was very close to the log canyon trail-head, and din't make that much sense to have come from our subjects. Why would they turn around here and go all the way back down into the canyon to their car when they were so close to getting out? We tried to determine if the sign was fresh, but could not tell. It is possible the sign could have been left earlier by some other hikers and be completely un-related to our search. We let the Incident Commander puzzle this out and kept going. At the rim of the canyon, we found a second clue, a ginger-chew candy in its wrapper. It did not look old, and was probably dropped by someone in the last day or so. It also roughly corresponded to the location where Bud said he had left them the day before. However, there was no sign of the subjects. We continued on, descending down the to the canyon floor.

Near the base of the canyon, we ran into the two locals. They were heading back up the log canyon trail, and had not seen any signs of the subjects. Our team was directed to search for clues along mineral canyon. We searched a short ways east up the canyon and found no evidence of recent passage. Going west down the canyon, we found a couple foot-prints, but it appeared to us that they were heading up canyon. These could have been from the day before when the group had hiked up. While the Incident Commander was digesting this information, we became less certain that the foot-prints were heading up. They were not very clear, and were only a single set. We were thinking that we would be told to continue down the canyon back to the subjects car and verify they were not somewhere in the canyon, but the Incident Commander told us to head back up the log canyon trail. We learned later that perhaps our communication from the canyon had been misunderstood. This is understandable as radio communication deep in the canyon was a little spotty. Apperently, the incident commander thought we had ruled out the possibility that the subjects had come back down canyon. This agreed with Bud's assessment as well. The search was then re-assigned to a series of gullies and ridges between the log-canyon trail on the town of Mogollon.

This Google-Earth map shows the rough route our search team took. As teams searched but did not find any clues in the terrain near Mogollon we began to worry we would not find the subjects at all. A helicopter was flown in and made fly-bys up mineral creek and over all the nearby ridges, but did not find anything. We were finally called back to the incident base around 4pm. They were just starting to make calls for more search teams when a phone call came in that the subjects had been located in an RV park. Somehow, they had managed to hike all the way out Mineral creek, and down the road without being detected by us (and they didn't have the keys to their car at the trail-head). relieved the search was concluded.

I learned some good things on this search. This was the first search I had been on where we had found legitimate clues. Our team became proficient at recording the GPS coordinates of each clue and then radioing them in when we could get a good link. We covered a pretty good amount of terrain (~5 miles according to google earth) but not too quickly that we couldn't look for clues.  The poor radio communication from us to the base turned out to be one problem that may have falsely led us to not search the rest of mineral creek canyon. We were relaying messages through other teams, but this can tend to create mis-information. Our other clues has also led to some false information; the locals in Mogollom were questioned about the rock message, and suggested that the message had been there for a while. We learned later that the subjects had indeed made this message as a not for Bud/searchers. Despite being so close to the log canyon trail-head, they had no clue how close they were and opted to turn around and go back down familiar territory rather than risk an unknown. With hind-sight, it is apparent we should have left someone at the mineral creek trail-head to "contain" the search area.

Overall, a very nice day hike through beautiful canyons and with a happy ending.