Wednesday, Jun 17, 2009
Late on the evening of June 8th, the county sheriffâs office notified the parkâs chief ranger that theyâd received a 911 call reporting an overdue hiker on the Wheeler Peak trail. The responding ranger determined that a 56-year-old man had become separated from his hiking party while descending from the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak. Weather conditions had been poor during the descent, with low clouds, snow flurries, wind gusts up to 30 mph and visibility of approximately 200 feet. The man had not been seen since approximately 5 p.m. Family members and other campers had been unable to locate him, finding only tracks in a snow bank suggesting he had left the designated trail. The missing hiker was reported to be in good physical condition with no known medical problems, but was not carrying food, water, flashlights, maps or any other equipment. He had left his daypack along a lower part of the trail on the ascent to reduce the weight he was carrying. A hasty team of two rangers was dispatched up the Wheeler Peak trail. They were unable to locate the man. After sunrise, an inter-divisional search team of park employees was dispatched to search the area to the west of the trail more thoroughly and seek signs of the missing hiker. Search units from the White Pine County Sheriffâs Posse began searching areas immediately to the west of the park on BLM lands, while a fixed wing aircraft from the Civil Air Patrol was dispatched through the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to begin an aerial search. Tracks indicated that the man had headed towards a drainage leading down the west side of the mountains on the parkâs northwest side. Willow Creek Ranch was clearly visible from the location where the man left the trail and lights from the ranch would have been prominent during the night. Since no sign of the missing man had been found by mid-morning, a search dog team from White Pine County and four dog teams from Zion K-9 Search and Rescue in Utah were requested and headed to the park. Just after noon, the missing man walked up to a park resource management crew conducting fish surveys along Strawberry Creek in the northernmost part of the park and identified himself. He was tired, hungry and thirsty, but otherwise in good condition. He was transported to park headquarters and reunited with his family. During a debriefing, he said that in the poor visibility he had mistakenly turned off the Wheeler Peak trail. He realized his mistake only after a brief clearing in the cloud cover revealed the setting sun and he determined he was traveling west. Since he had already descended a significant distance, he decided to continue hiking down the west side of the mountains and after dark headed for the lights of a ranch. He spent the night at the Willow Creek Ranch, finding no one in residence. In the morning he made the decision to hike back eastward into the park to return to his family. He hiked up the Willard Creek drainage, eventually finding an abandoned road that leads over a pass and into the Strawberry Creek drainage, where he found the resource crew. He had traveled at least 17 miles since starting his hike up Wheeler Peak the previous day.