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Lost & Found

John Donovan disappeared in a high-elevation blizzard, leaving rescuers and friends stumped. His backpack contained a miracle clue. Bill Donahue investigates.

Indeed, the cryptic notes Donovan scrawled depict a man coming to terms with the bleakness of his situation. He tried to signal for help. He built a few weak fires that smoldered out, due to the winter’s copious snows. He flashed a mirror at the sky. No one saw him. A 100-foot waterfall lay directly below, and the canyon’s walls were virtually sheer. He was boxed in, and he likely knew that it would be days, maybe a week or more, before anyone noticed he was missing.

At one point on May 5, Donovan took an inventory of his supplies. He was down to 12 cheese crackers.

His friends believe Donovan would’ve remained hopeful. “He always carried a transistor radio,” says Chris Hook, “and I bet he kept turning it on, waiting to hear that people were searching for a hiker. He believed things would work out.”

Then again, Donovan was a realist. “I see him walking around, yelling, ‘John, how the hell did you get yourself into this?’” says Lynn Padgett. “Especially as he got older, when he made mistakes he was hard on himself. John didn’t believe in fairy tales. He knew nobody was going to swoop down from the sky and save him.”

Around 3 p.m., Day and ALLEN heard a waterfall and wandered off-course again, to take pictures of the cascade. When they tried to get back on the trail, they couldn’t find it. “I wasn’t worried,” says Day. “I have a good sense of direction. And we figured that if we missed the bus back to the resort, we could just take a taxi.”

They followed voices for a while, only to discover that, in fact, they were chasing echoes. By 5 p.m., they’d floundered back to Long Creek, which they’d seen from the overlook. They yelled for help and heard nothing but echoes, so they tried to head directly north, toward the tram. But they kept hitting dead ends. “The mountain forces you downward,” Day explains. “It was like Chinese finger cuffs: The more we tried to get out, the tighter and steeper it got.”

When dusk fell, Day scrambled ahead alone in search of alternate paths. “He went out of sight,” Allen says, “and I was shaking. I was really scared.” Allen had never spent a night outside, though she’d tried to camp out back in Iowa. “Me and my girlfriends, we’d start out,” she says, “but then my brothers would come out and make scary noises.”

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