Photo by Mike Turner
Danny Holgate, search commander for Tip Top Search and Rescue, pressed his hand against the cold plexiglass window of the Bell 206B3 Jet Ranger helicopter to blunt the vibration and stared out at the jumbled landscape of rock and ice passing below. His eyes peeled back every shadow, untangled every knot of fallen trees, searching for any movement or flash of color that might be a hiker in trouble.
According to the “Wander in Wonder” itinerary, Turner was to complete his hike in 9 days and meet his family and friends at the Big Sandy trailhead on Saturday, August 8. When he didn’t show up at noon as planned, Diane at first felt little worry. “Honestly, I just felt irritated,” she says. “I figured he was out there taking pictures, leaving the rest of us to carry the gear to the first lake, our ‘plan B’ if we didn’t meet up at the trailhead.”
As Saturday afternoon dragged on and the party set up camp at Dad’s Lake to wait, questions began to creep into Diane’s mind. What was slowing him down? Was it the knee he had injured skiing 4 years ago, or a dog with sore paws? “Before Mike left,” Diane says, “Katie, our youngest, had asked him what we should do if he didn’t show up. We laughed, then thought it would be a good idea to set a deadline.” If he didn’t arrive by Sunday at 4 p.m., they would seek help. But as that second deadline neared, Diane found herself re-reading the words printed on her map: “You will be charged for the rescue costs (i.e., helicopter time or horse rental).”
“I knew Mike wouldn’t want us to make a big deal over nothing,” Diane says. And so they waited.
By the time the moon rose that Sunday night, casting the peaks in an eerily beautiful silvery light, Diane knew something had gone very wrong. Her husband was missing. They would go for help in the morning.
The call came in to the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office in Pinedale at 10:06 a.m., August 10, and the dispatcher notified Danny Holgate. A strong, compact man with a cop’s direct gaze, 42-year-old Holgate has been working search and rescue for 18 years, the last 6 as search commander. He’s helped build Tip Top Search and Rescue from a “jeep and beer operation” (“jump in a jeep, drive to a remote spot, and drink beer until the guy walks out”) into one of the best all-volunteer units in the country. Yet every instinct told him this one was not going to be easy. The search area was immense: two national forests, two sides of the Continental Divide, two counties, three designated wilderness areas, and the Wind River Indian Reservation. As one volunteer claimed, “You could have every volunteer in Wyoming link arms and never cover a quarter of it.”
As the helicopter banked for another pass, Holgate strained to make out new footprints on Gannett Glacier and thought, “Hell of a place to get lost.”