Memorial Season Mayhem

SAR News from Dumb to Inspirational

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Dear Readers,

Please accept my condolences on your return to gainful employment after the holidays. I share your pain. I’m also smarting from a good spanking on Capitol Peak in Colorado. Brother Mike and I could barely break timberline, thanks to record warm temperatures and serious wet snow avalanche danger. We kept probing for a safe way from Moon Lake toward the sub-summit called “K2”, but it was like trying to snowshoe up the side of a snowcone while it cooks in a Radarange. So we thrashed for miles beneath gargantuan packs filled with superfluous hardware, only to carry it all back out, unused. It’s a trip genre familiar to many mountaineers. Great training though. On my drive back from Aspen to Torrey, the Colorado River bridge on I-70 near Grand Junction was almost awash by flood waters- and gas was exactly $4.10/gallon everywhere. Ahhh, the miracles of free market competition. Thank God I’m a 4-cylinder guy.

A lot happened on the SAR and climbing scene during my absence, and it ran the usual gamut. Quite a bit involved what Yosemite Ranger and bear management specialist Sherry Lisius once described to me as “Vacation Brain.” Personally, I think of holiday weekend mayhem more like wind-up toys on a table top. Put a bunch of Energizer bunnies on your Ikea, and a given percent will simply march off the edge, with the numbers dependent on bunny volume and the nearness to any potential hazard.

Here’s the run-down of incidents that hit the newswires, along with some background commentaries where appropos.

Flooding Rivers Closed in Washington

The lemming festival continued on Washington’s Green and Cedar Rivers. In addition to the accidents from last week (see Water Fight! The Sequel) Saturday the 24th saw two more fatalities on the same streams. One man riding an inner tube, without a life jacket, flipped and was last seen dog paddling for shore, according to the Seattle Times. Another kayaker disappeared near Hanging Gardens State Park. Authorities closed both rivers until further notice. In related water news, a 19-year-old kayaker went missing after a capsize on Blind Lake near Lyndon Township in the Detroit area of Michigan. His buddy made it to shore; He didn’t.

Trekker “Missing” in Canyonlands

In southern Utah, the search for a solo backpacker missing in the Needles District of Canyonlands went into low intensity mode as details emerged about suicide letters he’d sent to family and friends. Jerry Wolff (65), a biology professor at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, failed to return on May 15th from a 5-day solo trek in the Salt Creek area, triggering a search that included at least 20 ‘ground pounders’, two search dog units and aerial overflights.

Then details emerged from his hometown newspaper about letters the ‘extremely stressed’ personality had sent to family and friends. “I am so sorry to burden you with yet another death,” said one missive. “I am gone in a remote wilderness where I can return my body and soul to nature. There is no reason for anyone to look for me, just leave me where I am.”

As our world becomes ever more crowded and people seek a peaceful place to check out, parks and nature preserves are becoming actual suicide destinations. According to SAR statistician Bill Syrotuck, who has compiled one of the few SAR databases in existence, virtually all ‘wilderness’ suicides occur within a quarter mile of trailhead, but victims occasionally break that mold.

This tragic incident also illustrates a seldom-published fact in Search and Rescue. The number one cause of search call-outs nationwide is mental illness – namely ‘despondents’ (potential suicides) and wandering Alzheimer’s patients.

One notable example of the former was Carolyn Dorn, the woman who disappeared in the Gila Wilderness in early December of 2006. She eventually ‘survived’ for five weeks, overstaying her two week supply of food by another three. The media went into a brief post-survival frenzy, then she disappeared quietly from headlines as the facts became known. The 52-year-old Dorn had a history of depression. In the end, she survived by camping and fasting passively in a hidden alcove near an Indian ruin along the Gila River, about 6 upstream miles from her trailhead. She was never lost, and Gila River levels never rose to trap her, as early reports claimed. Literally hundreds of searchers looked for Dorn through the Christmas holidays, and dozens passed within a hundred yards of her camp on foot, horseback, and ATV, but she never called out. Incident commander Frankie Benoist later told me Dorn said she “wasn’t ready to be found yet.” A secure campsite, easy access to water, and adequate insulation kept her alive, but if Peter and Albert Kottke, two backpacking brothers, hadn’t happened on her as she weakened and relented, the outcome would have been different. A national guard helicopter equipped with night vision hauled her out of the deep gorge.

Depressed people require our compassion, but so do the hundreds of searchers who get dragged into these scenarios. For example, Wolff disappeared in the gorgeous Needles District of Canyonlands, which is laced with jeep roads, and by far the most popular backpacking region in the park. It is not ‘remote wilderness.’ With all due sympathy to the distressed Wolff and his relatives, there is more going on here than the right to die. If you want to commit suicide and be buried ‘Ed Abbey’ style, don’t go to a national park, fill out a permit, and vanish along a nationally renowned backpacking route. Such an act commits dozens of searchers, drains funds for true emergencies, and traumatizes the rangers or visitors who eventually find you. I’ve often thought a person’s death is like the ending of a book: If the ending sucks, the whole book sucks. So if dying right is important to you, then finish the story well, not sloppy. Leave no traces.

Hiker Uses Camera Flash to Signal Searchers

While vacationing near Sedona, Arizona, North Carolina hiker Betty Norton (54), got lost and used the flash on her camera to alert rescuers who’d begun searching for her. While that was an innovative thought, she also went hiking at 6:30 pm, intending to shoot sunset photos from the top of Cathedral Mountain, a rugged sandstone butte that forms Sedona’s most notable backdrop. She took no warm clothing, water, or, apparently, a flashlight or headlamp….which would seem mandatory for a post-sunset return. Searchers found her about 2:30a.m. after seeing flashes from the summit area. Norton did, however, let her fiancé know her hiking plans. He triggered the search shortly after dark. Local news comment boards (always a source of compassion) recommended the fiance’ back out while he still can.

Killer Bees Attack Hiker near Phoenix

An unnamed man hiking off-trail in the South Mountain Reserve outside Phoenix underwent a two-hour ‘killer bee’ attack on Monday, May 19th. According to, witnesses say the man was ‘coated in bees.’ Nobody could get near enough to help until a 6-man technical rescue team from the Phoenix Fire Department donned bee suits and evacuated him. As of press time he was expected to survive.

Africanized honeybees (actually African/Brazilian hybrids now interbreeding with introduced European/American honeybees) originally escaped from a Brazilian research facility in 1957. They spread to central Arizona in the early 1990’s, and have since moved as far north as Oklahoma and Southern Utah, and as far east as Florida. The only probable limiting factor to their northward spread is winter frostline and lack of food, since tropical bee strains don’t instinctively store honey to survive the time between flower blooms.

Individually, ‘killer bees’ are no larger or more toxic than their Euro-American cousins. However, they breed faster, the colonies grow larger, and they outcompete other bee types in mating struggles. Africanized honeybees are notoriously defensive and quick to attack. While most healthy people can survive hundreds of stings (1,500 in one case) about 40 people a year die from bee, wasp and hornet stings in the U.S. Approximately half are from honeybees. I could find no stats on the split between ‘killer’ and domestic bees. Most fatalities involve a pre-existing allergy that occurs in roughly 5% of the U.S. population. Children are also at higher risk due to their lower body-size-to-venom ratio. Hikers with known allergies should always carry an epinephrine injection kit or at least an oral antihistimine like Benadryl, especially south of the 34th parallel, which is roughly the present northern limit of Africanized honeybees in the U.S.

Open Water; the Reality Show

A vacationing couple scuba diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef were carried away from their dive tour boat by strong currents on Friday, May 23rd, and spent 19 hours floating in open ocean before being found. This incident mirrors the plot of a successful low budget movie Open Water, but with a happier ending. Alison Dalton (40), and her fiance’ Richard Neely (38), a former British Special Forces soldier, survived hypothermia, dehydration, exhaustion, sharks and sea snakes before finally being located.

The pair’s absence was immediately noted on the dive boat, but waves obscured them. The couple hung tough as both ships and helicopters repeatedly missed them on search passes despite a bright yellow emergency buoy. This is not an uncommon phenomenon, regardless of the environment a person is lost in; It can be very difficult to spot people from the air. Bright colors, arm-waving, and even signal mirrors often do little good. If your emergency plan involves visual signaling, better stack the deck. Bright strobe lights, flares or smoke bombs (caution: wildfire hazard) are about the only reliable methods.

Cool News!: Geezers Storm Everest

On May 24th, 76-year-old Min Bahadur Sherchan became the oldest person to scale 29,035-foot Mt. Everest, beating 71-year-old Japanese Katsusuke Yanagisawa, who gained the record last year. Sherchan, less than a month from his 77th birthday, now returns to the new senior home he’s opening. Two days later Yuichiro Miura (famous as the “Man Who Skied Down Everest”) also summited. Originally this was an attempt to break the age record, but Miura is ‘only’ 75 – and suffers from heart arrhythmia. The oldest woman was Japanese Tame Watanabe, who summited in 2002 at age 63. Both the recent climbs were aided by large Sherpa support teams, but so what? These guys rock! Check out the Explorer’s Web photos of them hobnobbing at Camp 2. Classic!

On the downside, that totally blew my last excuse not to climb an 8,000er. –Steve Howe