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Really Lost Hikers and Slow Evacuations

Striking case histories from Australia and the slopes of Mount Terror

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Ruined Castle Overlook, Blue Mountains, Australia

Well, the summer vacation season is well underway and my news feeds are bulging with mostly boring hiker-takes-off-with-zero-preparation-and-gets-lost–overnight stories. But a couple cases stand out.

Climber Spends Four Nights on
Mount Terror After Friend Rescued

On July 1st, four climbers entered the remote, rugged Southern Picket Range in Washington state, set up a camp in Crescent Creek Basin, and spent two days climbing alpine routes on Inspiration, West McMillan Spire, Degenhardt and The Pyramid. On their fourth day they began the North Ridge of Mount Terror (III-IV, 5.8) a long, committing alpine climb to the Southern Picket’s highest summit.

According to party member Steph Abegg’s first-hand trip report on, they were about a third of the way up the route, climbing as two rope teams of two each, when the lead climber, Steve Trent, pulled a huge block loose, took a 60-foot fall, and ended up with head injuries, a shattered heel, and a broken femur. Only the fact that they were climbing on twin 8mm ropes saved him, since one of the ropes was cut to the core by rockfall.

The remaining trio managed to get the unconscious Trent to a ledge, bandage his head and splint his leg. The injuries were far too serious for self-evacuation, so the group decided that one rope team should climb on to the false summit of Terror to get a cell signal, while the third, Jason Schilling, who had the most First Aid training, would remain on the face with Trent.

After speed climbing the buttress, the two climbers contacted 911 and a reconnaissance chopper showed up shortly thereafter. Then Schilling was short-hauled from the face in high wind conditions by pilot Tony Reese. By the time the chopper returned for First Aider Schilling, it was too dark to perform a short-haul, so rescuers left Schilling with food and bivouac gear, planning to retrieve him from the face next morning. But low pressure and fog moved in, so Schilling spent four days in a small, sloping cave before finally being evacuated.

Given the peak’s formidable name, the media went crazy on this story, and some of the team even appeared on CBS News’ Early Show. A couple observations:

[] The group did fine. On big, bad, alpine climbs, things happen.

[] The injury was too serious for self-evacuation. So they split the party up exactly how you should: Two people to go for help, one to stay with the victim.

[] It was a smart move to climb up for the cell signal rather than trying to descend the route and run for help. If evacuation had been delayed more than a few hours, the injured Trent would have spent four days on the face, and could easily have died.

[] Often only one person gets injured in a party, simply because once they’re hurt, the activity stops. Consequently, in a large party, it might be smart to carry a light sleeping bag, bivy sack and pad to accommodate victims of high-risk adventures.

[] Always remember that even if you’ve got a beacon, cell phone, and a helicopter standing by, you aren’t necessarily going to be rescued immediately. Weather, or hazards to rescue personnel, can delay or cancel a rescue. Always be prepared to hang tough for a while.

Hiker Walks out of Australia’s Blue Mountains after Twelve Days Missing

On July 3rd, 19-year-old Jamie Neale of North London, England, left a youth hostel in downtown Katoomba, near Sydney, Australia intending to take a 10-mile day hike to the Ruined Castle Overlook in Australia’s 2.5-million acre Blue Mountains National Park. Around noon that day, Neale talked to a married couple who had also hiked to the Ruined Castle, and told them he was continuing on to Mount Solitude, a 10-hour round trip for fast walkers.

Unfortunately it’s winter in Australia, and Neale only had four hours of daylight to finish his hike. He had no bivy gear, and only a bottle of water and two bread rolls for food. When Neale didn’t return to the hostel after several days, it triggered a massive search that employed dozens of rescuers and volunteers, and hundreds of helicopter hours. One searcher broke his leg in the rough terrain, and another had to be rescued after getting lost. Authorities were frustrated by the lack of clues, subfreezing nights and cold weather. Even Neale’s father had begun to lose hope.

Then, around 11:30 a.m. on July 15th, two other bushwalkers encountered Neale on a fire trail that crosses the Narrow Neck Plateau in the Medlow Gap area, 10 miles east of Katoomba. It turns out Neale survived by eating seeds, berries, and “a weed that looked like rocket.” Neale huddled under a log his first night, then spent the rest of his time climbing to high points above the thick eucalyptus canopy, trying to get his bearings, and huddling in his jacket through the nights. He was missed by repeated helicopter passes. After being walked out to the road, Neale was treated at Katoomba Hospital for exposure and dehydration.

It’s almost unheard of for a lost hiker to survive that long. “It’s nothing short of remarkable that he survived given how ill equipped he was,” Search chief Ian Colless told reporters. With their steep gorges, cliff bands and thick eucalyptus forests, the Blue Mountains see no shortage of lost hikers. In 2006, David Iredale went missing in the same area near Mount Solitary. He was found nine days later, dead from dehydration and heatstroke.

So, kudos to Neale for surviving nearly two weeks of low temperatures and wet weather, but he made a long series of mistakes that readers would do well to avoid.

[] The hostel encourages hikers to register their trip itinerary at the front desk. Neale didn’t.

[] He just took a small day pack, leaving his space blanket and solar-powered cell phone behind.

[] He only had one water bottle and two bread rolls. Not enough for a day-long hike, much less any emergency.

[] He had no map, compass, gps or guidebook.

[] According to his father, Neale was a “bad navigator.” He had previously gotten lost on MountSnowdon in Wales.

[] Neale kept moving rather than staying put once he knew he was seriously lost.

[] Neale probably didn’t signal aggressively enough, given how repeat helicopter passes missed him.

So, unless you feel like shivering on a ledge or eating weeds for a week, hike safe out there. – Steve Howe

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