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Out Alive Podcast

SAR’s Secret Weapon: An Ultra-Running Volunteer

Ultrarunner Jeremy Humphrey could move effortlessly through the mountains. But when a hiker went missing in his home range, he decided to put his skills to a higher use.

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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.

When Jeremy Humphrey set out to find a missing hiker in July of 2020, he didn’t have any training or fancy rescue gear. But he had something else: legs that could carry him for miles and miles in a day, an intimate knowledge of his local mountain range, and a voice inside him telling him that he was the right man for the job. Hear his story in her own words below, or subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Transcript

Host: Search and rescue personnel are often the heroes of the stories we tell. These professionals and volunteers save thousands of hikers from danger every year relying on extensive navigation, first aid and search tactic training. Without search and rescue many lost and injured hikers would not be lucky enough to make it out alive, but this story features a new kind of hero.

When Jeremy Humphrey set out to find a missing hiker in July of 2020, he didn’t have any training or fancy rescue gear. But he had something else, legs that could carry him for miles and miles in a day, an intimate knowledge of his local mountain range and a voice inside him telling him that he was the right man for the job.

Trailer: I made a decision to survive in that survival mode. The idea of dying wasn’t in my head, I knew immediately. It was the worst case scenario. I was in a fight for my life situation. You’re in their house.

Host:  I’m Louisa Albanese, and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. And each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable.

Trailer: I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring and I couldn’t do anything.

Host: Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you.

Trailer:  There is no way we would find anybody alive.

Jeremy Humphrey: My name’s Jeremy Humphrey. I live in McCall, Idaho. I’m 41 years old. I’ve been a runner for 36 of my 41 years. And I also direct the ultra marathons here in McCall. So on the day in question, uh, it was, uh, it was a Friday. I had planned a long run. I woke up at about seven o’clock in the morning and my wife was already up and she was on Facebook on her phone.And she said that the Valley County search and rescue in the Valley County Sheriff’s department were putting out details concerning this, this missing woman that had been hiking probably about 15 miles North of McCall.

Kelly Copperi: The Sheriff’s office was contacted on July 9th at 11:33 in the morning by one of Laura’s friends, coworkers. And he was concerned because she had not heard from her. And she was scheduled to come to work the previous day.

Host: This is Sergeant Kelly Copperi of the Valley County Sheriff’s office.

Kelly Copperi: This girl had been out there for as far as we knew almost a week with no plans of being out there that long with her dog. And she had some medical history that concerned us. We have over 3,300 square miles and only a quarter of it is populated. The rest of it is wilderness. So it was like a needle in a haystack.

Host: Figurative speech aside, the Crestline and surrounding wilderness is more like a haystack than you might think. A wildfire in 1994, devastated the area which remains littered with fallen trees that make off-trail travel inconceivable to most, but to Jeremy Humphrey, it’s just his backyard.

Jeremy Humphrey: So I just planned for a long day out, uh, and just brought some extra stuff just in case I happened to bump into this lady.

Host: As a result of the Sheriff’s office, Facebook post a tip had come in that the missing hiker’s car was parked at the Pearl Lake trail head. The hiker’s name was Laura and except for a dog with her, she was solo.

Jeremy Humphrey: The area is, uh, is like, uh, 15 or 17 mile long chain of mountains that goes from the end of the Pearl Creek road down to McCall basically. And the whole area is called the Crestline. So her car had been found at the North end of the Crestline Trail. So I called, I called into the Sheriff’s department as I was driving over there. And they weren’t crazy about people just going and looking.

Kelly Copperi: Jeremy called me first thing in the morning on July 10th. So this is day two overnight at 7:25. He had told me that he had seen the Facebook post and that he was going to go run that day. I was guarded at first because we don’t like to send citizens that we don’t know, have experience and all this stuff into another situation to have it become a detriment to us.

Jeremy Humphrey:  I go for long runs up here. You know, I don’t usually carry anything. I mean, like sometimes I don’t carry a water bottle cause I, I know all the places to drink. I mean, I, sometimes I don’t carry a shirt. I’ve got this area boiled down pretty well. So I mean, I was just doing what I would be doing anyway. I just happened to be looking for a person.

Kelly Copperi: After talking to Jeremy for literally like a couple of minutes, it was very apparent that he knew what he was doing.

[Phone call] Jeremy Humphrey:  I think, instead of going through the construction, I should come from the south on the Crestline trails coming from the belt, heading from South to North, heading toward box. 

Kelly Copperi: If that’s the case, if you’re going to run up that way, that’s fine. And then you can text me and let me know, or, you know, hit your  InReach device. And let me know if you’ve located or I can’t tell you not to go. I can’t tell you to go up there without checking in with our search and rescue. 

Jeremy Humphrey: Okay. 

Kelly Copperi: Uh, so what I can do is give him your number and have him give you a call. 

Jeremy Humphrey: Okay. I’ll have my cell and it will be on, but I’m going to come. I’m going to be, I’m going to come from the South across the Crestline trail. I run up there all the time. I knew all the little side trails. I knew all the lakes. Um, I’ll have, I’ll have binoculars on me. Um, I’ll have my cell phone and like Garmin InReach. Um, other than that, I’m just going for a normal run and perfect as I would have anyway. 

Kelly Copperi: He told me that he had a Garmin inReach device, which is a 911 dispatcher’s dream. When it comes to people who go out into the backcountry, our search and rescue is volunteer. So we have volunteers and they have normal day jobs, right? So when we get requests from the public to come help, we try not to discourage it, but we want to be able to coordinate them with our search and rescue because honestly, if you have experience and you have people who know the area, the odds of finding somebody are going to go up higher.

Host: Civilian volunteers show up to help with rescues fairly often in Valley County, but the local search and rescue team tends to discourage sending them out. And they’ll never send someone into the back country to search alone, but of course they can’t stop people like Jeremy from taking matters into their own hands.

Host: Kelly and Jeremy exchanged cell phone numbers, and Jeremy promised to check in throughout the day.

Jeremy Humphrey:  The areas is a high Ridge. And most of the high spots around here have good cell coverage. So I would have my cell phone on me and, and, you know, I promise to check in with them frequently. So I started in from the South and the report was that this, this lady likes to hike and she likes to visit and camp at kind of remote mountain lakes.

My strategy was. To go from South to North, basically visiting every lake that I could find, some of them are  named and well-known and have trails to them, kinda just, uh, just off of the Crestline. And some of them are just, just kind of a bushwhack to get to. So I headed South to North covering miles, visiting lakes.

I didn’t feel like it was, it was high likelihood that she would be down that way, but it was possible. It’s not like some big expedition for me. It’s just what I do. I was just doing what I do. And ] it was just, just kind of another day. It just made me a little bit more focused. Well, it made me a lot more focused and a lot more willing to suffer because it wasn’t just another selfish, you know, endeavor.

Like there was, there was something great that that could possibly come to this. So it kept me, it kept me really sharp, really focused. I brought my, my lightweight hunting binoculars with me. And I would glass for her and I would yell her name. And as I got towards the North end, I, uh, I kind of sensed that I was in better, a more productive area. So I was even more careful and a little bit slower, you know, paying more attention, calling out more often.

Host: After a few hours of running and searching, Jeremy hadn’t come across any sign of Laura

Jeremy Humphrey: The next Lake is, is Heart Lake. Uh, she wasn’t there. The next Lake is, is, uh, Brush Lake. So Brush Lake I felt was a high, high-probability target fresh lake used to have a trail to it off the Crestline, but it disappeared, uh, in, in the fire a long time ago. I thinkthe Black Wall fire was 94. So this whole area is burnt country and most of the trees are either laid down, uh, or they’re just standing silver and dead, um, like no limbs or anything.

So it’s just wide-open country. Very few trees are standing, uh, lots of granite, lots of just steep. bouldery kind of talus and open country rock, uh, slick rock slabs, and that kind of, that kind of country. So I got to Brush Lake. I went around the base of it looking for, for any sites, any sign that someone had camped there. I’m a bowhunter, so like I’m pretty good at tracking. I really tried to find any, any footprints, any, any kind of sign that, that people had been there. And I didn’t see anything.

Kelly Copperi: We had Fish and Game on dirt bikes, checking the area. We had Eric looking for her friends and family. We’re on their way. I think some of the biggest challenges is just trying to coordinate all of those resources together and, you know, trying to make sure that nobody’s overlapping because why search someplace that’s already been searched.

Host: Nearly 17 miles from the car. Jeremy was starting to feel tired, worn down by the heat and ready to head home. He started to think about coming back out the next day to continue his search, but then

Jeremy Humphrey: I just get the sense that, you know, I’m, I’m close. And if I just, if I just stay on and just keep doing what I’m doing, um, I’m gonna find her. Like I’ve had that. I had that feeling just the entire day.

Host: Jeremy describes his participation in Laura search and rescue is just another routine trail run, but Jeremy’s connection to the wilderness and loss goes far deeper.

Jeremy Humphrey: So 15 years ago I lost my dad in the mountains, uh, on Mount McKinley in Alaska. I was there, but I wasn’t climbing with him. And that kind of led to, uh, me getting back into running competitively. That is his real wish for me, uh, was to be a runner. And I kind of felt like I was wasting the gift.

Host: Maybe the memory of his father drove Jeremy to keep running that day. Maybe not. Either way. He was the right man for the job.

Jeremy Humphrey: I’ve been around the mountains and I’ve, I’ve climbed mountains and just existed in the mountains and I’ve done so much mountain travel over the years. I think it felt good to have to apply myself to apply the skills and to have a positive outcome. I just didn’t have any doubt. I mean, even when, when my wife Brandy told me about it in the morning, I, the first thing I said is I’m going to go find her. I know that land and I know that area, uh, for, from so many different reasons, uh, probably better than anyone could, could ever possibly know it. I’ve just spent so much time up there. I’ve climbed those peaks. Uh, I’ve hunted there. And when you hunt, you really just pick, pick the land apart. You learn every little wrinkle, every little draw, every little wet spot.

I could have jumped back on the trail and headed south. Uh, and it would’ve been a 35-some mile day, but I didn’t, I kinda got one last ditch effort. I pulled out my, my map and I looked for some, like any kind of little obscure blue marks on the, on the, uh, on the map indicating lakes that don’t have names and little pothole lakes that are, that are just kinda well, they’re just, they just kind of dot everything around here.

So I needed to get higher. I needed to get right up against the granite walls of the peaks above a Reign peak was just above that. And I’ve climbed it and I knew it had, like, a big granite face on it, but I knew I could scramble up there a little bit. I got up above 8,000 feet and started kind of going up the rampy, kind of broken, granite terrain.

I just needed to get a little bit higher to get a better look down. And kind of pick a direction. That’s going to take me past a couple of these little, little blue spots on the map.

I got up there and I found one of the lakes and it was, it was so perfect. I, I just, I thought that should have been it like it made perfect sense. I’m basically going to pick a line, taking me from where I was up against the cliffs down to intersect the. The trail does the Crestline trail, and then I’m going to get headed itself.

I’m going to get out of there. I dropped a couple hundred feet from that last good Lake. And I called outand I heard I got a response and it was definitely a female. So I screamed again and again. Are you Laura? And I couldn’t really see, uh, I got a sense of where the, the call was coming from, but I didn’t, uh, I couldn’t see who it was.

She’s talking, some someone is talking, but I don’t, I’m not getting that this is Laura, you know, she’s not saying this is Laura. Come help me. So I  follow that sound. I have to cross like a little drainage, pure adrenaline. I just go downhill and back up as fast as I can, because maybe she’s disordered disoriented or exhausted or proud or, you know, for some reason I’m just not getting that. This is the person, and this is an emergency. I just started sprinting, like bounding down over the, this, these borders and open country kind of slopes. It’s just loose, rough stuff with, with trees down all over the place. So I’m jumping over the trees and I get maybe 20 yards from her.

And I see, I see the dog and I say, please tell me, please tell me you’re Laura. She said, yeah, I’m Laura. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and it’s like, you know, pure, full adrenaline, you know, it’s, it’s over.

It’s much more serious than what I thought. Uh, I thought it was, uh, you know, one, one night exposed to the summer conditions really isn’t isn’t much, but spending a week out and not eating all that time. Can can be plenty dangerous psychologically. I think she was, she was just fine, physically, you know, bad things happen when you don’t put any, any fuel in for a while you get electrolyte imbalance and you, your, your brain stops working on you. You get the bulky kind of dizzy. Can’t do anything. She knew she wasn’t strong enough to pick up that pack and get out through [00:16:00] the blown down trees. And she didn’t know if she had to go uphill or down. So I, I think she was just in sit down and wait kind of mode.

As soon as she got some calories in her, she started making sense, you know, she, she did everything right. She did have water. Uh, she was by a little tiny swampy pothole lake and she said she had been drinking it, filtering it and drinking it. Cause at this point I’m, I’m expecting us to walk out. I’ve got us at three to four miles only to her car.

And I thought it was, that was possible. Like I thought we could get out of there. So I called the sheriff and uh, I said, I’ve got her and they, they just couldn’t believe it. They were just thrilled.

Kelly Copperi: He called me at two minutes after three and told me that he located her. I wish that he had called me on a recorded line, but he ended up calling me on my cell phone because it was the most exciting phone call I have had.

And seriously, like I wanted to go through the phone and just hug him. It was so exciting. They told me that a philanthropic rescue, a helicopter rescue operation called Two Bear Air was in the area. And, uh, they, they want to do the pickup. I start telling Laura, okay, you know, you need to get everything inside that pack immediately.

She had a tent up, she had, um, just stuff kind of. Laying around it all needed to go in her pack like right then and there, or, you know, it was going to be gone. It was gonna be left behind. We didn’t know what the timeline was or what was going on. So I just was pushing really hard to get her bags packed and to get her ready for whatever, whatever came.

Sure enough, the, uh, the helicopter starts coming. She’s got really bad sun damage, really bad, like the first layer of skin was gone. And then the second layer, it was just like all bubbly purple-y it was pretty ugly. So we got her kind of covered up and I put her pack on. We made our way over there.

It was about a half mile, a quarter mile or a half mile uh, to the chopper, Laura is parked at the north end, so she gave me her keys. And if I just ran out of there, I could drive her car back. So I took her keys and I ran out and yeah, as soon, soon after I took off, I heard the chopper lift lift into the sky and head south and they took her.

Host: And that was it. In the end, Jeremy’s specific knowledge of his home mountains and his superior ability to move through them quickly and safely led him to save the life of a fellow outdoor enthusiast.

Jeremy Humphrey: I also tried to get into why, why was she there? I direct a hundred mile foot race that runs across that,  thatruns right through there. I just have, uh, a deep knowledge and understanding of, of the Crestline and it’s, it’s big and complex, and there’s lots of possible reasons that you would go there. But I think because I’ve been, that person is doing so many of those different things. I had a, I had a good kind of catalog of, of things that I could flip through.

I have the ability to move through that kind of country kind of at will. And I do it all the time. I’m very comfortable moving in that terrain. And I think that’s when it came down to it. That’s, that’s why I found her. There’s some really strong, really smart people on our, our search and rescue operation.

Um, some of which are ultra marathoners. But there’s a, there’s a protocol and there’s a heaviness to, to, to that sort of operation, whereas one person or, or, you know, even a couple people just flowing over the land without the equipment and radios and all that. It’s just, it just feels like it’s, it’s just easier.

It felt really natural. To do it, you know, I’m not part of the search and rescue operation, but what I, what I was able to do was kind of figure out what they were doing and kind of operate on the margins and, and the, the boundaries of, of where they were going and what they were doing. It just all made sense.

Like as soon as Brandy mentioned it to me in the morning, it just kind of all spilled out in my mind. Like I could see the whole day. So I just kind of walked that path.

Kelly Copperi: He was so humble about it, but based off Jeremy’s experience and his willingness, and I would say he was one of the most prepared volunteers that have called into our center and asked if they could help.

I wished we had more, you know, I wish I’m sure, pretty sure that most agencies wished they had more people like Jeremy that would be willing to do that, you know.

Jeremy Humphrey: With everything that’s going on. And in the world today, it’s, it’s, it’s good to have a little piece of good news that could have, could have been bad.

So I’m very happy with all that I’ve been through with all the, the, the, the way that the, the mountains are kind of interwoven through my, through my, my life and my whole family’s timeline. It feels good to have a good outcome.

Host: This episode of Out Alive was produced by me and Louisa Albanese along with Zoe Gates and Sammy me Potter story editing and sound design was by Wild Acorns Media.

Our assistant story editor is Tim Mossa our script writers were Zoe Gates and Sammy Potter. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from electric audio, Inc. Thank you to Jeremy Humphrey and Kelly Copperi for sharing your stories and perspectives. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive please subscribe and leave us a review