Published by the Summit Daily in 2008
You could call Dan and Glen the odd couple, if you were so inclined. One of them always approached things analytically, the other philosophically. That’s what made it so funny that Mark sent them out as a team of two that day.
We were looking for a party of three campers, all in their sixties, who had left camp for a day hike from Tipperary Lake yesterday morning and never returned. The others in their group had been up all night looking for them and had finally hiked out to Heeney to call 911 the next morning.
Glen had already looked at a map and calculated a probable search area. Since it was unlikely the hikers would go out to explore an area they’d already been in, he thought they might hike around the lake, which could lead them into a swampy valley between Tipperary Lake and Lower Cataract Lake. This area could be accessed from the top of Cataract Falls.
A kindly Forest Service ranger drove the two men part way around the lake, a brief respite from the steady, chilly rain. Looking up at the 300-foot waterfall at the west end of the lake, Dan mused, “There’s going to be some tricky footing up there in this rain. Do you know which side is easier?”
“The right side,” the ranger answered. “Both sides are steep and rocky, but it’s a little easier on the right.”
They climbed for an hour, taking care on the slippery moss-covered rock. The waterfall thundered next to them and the rain continued to drizzle. Both men were quiet, each absorbed in his own thoughts, occasionally sounding a whistle blast to attract the lost party. Near the top, Dan looked up and noticed that a hole had formed in the rainclouds and the sun was drifting toward it.
“That’s going to be a beautiful sight, when the sun comes through those clouds,” he said. Glen merely nodded, thinking that unless the rain stopped, not much could happen to improve the scenery.
Dan moved ahead of Glen, reaching the top of the falls just as a ray of sun slanted through the clouds and lit up the Tipperary swamplands at the top. The gloom vanished, just for a moment, and wildflowers glistened in the ray of sunshine. He sounded his whistle again, and this time he heard a shout back. It sounded like a cry for help.
“Glen, I think we’ve got ‘em,” Dan called over his shoulder.
“No way, it can’t be that easy,” Glen said skeptically, coming up behind him.
“Help!” It was clear this time. Glen and Dan exchanged an incredulous look and began to move in the direction of the cries. Shortly after, a group of three came into view.
“Are you OK?” Dan asked the two women and one man as he approached.
“Who are you?”
“We’re from the Summit County Rescue Group.”
All three cried out in relief and one began to cry. They sprang forward to hug Dan, Glen and each other. “We saw you come through that ray of light and I had to pinch myself,” one of the women exclaimed. “I thought you were angels!”
Dan laughed. “No, but at least we’re going to get you out of here.”
Like most people who are rescued in the backcountry, the three campers did a few things right, as well as a few things that got them lost in the first place. Governor Ritter has declared the month of May to be “Search and Rescue Awareness Month” in the hopes that as you plan your camping and hiking trips this summer, you’ll keep these important backcountry tips in mind:
- Always hike with some basic survival gear, no matter how long you plan to be out. You never know when weather and your best-laid plans may change. The Tipperary Lake campers left their campsite with rain gear, which was critical, and some food. Although they didn’t have water, they were resourceful and drank rainwater collected from pockets in the rocks, in order to avoid giardia from drinking directly out of the swamp. It would have been helpful if they’d had some warmer clothing to wear under their rain gear, or even some space blankets, as temperatures were close to freezing that night.
- Choose hikes that are within your skill and ability level. The hike up to Tipperary Lake is a tough one, but the four campers were fit and experienced hikers and knew the route was well within their abilities.
- Always tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back. The others in the group knew the general direction their friends were planning to take and knew when they planned to be back. They went for help at the appropriate time.
- If you get lost, stay together and stay put. This might be the most important thing they did right. The three campers were lost in a very confusing area; a serpentine stream winds through a ravine toward Cataract Lake, creating a swampy area filled with dense foliage. The campers resisted the temptation to split up and scout for a return route, which would likely have caused them to become three lost parties instead of one. When night fell, they huddled together for warmth and stayed put, which made it easier for us to find them the next day.
- Always bring a map and compass and know how to use them. Be aware of your surroundings and plan your route back. This is where the group of three got into trouble; they didn’t have any navigational tools, nor a specific plan. They thought they were just going to take a casual hike around the lake, so they didn’t think they needed a map, compass and/or GPS.
- Last but not least, support your local search and rescue team! Not only did the campers thank Dan and Glen profusely, but they also wrote letters to the group and made a donation. As a non-profit organization composed entirely of volunteers, we rely on donations and grants to fund our constant training and equipment needs, and the generosity of the campers was greatly appreciated.
Most of us have a natural human tendency to think, “It’ll never happen to me.” We know, because we often hear it from the folks we rescue. Be prepared this summer and remember to expect the unexpected.