Lost Hiker Training Scenario

There is a Lost Hiker

What Would Your Search Strategy Be?

Author Roxanne Dunn

Every search I've been on has been a learning experience. I have also been to training seminars where the challenge of planning a strategy, and then hearing the outcome of the search, was the most interesting part of the training. I decided to incorporate that idea into a report of this search.

I hope you read along and see how close your strategy would bring you to the lost hiker.

At Search Base:

You check in to search base at 0600 hours, on Wednesday morning, you have driven all night, had 3 hours sleep in the front seat of your truck. Coffee is hot and you sip while getting briefed. You are handed a 7.5 minute topographic and a larger scale area map.

The information you were given is as follows: 

Yesterday, was a Tuesday, October 27th, in Montana's high country; a beautiful fall day. Trisha, a 30 years old, 5 foot tall, 95 pound woman, is small framed, but fit. She set out for a hike around the lake, while her companion, Jim, fished. In a few hours, they were to meet again at the outlet of Kersey Lake. Trisha did not return to this meeting place. (see the X at PLS, on the large scale area map, right.)

It was 1300 hours on a Tuesday, when Trisha failed to arrive at their meeting spot; Jim got worried. After looking around for her and shouting her name; he got really worried. He went back to Cooke City to ask for the help of his friends. Friends and neighbors hurriedly looked around the lake, for any sign of Trisha. They found nothing. In the dark, Jim returned to Kersey Lake, looked for Trisha some more, and then stayed with the vehicle. He turned the lights of the truck on. He hoped the light would be a signal for Trisha and she would find her way back. That night it turned cold and dropped near freezing temperatures, it was damp and more rain and snow was predicted.

At the time of her disappearance, she was reported to be in good physical and mental health, only partially familiar with the area (visited 2 or 3 times), and enjoyed rock climbing and hiking. She was wearing jeans, a Simms fleece jacket, Vasque leather hiking boots and prescription glasses. Since she was not on a long hike, she didn't have food, water, a map or matches. She had with her dog, a 1 1/2 year old Lab, named Gallatin (Galley).

Develop your strategy:

  • Above is a small map.

  • You have your full 72 hour pack.

  • You have a backup search person familiar with map, compass, GPS and back country.

You know that:

  • There is a forest service cabin at the lake.

  • There are two private cabins on private property.

  • There are 20-35 ground searchers, 4 search dog teams, a helicopter, an off road motorcyclist, several 6 wheelers and 4 wheelers in the field, all at various times.

  • This area is adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, bears of all types can be expected. However, bear activity should be slowing due to the start of hibernation.

  • You will be transported to the area by 6 wheeler.

  • Containment has been set up on the main trail heading back to Cooke City, with spotters at main trailheads around Kersey Lake.

  • Kersey Lake is at 8,070 feet, or 2,460 meters

  • Snow or rain is expected at elevations higher than 5,000 ft., the temperature overnight will be 30 - 35 degrees F.

Develop your initial strategy now.

After you are finished developing your initial strategy, read further... new clues are found.

You have developed your strategy, now the search is underway. Would you adjust your strategy given the clues and information that you hear over your radio?

  1. A search dog handler radios that a dog has shown interest at the east end of the Kersey Lake's northern edge, near a private cabin. (see map)

  2. A searcher on an off road motorcycle spots tracks on the Russell Lake Pack Trail, approximately two miles east of Kersey Lake. (see Map) He marks it with a tripod of sticks.

  3. Another search dog picks up scent and begins tracking at the Russell Lake Trail, at the eastern edge of Kersey Lake. The handler of the search dog then informs search command that he has found a boot track of a small size, accompanied by a dog print of a medium size. There are no other prints in the area, except a motorcycle track. Search base confirms no other searchers have been through there, except the off road motorcyclist searching the trails for Trisha. This team continues to track/trail on the Russell Lake Pack Trail, the dog is moving with determination.

  4. At Kersey Lake, two search dogs follow a trail of scent, both end up at the footbridge near the inlet of Kersey Lake and at the start of Russell Lake Trail.

  5. All cabins are cleared, no sign of Trisha.

  6. One search dog team heads to Rock Island Lake to clear the area, no tracks, no scent clues are found.

  7. At 1100 hours search command sends the fourth dog team into the field. Lost people in this area have historically hike out to Reed Lake or Vernon Lake, close to the state line. No sign was found of Trisha along these trails.

  8. The search dog team that's tracking up the trail toward Russell Lake tells search base their position and scenting activity. The dog is showing strong interest at a scent pooling area, off the trail at an area just northeast of Russell Lake. A pooling area is a cool spot that holds scent down and keeps it moist so that it is highly detectable to the canine nose.

  9. A chopper from Malmstrom Airforce Base has arrived and is ready search from the air. Between 1200 and 1300, the chopper flies over the searchers and further beyond the searchers with visual of the Russell Lake Trail and the upper lake trails. They don't spot anything.

Have you changed your strategy? You've been hiking for 6 hours, with intermittent rests. Did you have food for energy? Water? There are plenty of streams and lakes to replenish your water, do you have a filter or tablets? If your a search dog handler, your dog's been hungry. Did you bring extra food? Your contemplating spending the night, because the distance you've traveled is approx. 9 to 10 miles. Are you prepared for snow, rain and colder temperatures? Damn, your pack sure feels heavy!

Would you have found Trisha yet? Do you want to know the results? Read further!

What Actually Happened
How would YOUR strategy have worked?

Here is the final outcome... let's see if you would have found Trisha before we did. After all, search is an emergency. The best way, is the strategy that finds the lost person the quickest!

At 1330, a surprising, but relieving announcement came over the radio. "All searchers, our subject has been located. She has hiked through to East Rosebud and is o.k." Trisha had telephoned her friend in Cooke City to let them know she was alive and well. She was in the small town of Roscoe, MT and had hiked through to East Rosebud from Kersey Lake, then she gotten a ride into Roscoe to call home. We were all relieved to hear she was o.k. and completely amazed that she had hiked so far. It was estimated that she went 30-35 miles in rugged terrain, across the Beartooth Mountains, in altitude from 8,000 to 10,000 feet, in October!

Trisha's Account of the Long Trek

Trisha, had made a dangerous wrong turn, as she explained to me many days after her adventure was over. After hiking around the lake and climbing some rock, she decided to return to the lake and meet with Jim. At a junction of three trails she had to make a decision about which way would take her back to the lake. The junction has two signs, one reads Russell Lake, the other Rock Island Lake, and the third trail was unmarked. Knowing that the other trails were not the right way, "I decided to take the unmarked trail", she explained. Remembering the map of the lake from the fishing guide she had looked at, she recounted, "I thought the unmarked trail would make a loop and return to the lake". Unfortunately, this trail would lead her further away from Kersey Lake and into The Beartooth Wilderness, toward Russell Lake and beyond. She hiked for eight and a half hours, according to her watch. Trish kept hoping, if she stayed on the trail, sooner or later it would take her out to a trailhead. She knew after several hours, that it would not be the same trailhead she and Jim came in on, but she could only hope it would be a trail she recognized, or that there would be someone there to help her.

During the agonizing night, Trisha was comforted by her friend Galley. She talked to him to think out loud. All the time, he stayed with her. "Galley would weave from side to side on the trail checking out everything.", said Trisha . She recalled that Galley, "Made me stay calm.", and "I couldn't have done it without him." She began to stumble in the darkness and there was no point in trying to go any further in the dark. " I almost stumbled into a large stream, that was when I said, "Galley we are stopping right here.", Trisha recalls. She thought they had passed Fossil Lake and remembers feeling panicked when "I read a sign which said, "no campfires between Twin Outlet Lake and Fossil Lake", I knew I was way off course then". At that point, "I lost all sense of direction.", Trisha recalled. Still being brave, she and Galley cuddled for the night. When she awoke, she check her watch, it was 6:00 a.m. and she resumed her path, heading in the same direction that she had the night before.

Trisha's will to survive is strong, and the amount of distance she travel was surprising to searchers. However, her behavior is not unlike lost hikers in similar incidents. According to NASAR published studies of 501 cases, 46% of lost hikers followed a trail or path, 43% were found by self - that is, walked out on their own, 54 % went downhill, 90% were moving for 24 hours or less - found within first 24 hours, 2 miles/hour is an average speed, and most are young and in good physical condition, but not prepared. Given the number of hours Trisha was missing, approximately 23 hrs., of which she remembers resting overnight for 7 1/2. She was moving for approximately 15 1/2 hours. If you times that by the average miles per hour of 2, you would get the approximate distance that Trisha traveled. See the red dots on the map for the actual route taken by Trisha.

Given lost hiker behavior knowledge and the direction of trailing from the dogs, coupled with visual tracks known to be Trisha's, the next plan being discussed by search management was to send searchers to the other side of the mountains, on the major trails to search in the opposite direction. This was not needed, as Trisha was in good enough shape to make it out by herself. Trisha proved to be a "tough cookie", in my words.

Many thanks to the searchers who would have continued, as long as it took, to find Trisha, and to Trisha for allowing us to print her story on our Web Site as a learning tool for others. I hope you found it interesting and educational.