How 1,600 People Went Missing from Our Public Lands Without a Trace
April 1, 2017 5:47 AM   Subscribe

When an initial search turns up nothing, who'll keep looking? | When 18-year-old Joe Keller vanished from a dude ranch in Colorado's Rio Grande National Forest, he joined the ranks of those missing on public land. No official tally exists, but their numbers are growing. "I thought that in the wild, someone would send in the National Guard, the Army Rangers, the A-Team, and that they wouldn’t rest until they found you. Now I’m not so sure."
posted by I_Love_Bananas (72 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can highly recommend searching for podcasts that interview David Paulides - generally he only gets an airing on fringe or paranormal casts, but some of the commonalities in the disappearances that he catalogues are both baffling and spine-chilling.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 6:26 AM on April 1 [5 favorites]


"I thought that in the wild, someone would send in the National Guard, the Army Rangers, the A-Team, and that they wouldn’t rest until they found you. Now I’m not so sure."

I wouldn't have thought that to begin with.
posted by layceepee at 6:34 AM on April 1 [29 favorites]


The Department of the Interior knows how many wolves and grizzly bears roam its wilds—can’t it keep track of visitors who disappear?

Crazy thought here: the humans probably aren't wearing radio collars specifically designed to help track them.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:35 AM on April 1 [45 favorites]


This is kind of an old observation that I remember hearing and perhaps technology has superseded (er, nope) but up in the White Mountains rangers would get cell phone calls from lost (wet, cold, hungry, ill prepared) hikers, that assumed they would be air lifted quickly. But they could not be found for days and often not alive. Now, let's go for a hike into an area with no cell coverage. One twisted ankle and everything after that is pretty moot. Not huge mistakes, not animal attacks, not falling off a cliff but a 3 inch slip off a solid rock that wasn't.
posted by sammyo at 6:55 AM on April 1 [30 favorites]


I grew up next to this, which is one end of a 15 mile hike across basically nothing but basalt/aa at high altitude.

At least every couple of years, if not more, someone wouldn't bring enough water. If they were lucky enough to only be partly ill prepared, they'd at least have checked in at the Ranger station down the highway. A lot of times tho even all that meant was that they had an idea of where to look for the body.

It's tragic, but wilderness is not an amusement park and we shouldn't encourage people to think it should be by asking why it's not.
posted by PMdixon at 7:03 AM on April 1 [44 favorites]


Like so much of life it seems to come down to money. The sheriff is right - the fact that the responsibility for a search falls on the county is a historical holdover. Given the current climate in this country finding money in the budget for the BLM and USDA/Interior to do proper searches seems unlikely.
posted by fixedgear at 7:13 AM on April 1 [7 favorites]


It was an interesting article (and correctly points out that if you get lost, make sure to do so in a county with a good search and rescue program), but the conspiracy theory stuff in the middle was kind of a weird sidetrack.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:32 AM on April 1 [8 favorites]


I can highly recommend searching for podcasts that interview David Paulides

Counter recommendation: please don't, he's a loon
posted by Mike Smith at 7:34 AM on April 1 [23 favorites]


the humans probably aren't wearing radio collars specifically designed to help track them

You can buy a human radio collar for emergencies for about $250-500. PLBs are the land equivalent of EPIRB marine rescue beacons. You can also get an Iridium sat phone for something like $1000 + $50/month.

These things are not exactly cheap, but they're not ridiculously expensive either.
posted by ryanrs at 7:51 AM on April 1 [10 favorites]


Googling for "infrared search drone" seems to indicate that they're becoming more and more widely used for search and rescue, so maybe the airplane overflight with an IR camera mentioned in the article will be cheaper and more granular in the future. Militaries are probably developing autonomous hunter-killer drones that use multiple types of sensors, so hopefully there will be some swords-to-ploughshares on that technology at some point.
posted by XMLicious at 8:00 AM on April 1 [6 favorites]


The better the technology gets, the riskier my adventures will be!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:01 AM on April 1 [13 favorites]


Many of the people who would be most apt to strike off on a long hike would probably also bristle at the idea of being tracked every inch of the way.
posted by Bringer Tom at 8:03 AM on April 1 [6 favorites]


At least every couple of years, if not more, someone wouldn't bring enough water...

French couple who died in desert gave son extra water, sheriff said
CNN August 11, 2015
posted by cenoxo at 8:15 AM on April 1 [5 favorites]


I'm reminded of something that happened on North Woods Law a while back.

A woman, aged 60-something, who was an experienced hiker walking the Appalachian trail, failed to check in one night. Her husband called the Rangers and they started search and rescue almost immediately, working hard to try to determine where she might have left the trail based on the location of her last check-in, planned itinerary, spurious cell signals, interviews with other hikers. They put boots on the ground to scour every likely place. They never found her.

Until two years later, when another hiker randomly stumbled on her body less than a hundred yards from the trail and only a little ways down from her last check-in point. It's not that the rangers didn't try to look or didn't have the resources to do a thorough search. It's just that, well, the wilderness is big, too big to exhaustively search every inch of it, so you need to start from somewhere. And if that somewhere is even slightly incorrect, your search is doomed to fail, like an especially tragic butterfly effect.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:21 AM on April 1 [40 favorites]


This thread might correspond to that story.
posted by XMLicious at 8:35 AM on April 1 [7 favorites]


U.S. Forest Service – If You Get Lost (STOP)
posted by cenoxo at 8:38 AM on April 1 [9 favorites]


Paulides has identified 59 clusters of people missing on federal wildlands in the U.S. and southern Canada. To qualify as a cluster, there must be at least four cases; according to his pins, you want to watch your step in Yosemite, Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Parks.
Question: are his numbers scaled by visitorship? Is he simply saying that most people go missing in the most visited parks -- which doesn't seem particularly surprising -- or that there's a disproportionate rate of visitors going missing in these parks?
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:53 AM on April 1 [17 favorites]


The better the technology gets, the riskier my adventures will be!

The recent "Thunderbirds Are Go" series confirms this.
posted by mikelieman at 8:55 AM on April 1


David Paulides is known to massage facts to fit his theories. Like, when he estimates distances between where a person was last seen and where their body was found, he'll go by driving distance, not as the crow flies. In one case, a man fell off a cliff. One would have to drive several miles to get from the top of the cliff to the bottom--and that's the distance that Paulides went with.
posted by LindsayIrene at 9:01 AM on April 1 [7 favorites]


The main story is sad and I'm glad they did find the body. Clearly it didn't get the whole family the closure they'd wanted. For me going for a run after a 24-hour drive to get some air and then, because you're tired, some mistake leads to a fall, it seems exactly like the story of an accident.

I think it was a Criminal podcast about faking your death where they said pretending you'd drowned was popular, but instantly made authorities suspicious because most drowned bodies are recovered. Walking into the woods and never returning--you'll just never be found.

Question: are his numbers scaled by visitorship?

The article is clear that a "cluster" is four people, so no. He has apparently discovered more people meet with an accident in the more popular parks. (To be fairer than I suspect he deserves, it could be the author chose to highlight the parks that we've all heard of.)
posted by mark k at 9:02 AM on April 1 [6 favorites]


I've spent a lot of time on the Conejos -- in fact, in just one day I did two spectacularly foolish things in that area, each of which could have killed me. I was about 22, of course.

The margin of error is smaller than people know. A quick, unexpected change in the weather or just a stumble is all it takes. I'm surprised that there aren't more people who disappear on public lands than is the case.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:20 AM on April 1 [7 favorites]


the humans probably aren't wearing radio collars specifically designed to help track them.

Not yet, Citizen.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:36 AM on April 1 [5 favorites]


the humans probably aren't wearing radio collars specifically designed to help track them.

'Posted from my iPhone.'
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:42 AM on April 1 [30 favorites]


but the conspiracy theory stuff in the middle was kind of a weird sidetrack

It's unfortunately pretty common with missing people. The lady missing that tobascodagama mentions had a Navy "torture school" conspiracy theory invented to explain her disappearance. Between the well-meaning but mistaken to the deranged and attention seeking, all sorts of people offer up bad leads or pet theories they think will break the case. Some people make a career out of it apparently.
posted by peeedro at 9:49 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]


I grew up only a couple hours from here. When I was about sixteen and my parents were occupied in the tourist town of Medora, I decided to climb one of these elevations. In tennis shoes. No water. Getting up was JUST a little tougher than I thought it would be and getting down was far far worse.

I've pointed out the place to my wife a few times. It's amazing how many synonyms for stupid that woman can produce at a moment's notice.

Public lands/National parks are not kind to the inexperienced, unlucky, and foolish. I agree that it is surprising that the number of missing people is not higher.
posted by Ber at 10:27 AM on April 1 [6 favorites]


Given the current climate in this country finding money in the budget for the BLM and USDA/Interior to do proper searches seems unlikely.

I'm kind of surprised they don't already send a bill for the search to the survivors or their estates. I mean, this is 'merika and all.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:37 AM on April 1 [4 favorites]


I'm kind of surprised they don't already send a bill for the search to the survivors or their estates.

One or a couple of states do depending the circumstances. Most search and rescue organizations lobby against charging for rescue since it encourages people to delay calling for help and try to rescue themselves, which often makes rescue more difficult and dangerous for everyone involved.

The sheriff's office or park staff have some logistical costs from a search but the vast majority of expense on the ground is incurred by SAR volunteers. The thing that makes a search expensive is aircraft use, and a SAR guy I know explained to me once that at least around here they're often flights by the military who would have spent the flight time training anyways so there isn't any additional cost to the government.
posted by edeezy at 11:03 AM on April 1 [13 favorites]


I have been fascinated by the David Paulides/Missing 411 stories since I first read of them a year or two ago.

I am a person with a relatively low "woo" tolerance, and I found the stories he's presented to be fascinating, although I would agree that in some cases Paulides has presented these stories in ways that favor his "Missing 411" profile and obscure or ignore alternate explanations. This is not true in all cases, but several of the cases he cites in his books others have more traditional explanations (drug deals gone wrong, serial killers, etc.)

I think of this as a numbers game, and even if only x percentage of his missing persons stories are genuinely unexplainable, I feel Paulides still has a point. Some of the stories in his books are fucking weird, period, with no satisfactory explanation for the facts as presented.

I would agree that many in the audience at Paulides's talks and talk show appearances are out on the fringe of mainstream thought, and this makes for some strange traveling companions. But that's sort of what makes this topic so fascinating - some of the disappearances he documents are bizarre. You can bring a lot of skepticism to this, but not all of these stories are completely dismissible. In some cases people went missing in times and places where they just should not have been able to disappear so quickly and completely. Their disappearances are genuinely mysterious. These make for good campfire talk and late night reading material, and they suggest that there are still things in this world we don't completely understand and cannot completely explain.
posted by mosk at 11:20 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


links, please
posted by j_curiouser at 11:51 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


One thing that strikes me is that amateur searchers in particular are likely to assume predictable behaviour by the lost person. But if the person is suffering from heat stroke or altitude sickness, increasing confusion and disorientation and full-scale delirium may mean that their behaviour is totally random and unpredictable. I notice the article says "late afternoon is a popular window to vanish" and that is surely the time when people who have been walking in the heat for hours are likely to get heat stroke.
posted by Azara at 11:59 AM on April 1 [27 favorites]


Would it be inapropriate to talk about the software I'm working on in thia area?
posted by The Power Nap at 12:15 PM on April 1 [9 favorites]


On the wilderness is big theme. Here in BC we occasionally have people disappear while driving back-roads who aren't found for months or years even though they fall off the road in their cars/trucks. Searching the ditches/ravines/cliff of a100km of logging road is a difficult thing to do.

I've freaked myself out a few times and have seriously been considering a spot beacon.
posted by Mitheral at 12:20 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


I once managed to get lost in the woods on some family property. Even though the property wasn't very large, and I had a good mental map of the area, including some landmarks like creeks - it is just so ridiculously easy to get disoriented in the wilderness.

And I'm not really some naive idiot.

But to be honest I probably wouldn't spend a $150 on safety equipment in case I got lost. If I really felt it was necessary, I probably just wouldn't go hiking at all - that's just a cost I can't afford. I'd rent it, though. It'd be nice if there were services for that kind of thing.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:29 PM on April 1


The Power Nap, it's totally fine to talk about stuff you work on that's pertinent to the topic. It's just not okay to make front page posts about people/projects you are connected with. So yeah, no problem.
posted by taz at 12:33 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]




There's kind of an uneasy convergence between this thread and yesterday's Backcountry Drug War thread (thank you languagehat for pulling out this very interesting quote from the linked article):
Some 50 different toxicants have turned up at grow sites. (“Toxicants” are manmade poisons, while “toxins” are naturally occurring.) Growers use the poisons to keep rodents and other animals from eating the sugar-rich sprouting plants, from gnawing on irrigation tubing, and from invading their campsites in search of food. Acute rodenticides cause neurological damage and internal bleeding. Animals literally drown in their own blood or stumble around until they’re eaten themselves, passing the poison up the food chain to predators like owls and fishers.

Growers bait open tuna cans with pesticides, which are often flavored like meat or peanut butter, or string up poisoned hot dogs on fishhooks. People have found bears, foxes, vultures, and deer with chemicals from grow sites in their bodies. One study of barred owls (Strix varia) in the Pacific Northwest found that 80 percent of the birds tested positive. And for every animal found, there are probably dozens more in a similar condition.

“It’s a massive problem,” says Craig Thompson, a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “People don’t tend to grasp the industrial scale of what’s going on. There are thousands of these sites in places the public thinks are pristine, with obscene amounts of chemicals at each one. Each one is a little environmental disaster.”
If I were trying to decide whether a given disappearance warranted closer scrutiny, I might wait for significant rainfall and look for toxicants in the relevant runoff.

And searches are generally run by and conducted by local people, local people who, as fshgrl reminds us further on, need to be able to get along with their neighbors:
Yes growers are for the most part total fucking assholes, not cute little hippies. Any desire I had to buy or smoke pot long ago went away with the hundreds and hundreds of similar sites I've seen. They will drain a stream dry, poison the land and the animals and the birds, breed aggressive pits and stake them out in he forest alone for days to guard the crop. And then act like complete fucking dicks if called on it up to and including threatening or shooting people's pets and occasionally people. Plus they're often extremely misogynist guys who sexually abuse the pickers and their main girls only job is to look hot, while their kids never get a decent education or childhood, many of them have no SSN or IDs. I used to know a lot of second, third and fourth generations growers and they were pretty much all completely fucked up and unable to leave the family/cult. And that's the ones who aren't out and out criminals or in criminal gangs. It's a super shitty sub-culture as most people who've had run ins with them can tell you.
however much they might wish they didn't have to.

I think a presumption that a missing person has met with an accident is the only reasonable starting point for a search, but it's not the only possibility.
posted by jamjam at 12:51 PM on April 1 [15 favorites]


I think a presumption that a missing person has met with an accident is the only reasonable starting point for a search, but it's not the only possibility.

Right - there's also Bigfoot
posted by thelonius at 1:02 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Right - there's also Bigfoot

If you say so, thelonius.
posted by jamjam at 1:10 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


well that seems kind of touchy on your part
posted by thelonius at 1:16 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


The entite wilderness needs those Mount Washington signs: nature wants to kill you; do you have your water, beacon, clothes for 70 degrees colder than now, probe & spade (off-piste skiing only), ps the bears want to kill you AND eat you.
posted by MattD at 2:31 PM on April 1 [5 favorites]


If I'm remembering correctly, there was a story in Tucson recently about an experienced hiker in the Catalina mountains (which you can see from town, and vice versa) who stepped off the trail to use the bathroom and became lost for days, barely making it out alive. He had supplies with him.

I can't find the story because searching for "Tucson hiker" or "Arizona hiker" brings up more tragic stories than you can sift through. People die on regular basis hiking in the desert, often right near town.
posted by bongo_x at 2:44 PM on April 1 [4 favorites]


Right - there's also Bigfoot

And pterodactyls.

Anyway, I totally understand and agree with the reasoning behind not charging people for search and rescue, but there are cases that test that policy, where people misuse those locator beacons and call for emergency rescues accidentally or for trivial reasons.

And every time, someone has to go out there at great personal risk, and someone has to pay for the supplies and equipment even when the searchers are volunteers.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:13 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Anyway, I totally understand and agree with the reasoning behind not charging people for search and rescue, but there are cases that test that policy, where people misuse those locator beacons and call for emergency rescues accidentally or for trivial reasons.

This is the position Hong Kong takes on the trails: rescue is free if you're genuinely injured or lost in the dark. You get charged if they decide you were just too lazy to walk home. (Happens with surprising regularity.)
posted by frumiousb at 3:30 PM on April 1 [3 favorites]


bongo_x — See this Tucson News Now story from November 29-30, 2016, Hiker recounts fight, survival after getting lost:
When I got back to where I went off trail, I had a major unexpected urge to have a BM.

I had taken a little extra magnesium that morning for some left leg cramps. So I got off-trail again, dug a hole, pooped and used about 1/2 of my water to wash my hands.

I looked around but did not see anything that looked like a trail. I thought I got here by going up, so to get back all I needed to do is go down.

Really big mistake.
As a result, experienced hiker Ron Hutter's 20 minute, spur-of-the-moment jaunt turned into a four day ordeal. Fortunately, he managed to walk out.
posted by cenoxo at 3:37 PM on April 1 [6 favorites]


A few years ago I started doing backpacking- on marked trails - and it made me very, very respectful of Mother Nature. But the thing I noticed is that it's really, really easy to fuck up, even if you're prepared.

Like - one time, we brought a filtering camelback, to a rainforest, so we didn't bring much water. Early in the hike, the piece that held it closed fell off and got lost. Fortunately, we carry a repair kit, so we were able to duct tape it together and continue on. But if we hadn't? There would have been no clean water for the whole sixteen miles. Sixteen miles sounds easy to walk, but in rough terrain - even on an actual trail - it took us two days even with water. With no water, our dehydrated food would not have been filling. Would we have risked it? With waterborne illness, would our judgment have been less sure? At places the trail was washed out on the sides of cliffs, dangerous scrambles even with our wits about us. We could easily, easily have died, with just a slight variance in circumstance. And that was on a well traveled trail.

In a very safe world, we forget how dangerous it is to be without the protection we have built up over centuries.
posted by corb at 3:43 PM on April 1 [12 favorites]


I have been consistently amazed by people I meet on trails hiking.

I used to live in San Antonio and would hike regularly at a place called Government Canyon. Every weekend for years. I would regularly be hiked out like 6-8 miles and turn around. One day I am doing such and at my turn around point see some dude in a full arm cast with one of those chest brace things that raised it to shoulder level and with no water hiking in 95+ degree weather. Dude was wearing sneakers that were cut up to shit. Like, did that guy even make it out? How the shit did he even get out that far? There is nothing else around, he had to start at the beginning trailhead. I offered him a water bottle but he just walked right on by.

Even though I did the same kind of 12-15 mile hikes every Saturday morning for years, some days were just too much. I always brought about a gallon of water with me, but I remember one particular day where my legs just entirely failed me. It was particularly hot and humid for a morning. I was literally 200 yards from my car on the way back. I could SEE my car, but I just couldn't make it. I drank water and sat and got up and stumbled for 20 ft. Drank water and stumbled another 30 ft. I was a super fit and healthy 28 year old young man then. When I finally did make it to my car I went to the closest gas station and bought a 64oz gatorade on fountain. Drank it all, then refilled it.

I would like to say nothing like this getting lost would ever happen to me, but I have been on the other end of it, not lost at all, just overcome I guess. It can happen to anyone, seriously. I did that same hike for years and it still happened to me.
posted by sanka at 3:47 PM on April 1 [13 favorites]


You probably would have been fine to drink the water unfiltered.
posted by Flashman at 3:48 PM on April 1


An FPP I know something about! SAR in Colorado is paid for largely by COSAR fees attached to hunting/fishing licenses and other purchases. You can also purchase a COSAR card directly if you like.

You will never be charged for a SAR attempt in Colorado. It is in fact illegal for a sheriff to charge you for a SAR. That being said, if you need medical attention or a vehicle extracted, you will be liable for those costs.

SAR is almost entirely volunteer. Although we are reimbursed for some things, we do not get paid for time, and often don't get meals. It can take some time, on the order of hours in some cases, to get mobilized, staged, planned and deployed. If you are in need of help, call as soon as it is apparent. We had a dude on a hike with his wife in steep country and she broke her ankle. Because he thought he'd be charged, he delayed calling for help until near dark - so we had to carry her out, in the dark, across 4 miles of steep ass country. If he'd called when she fell, it would have been a chopper ride. Don't be that guy.

Last summer, a grandmother went out bowling with her friends and didn't come home. Some weeks later, hikers found her buick 2 miles down an ATV trail - and lord knows how it got there. Roughly about here - but the trail she was on doesn't show up - that's how small it is. I have a well equipped, lifted and armored Tacoma (very similar to this) and I would have been uncomfortable going there. Once the car was well and truly stuck, she apparently took off on foot. She lived her whole life on a ranch 50 miles away. She wasn't unfamiliar with the area and dangers. Her car was stocked with water, some warm clothes and food. It was all untouched. She left her purse and a sweatshirt behind.

We spent 10 days with dozens of volunteers searching that area, grid by grid. We used dogs, ATVs, Horses and people on foot. That area of the Uncompaghre Plateau is scrub brush, and 10-12ft high juniper and pine dotted with stands of aspen. It is steep and rugged. If she walked back up the trail to the road, and walked that road to the main road, she would have been found by a passerby in hours. We gave up the search after a few days, because in good weather she could have gone miles before exhaustion set in.

She was found a week or so after the search was called off, 3 miles from her car and hidden under a stand of brush, 150 feet from a road. Well outside of our search area and hell and gone from where I thought she might be. It's not in the article, but you would be correct in assuming the local fauna found her first. It's thought she'd had a stroke or aneurysm or some such that caused the dementia - she wasn't know to be suffering from it despite her age.

All of this happened less than 40 minutes from my house. It wasn't hundreds of miles out in the backcountry - you probably have a longer commute to work than I did to the search area. There is zero cell service out there. Not climb a nearby hill and hold your hand up to get a bar zero. It's ZERO zero service. The 800Mhz public service radios barely work - up high, you might get in to a repeater. Down in a coulair or wash, and you're SOL. 2M and 70cm HAM stuff works OK, but we deploy some mobile repeater boxes so comms can get out to the local repeater network.

If you want to get lost and never be found, it isn't hard to do. In some of the box canyons and such, even your fancy PLB won't save you.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:35 PM on April 1 [27 favorites]


But to be honest I probably wouldn't spend a $150 on safety equipment in case I got lost. If I really felt it was necessary, I probably just wouldn't go hiking at all - that's just a cost I can't afford. I'd rent it, though. It'd be nice if there were services for that kind of thing.

There almost certainly are. My experience has been as a member of local hiking clubs, that here in Australia at least often have a few EPIRBs that belong to the club and are covered by the annual membership fee (which in my experience has been around $50-100 per year). Any official club hikes just take them along, and if you are hiking on an private trip not open to other club members, you are still welcome to take one if no one else is using it that weekend.

But I wouldn't be surprised if there are more traditional rental options too.

Alternatively, if you have a few friends who also like hiking, band together and buy one, and then just loan it around, unless you are all hiking at the same time on different trips, in which case I guess you have to flip a coin or something.
posted by lollusc at 6:51 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


ernielundquist: "Anyway, I totally understand and agree with the reasoning behind not charging people for search and rescue, but there are cases that test that policy, where people misuse those locator beacons and call for emergency rescues accidentally or for trivial reasons."

The Katalina Jimenez example really highlights how difficult it can be to make the decision to call for help. Sure she ended up self rescuing but if she had delayed for a few hours and the weather had been colder everyone would have been saying she should have called for help earlier.

Hypo and hyperthermia can be tricky; you can lapse into confusion and bad decision making quickly and without really noticing. I bet there are people who have died from both with unused beacons/radios/cell service on their person.
posted by Mitheral at 7:02 PM on April 1 [3 favorites]


there are cases that test that policy, where people misuse those locator beacons and call for emergency rescues accidentally or for trivial reasons.

The point of SAR is to get everyone home safe and sound. An accidental or trivial call to SAR still has value in that mobilizing is training and training is valuable. It's a chance to test the notification systems, that the gear is ready, and organized, and so on. Yeah, it sucks to get a call, respond, spend 40 minutes racing around getting the gear and getting to the staging area only to find out that the person doesn't need help.

Except it doesn't suck, because the person is OK.

Occasionally, we do get calls from people who need a jump start, or a tire changed or whatever. They get referred to someone who can help them. But calling at 11 am when you "feel woozy, but it's nothing" while on a hike is far better than your wife calling at 10pm because you haven't been back yet.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:15 PM on April 1 [18 favorites]


Paulides doesn't help his own case by massaging the facts. I wish someone would do a really good website analysing which cases he's reported inaccurately, so we could work out which ones are genuinely bizarre and look at those unencumbered by all his baggage. He did a YouTube clip on Gaida Coote, who went missing in Ku-ring-gai Wildflower Garden, but there is nothing mysterious about her disappearance. She was 84 years old, she had suffered from a UTI recently and people had noticed she seemed to more more confused than usual; she went missing on a very hot day, she wasn't searched for until more than two days had passed, and by that time a massive storm had come through and washed away any tracks or scent. It's tragic, and it has led to some Coroner's recommendations to police and the local council, but it is not mysterious. Paulides also claimed in that video that there were "a lot of theories"about her disappearance, but I would love to know what he's basing that on. I never saw any other than "elderly, confused lady goes missing in extreme heat".

One of the things that really annoys me about the woo-factor, when it gets brought into the equation, is how it clouds the very real lessons that can be learned from some of these tragedies. As people are saying here, the vast majority of missing people in parks can be put down to one of: lack of preparedness, unfortunate accident, or people going voluntarily missing. Or a combination of the first two. People are difficult to find, dead or alive, and when disoriented, confused and medically compromised they don't behave logically. Terminal burrowing and paradoxical undressing are real things.

The unfortunate people who've been forever tagged with the name Death Valley Germans clearly had no real idea of what they were getting into, didn't take enough water and headed into the desert rather than back to the cabin they'd seen earlier. The Dutch girls who went missing in Panama - a huge number of theories swirled around about them and the photos they had taken - condom wrappers! faces in the leaves! - but when analysed, it looks as if most photos were one girl documenting the fate and location of her dead or dying friend before attempting to hike out and having an accident herself.

Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin didn't take enough water - if you want a weird case, this is it, but it's weird because of human behavour, not anything supernatural. Although if they'd never been found, I can imagine the mysteries that might develop around two fit, healthy young men going missing so close to the trail. Here in Australia, David Iredale died in a national park due to a bunch of circumstances, the primary one being that being teenagers he and his friends didn't take enough water. IN New Zealand, Roselyn Tilbury went missing after trying to hike a track in handmade soft moccasins. There are many, many cases like this.

The Appalachian Trail hiker mentioned above, Geraldine Largay, was well prepared but got lost after going just a short way off the trail and lived for weeks while people searched for her. She died, even though apparently she did most things right once she went missing.
posted by andraste at 7:15 PM on April 1 [16 favorites]


I was like 47 years old, strong and fit and healthy. I'd worked in the trades most of my life, a *lot* of time in the sun, in Florida, also here in the Texas sun. But I hadn't been in the trades for a decade maybe, though I was still in the sun bicycling and walking and running, I was strong and fit and thought I was god. I was helping a friend bang together a house, total sun, no shade, hard work, and even though I had drank plenty of water I got sun sick. Bad sun sick. It'd never happened to me before, not like this. I was really disoriented, I was weak, I was woozy as hell. I got in some shade and drank water and drank more water but I was fried for the rest of that day and that night, also. I don't know even that I could have driven home that day; I was in my buddies jeep, lucky me. And that's *with* water, and having eaten, etc and etc. I know the sun, and I love the sun -- I've lived in Texas for decades, spent plenty of time in Arizona also, both hiking and bicycling in the desert there. But that day was a revelation -- the sun can smack you *hard* any time.
posted by dancestoblue at 8:08 PM on April 1 [7 favorites]


I understand why people jump to mysteries but there really aren't any in my mind. After a decade of field biology I will never underestimate the ability of otherwise intelligent people to get lost in the woods within moments. When we are trekking we flag trees every 20-100 feet. And I have a pretty good sense of direction and grew up in the woods but I've still gotten turned around. I've lost entire crews for hours twice: 2 or 3 adults on foot with flagging tape and compasses or even GPS. All it takes is one slight obstacle like a fallen tree or a pond to cause you to get completely turned around. Plus most humans veer slightly right or left even when trying to walk straight on a smooth surface. And these days, most people can't read maps which means they never learned to triangulate themselves using landmarks which is a skill, not common sense, and must be learned. And sometimes people just make a mistake and follow the wrong creek or something.
posted by fshgrl at 8:28 PM on April 1 [9 favorites]


IN New Zealand, Roselyn Tilbury went missing after trying to hike a track in handmade soft moccasins.

That article also covers Ed Reynolds, a missing friend who I have mentioned before. He was a very experienced and fit hiker who disappeared while hiking alone. The watch in the article was a false lead, his father later discovered that he had left his watch in the US. The only hint as to what happened to him is a possible eyewitness who was asked for directions 30 miles in the wrong direction from his planned route and a footprint that matched his trail runners.
posted by peeedro at 8:56 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Looks like Paulides has managed to move Charles Berlitz' schtick from the Bermuda Triangle to America's national parks.

It says something about our mentality that the Reddit threads were so uncritical. We'd much rather believe that something mysterious and supernatural happened than to realize how fragile and stupid we can be.
posted by happyroach at 9:33 PM on April 1 [8 favorites]


Last time wilderness Searcb and Rescue came up I discovered this blog: http://debssarstories.blogspot.com/?m=1 which is a fascinating series of posts from a few years back from a volunteer Search and Rescuer. Definitely recommended.

I backpack and trailrun and I read accounts of lost persons and SAR with a sense of terror and dread. But I'm addicted to learning all the ways things can go wrong. It's been very educational and has kept me on track with leaving detailed information with a trusted person before I leave, including the color of all my gear.
posted by HMSSM at 10:54 PM on April 1 [4 favorites]


Whenever I hear friends's grand plans to do some crazy hiking experience I urge them to start small. By starting small, short, local I made a lot of beginner mistakes that could have killed me on a longer more isolated trail but got to live to learn from them. (Not having a map and getting confused at which trail I was on, not bringing enough water, not appropriate clothing, forgetting flashlights and mistiming sunset, not letting someone know where I was going and when I'd be back, etc).
posted by HMSSM at 11:05 PM on April 1 [3 favorites]


A thread about missing people under unusual circumstances and no one has yet mentioned the Dyatlov Pass incident? The Dyatlov Pass incident is the strangest I've ever read about; it's really something. Those competent, confident, highly experienced skiers and hikers, all dead under the most bizarre circumstances. What the hell happened out there? Whatever it was, fear of it scared the hell out of them, fear of it chased them from their warm tent barefooted into deep winter with nothing but what they had on when it all started. Repeat: What the hell happened out there?

~~~~~

I never considered the idea of pulling off a disappearing act on public grounds. As was noted upthread, pretending to use drowning as your exit strategy brings just tons of suspicions if the body isn't recovered. But going to a trail-head, parking your truck, getting into another vehicle you've gotten up to the trail-head and then just going about your new life. Cool.

~~~~~

Arizona is so dry, I couldn't believe it the first time I got out into it. Northern Arizona, like Flagstaff, which is cold as hell, it's also dry as hell; even cold you can dehydrate fast. But then in southern Arizona, you get out riding your bicycle when it's 112F and you're going to want to have lots of water with you. (The Saguaro National Monuments, both east and west of Tucson, that part of the country is my favorite place on earth, particularly the Saguaro Monument West. Both East and West Saguaro Monuments have loops in them, they are spectacular bike rides, maybe 8 to 10 miles, somewhere in there. You'll want to bring some water. Start with it frozen completely solid, by the time your five miles into your ride not only has the ice melted but the water is *hot.*

~~~~~

Big Bend area, way south-west Texas, it's a place I'd consider going to if for some reason I were to leave Austin; it feels pretty much like I'd bet Tucson felt 40 years ago; a small state college, the whole place is set into deep, raw, blasted beauty, hot and dry as can be in the summer, lots of desert rats living out there, people who just need to be away from cities. Lots of rattlesnakes and poison spiders etc, scorpions out the wazoo. About an hour south and you're in Big Bend park (state park I think but could be federal, not sure), mountain lions have made a good comeback there, as have wolves. I wouldn't be surprised to find that there are bears wandering about. The park employee was really casual about the mountain lions, said just keep a close eye on any small children or pets. I could see where it'd be real easy to go "off trail" and/or fall off the trail, in either case you'd be lost out there, it's huge country, it's wide-open country, big sky country.
And -- drum roll -- no poison ivy out there! Hurray!
posted by dancestoblue at 3:18 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


The point of SAR is to get everyone home safe and sound. An accidental or trivial call to SAR still has value in that mobilizing is training and training is valuable.

The first example in the article I linked was not an example of a trivial call. The article led off with that to illustrate that there's not a clear line where a call is trivial just because the person who called is OK once rescuers get there.

The abuses would probably include four guys who called for rescue three times during a single hike, or the guy who was just worried he was going to get home late. Or the guy who didn't know what the device was and hadn't registered it, so he turned it on and launched massive search efforts every time he went skiing.

The article goes into a fair amount of detail about the volume of calls they get from those devices, and the resources it takes answering false alarms. It's not an every now and again thing or an opportunity to test your equipment, and they talk to one volunteer rescuer who no longer responds at all because of all the false alarms and trivial calls.
posted by ernielundquist at 6:49 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


For a moment I thought this was going to be a double of this thread.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:24 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


A thread about missing people under unusual circumstances and no one has yet mentioned the Dyatlov Pass incident? The Dyatlov Pass incident is the strangest I've ever read about; it's really something.

That doesn't seem odd to me at all as a fellow backcountry skier. They got caught in a series of avalanches and had some bad luck and made bad decisions it sounds like. The injuries are classic avalanche injuries as is cutting out of a tent and making an emergency run for the trees after the first wave of snow hit. It sounds like they regrouped, realised they needed gear tried to go back for gear, didn't make it, a few died and the rest tried to hike out and were subsequently caught in a bigger avalanche and buried in the ravine (a classic place to end up if caught).
posted by fshgrl at 11:12 AM on April 2 [5 favorites]


I once went on a quarter mile walk with a friend, down to Upheaval Dome, in Canyonlands, near Moab. We missed the feature and walked farther than planned, but not by more than a mile. We had camped in the March cold, I tried to sleep with a canteen full of snow, to melt it to drink. We were parked right by a 1/4 mile walk on a trail. Then I noticed my very fit, tall, boyfriend was really fazed and confused, and I just had to tell him we were going back, then I realized I was supporting his frame, and lugging him back, while he grew more and more weak. He had finally succumbed to hypothermia in the bright Moab sunlight, while I had some extra fat on my frame, I got him out, and into his Bronco. Then he went to sleep, all the way back to Salt Lake. We were in our early twenties, and very fit.

There are a lot of ways to get permanently lost in the San Juan Mountain area, and many of the areas in Southern Utah, and Northern Arizona. For one thing a lot of trappers run bear traps, toe traps, and if caught in a bear trap, with no tools to escape, a person is victim of the first predator that comes by. If that trap is found a week, a month later by the trapper, you can bet he is just going to laugh off what he finds of human remains. He is not going to pony up for anything. In fact there is hostility to the fit, outdoors types who use what some folks feel is their turf, ranchers, trappers and so forth. Then there is a recent story about badgers, burying a cow in Utah. That was a complete unknown until two days ago. That could easily explain about half of the total disappearances. I can bet dogs will decide not to find a badger or its stash.

So if you want to hike or run in the great out of doors, then at least take a Leatherman tool to be able to take apart some technology.

I watched a totally heartening and at the same time disheartening video of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources guys, releasing a live cougar from a toe trap in the nowhere's. Here is that video.
posted by Oyéah at 11:28 AM on April 2 [6 favorites]


We'd much rather believe that something mysterious and supernatural happened than to realize how fragile and stupid we can be.

/thread. I really wonder about the sociology of these rumors; it seems weird for outdoorsy people to spread urban legends designed to keep people at home in front of their TVs and computers, unless, of course, they think that there are too many people in their favorite playgrounds and are trying to discourage that. (It's especially odd for Outside magazine, unless they think that they can still sell people top-end gear regardless.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:26 PM on April 2 [5 favorites]


seems weird for outdoorsy people to spread urban legends designed to keep people at home in front of their TVs and computers, unless, of course, they think that there are too many people in their favorite playgrounds and are trying to discourage that.

See toe me that is a conspiracy theory. Assuming a huge number of people are acting in a coordinated way to achieve a goal in secret. With no evidence and ascribing a motive taht there is no evidence for.

People telling ghost stories and making mundane but horrible accidents and mistakes out to be something that could never happen to them is just human nature though.
posted by fshgrl at 2:00 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


People telling ghost stories and making mundane but horrible accidents and mistakes out to be something that could never happen to them is just human nature though.

Absolutely, and I don't doubt that most people might simply be into repeating and maybe slightly exaggerating the stories purely for that reason. And it doesn't take a huge conspiracy, or even a small one, for this effect to kick in, just a bunch of people who wish that they could enjoy their favorite parks and recreational areas without a bunch of what gamers would call "filthy casuals" stinking up the joint. And then they see or read something by a guy who's obviously got his own little cottage industry going with the "Missing 411" thing--no conspiracy there either, just a dude making a buck, it's got more staying power than the whole Bigfoot thing that he was working before--and go, yeah, that will keep the filthy casuals out. No conspiracy necessary, just as I doubt that all the scoutmasters in the country got together and discussed how ghost stories, and their modern counterpart, serial killer stories, would be great for keeping those little shits in their tents instead of wandering around the woods in the middle of the night, getting lost.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:10 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


In my early 20s I was lucky not to die in the Black Hills doing stupid stuff.

In my 40s I'm much more careful. I was just hiking by myself in Death Valley and the Sierras, and was super careful and prepared both times.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:27 AM on April 3


There but for the grace of God go I. Every year my partner's family has this tradition of going up to a National Forest to chop down a Christmas tree, and one December I tagged along and brought our dog. While my partner and his Mom were chopping down a tree, I decided to take the dog for a walk, which led to a very scary hour of being completely lost in the wilderness. Thankfully we eventually found our way back to the trail, but it was definitely a wake-up call about how easily things can go totally off the rails. I learned that day that I need to take nature a lot more seriously.
posted by zeusianfog at 9:58 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


A lot of interesting points here, and an interesting article overall.

I have to say Paulides is a total crank and should be roundly ignored if not actively vilified.

it seems weird for outdoorsy people to spread urban legends designed to keep people at home in front of their TVs and computers

"Urban" legends? :)

As far as I know this has always been a thing. I grew up to tales of the postman who froze to death half a mile from a house and the kids who used baby rattlesnakes for bait. Hell, "To Build a Fire" and its ilk are essentially this kind of cautionary tale, to the point that it's a subgenre.

It's not "designed to keep people at home" exactly, it's more morbidness + counterexample + (in many cases) illustrating your own bushcraft/knowledge.

Although honestly if this kind of story helps keep unprepared people from doing dumb shit (like abandoning your companion to jog alone, un-acclimatized and shirtless up a wild canyon that is unknown to you), that might be a good thing.

I grew up a county over from where this kid died, and I hate to sound unsympathetic, but there are plenty of reasons not to waste scant county resources finding people who have done stupid things, after a certain point. It can be dangerous to try to find them even if you know the area well; that's snake country, for one.

Every year some idiot tries to ignore the winter road closures between CO and WY and follows their GPS out into the desert, and every year either someone comes to rescue them, or they die out there. It's no wonder my more rural family members think of it more like the people who die on Everest; at a certain level you enter the wild on your own recognizance, and it's your job to make sure they get your body out, if that's what you want to happen.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:35 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


Every year some idiot tries to ignore the winter road closures between CO and WY and follows their GPS out into the desert

A couple of years ago I was driving through a remote part of northern Nevada and there was a big accident ahead that shut the freeway down. Google Maps rerouted and said to take the next exit, go a couple of miles up the road, and then hang a right onto what turned out to be an unimproved ranch road with snow on top of deep mud. I was driving a big 4wd with good tires and even so I was lucky to be able to get out without getting stuck. It wasn't clear how inappropriate of a route it was until you were way up the road and really committed -- it looked like a decent shortcut when you turned off of the main road, and probably was ok in the summer but certainly not in the winter.

Sometimes people are idiots and ignore the "closed for winter" signs, but a lot of times these days people are just following the GPS and things are fine until suddenly they aren't. In my case I would have been fine even if I got stuck (I had supplies, a CB radio, and could have hiked out in the morning), but it would have been a real headache to solve, and the margin between that and actually dangerous can be slim.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:09 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


I live in a suburb in Colorado, and I just remembered a pretty bad one. Some years back (less than 20, more than 10, I think), during a blizzard, a woman got disoriented and went off the road somehow right off a major intersection, and died right there in her car. IIRC, it took a couple of days to find her, because it gets pretty treacherous even here in the middle of civilization. This is the intersection of a six and a four lane road that gets extremely congested on normal days, with fairly busy strip malls on the other three corners, and the place where she was found is a Kohl's parking lot now. But when you combine the whiteout conditions of the blizzard itself, plus the accumulated snow and the strain on emergency resources, you may as well be in the middle of nowhere.

It's just that much worse when you ARE in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, in a perfect world, everyone would be able to send a distress signal to summon tireless and fearless rescuers whenever they felt they were in danger. Nobody's against that. It's just not realistic. The world can be dangerous, and terrible things happen to people sometimes, and just world fantasies aren't going to fix it.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:35 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


a lot of times these days people are just following the GPS

Certain members of my family (who spend a lot of time out in the bush and absolutely use GPS) would argue that this makes them idiots.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:15 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]


« Older “The optimal method of question delivery is found...   |   Freeman's Mind 2 Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments