One of the most important things to remember when hiking in a group is to never separate, according to Sawtooth Search and Rescue Commander Gary Gadwa. Doing so can leave someone with altitude sickness all alone in the White Cloud Mountains with little water for half a week.
That was the situation Gadwa and 20 other emergency personnel responded to Aug. 17-20 when they hiked into the White Clouds to find a hiker who separated from his party and became lost.
The 28-year-old hiker, who is 6-foot-5 inches tall and weights about 300 pounds, needed to rest while on a hike with his father and brother, heading toward Windy Devil Pass on Aug. 17, Gadwa said. The brother and father didn’t realize the man was presenting symptoms of altitude sickness.
“Out there, it goes from 400 feet to 10,000 feet,” Gadwa said. “That can be rough on a guy in that condition.”
While his family kept going, the hiker said he would catch up with them at the pass. The Michigan man was unfamiliar with the area, and combined with his weakened state, he got lost. Because his brother and father had most of the water and the water purifier, he was in trouble.
“In that terrain, which is very, very rugged, it is full of hazards,” Gadwa said. “He had a real hard time.”
The search began Aug. 17. Gadwa said the brother and father spent Tuesday looking for the hiker with Search and Rescue workers, but to no avail. On Wednesday, Gadwa got serious and called in help from Mackay, Challis and Central Idaho Search and Rescue and the Forest Service. They didn’t find the man.
With the assistance of the brother, the searchers set out from Fourth of July Lake Trailhead Thursday morning. With 18 searchers and three people staying with the command vehicles, Gadwa said they were prepared for a two-day hike through rough terrain.
The four-to-five hour hike was so demanding, Gadwa said, one searcher turned back because he was worried he would hinder the effort.
On Thursday the searchers got their first clue to the hiker’s whereabouts. Forest Service officers John Beer and Greg Stuart found hikers on the east side of the White Clouds who had given the man water the day before, Gadwa said. Searchers learned the hiker was trying to make his way to Born Lake, which Gadwa said was ironic. After days of searching, it was kind of funny to find out the hiker was only about an hour from the search party.
The searchers made it to the lake and began circumnavigating it, looking for the hiker. Within minutes of reaching the lake a little after noon, they found him “exhausted and dehydrated, but OK,” Gadwa said.
After giving him a drink and checking to see if he was healthy enough to walk out, they started to hike out. The man thought he could make it, but Gadwa said he soon realized he didn’t have the strength to carry his pack. The searchers split his gear up, with retired Sawtooth Forest Ranger Ed Cannady drawing the short straw and getting the pack itself.
“His pack was already 60 pounds, and the hiker’s had to be about 40 at that point,” Gadwa said. “That man’s a real mountain goat.”
The group made it back to the command vehicles at about 5 p.m. When the father reunited with his son, Gadwa said they understandably got emotional. It happens, he said, when family members lose each other in the woods, but can be avoided.
“Don’t separate and recognize altitude sickness was kind of my lecture to them afterwards,” Gadwa said.