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Lost hikers at Middle Casa Falls

TSAR Medical Unit leader Roy Dunlap and Philmont SAR member Carl consult with Incident Base after crossing a FS gate during the search.

A pair of approximately 60-year-old hikers called 911 on the evening of May 9, 2018. They had become lost after attempting to find a waterfall near the Middle Fork of the Rio De La Casa near Mora, New Mexico. They stated they could not find the waterfall and did not know where they were, and they had a small amount of food and water, and a whistle. A location could not be obtained from their call.

Team 1 (including 2 TSAR members, Roy Dunlap and Nate Berkopec) departed from Incident Base at around 4:00 AM. Team 1’s first task was to clear the North Fork of the Rio de la Casa, as it had a waterfall close by which was close to the subject’s vehicle. A search of the area revealed no signs of the subject and no responses to auditory attraction methods (whistles, foghorns, yells, etc).

After returning to the subject’s vehicle, Team 1 headed south towards the Middle Fork. Within 1/4 mile, a possible footprint track was located. Shortly afterward, a second, distinct set of tracks was found. Both tracks headed south, further down the trail. The tracks often intersected and appeared at times to walk in single file. There was no return track.

About 1.5 miles uptrail, the track became confused as the footprints stopped abruptly and doubled back. Team 1 was able to pick up the footprints again on a small side trail leading west.

After crossing through a Forest Service gate, the footprint trail became harder to follow as the ground became thick with pine needles and moss. Throughout this time, Team 1 continued attempts to contact the subjects with whistles and yells.

Incident base radioed Team 1 to report that the subjects had again called 911, and said that they could hear the search team. 15 minutes later, Incident Base was able to obtain an exact coordinate via handset-based Enhanced 911. Team 1 proceeded to the coordinates, where they found the subjects.

The subjects were alive and well but exhausted after having spent a night in the open. They were unusually well-prepared for their emergency: they carried emergency food and water, mylar “space” blankets, whistles, and compasses. They had become lost after deciding to turn back and then losing the trail. They were carrying one GPS device, a Garmin eTrex, which the subject said was not working correctly. Subjects were checked for any medical difficulty and walked back to their vehicle.

This search showed the value of being prepared and thinking smart in the wilderness. The subjects, though only going out on a day hike, were prepared to hunker down for the night with shelter, food, water and even signaling devices. Second, they followed the instructions of the 911 dispatcher and did not move from their location. This makes it much easier for search and rescue teams to locate a lost person. A moving target is much harder to find than a stationary one, and lost persons may move away from search teams trying to find them. Finally, this mission showed that your navigational tools are only as good as your skills in using them. Though the subjects had several compasses, they did not have an adequate map and may have been able to find their way home with more knowledge of how to troubleshoot their GPS unit. Know and understand your navigational tools.

Incident base was the Walker Flats trailhead. TSAR and Philmont SAR were the teams that responded, though Santa Fe SAR and many more members of TSAR were en route when the subjects were found. Nathan Lay was Incident Commander. Nate Berkopec wrote this report.

Map data including TSAR member activity is available here.