Subject: 67 year old male, a personal trainer was found missing at 8AM; last seen after dinner in a Death Valley campground. No clues or tracks, unknown direction of travel, subject on medication for epilepsy. He had completed a 51 mile bike ride the day before. Shoe size 9.5, type unknown.
Weather: Overall very nice, however windy on a few days, making it nearly impossible to track or use dogs. Rain and threat of heavy rain made several days unsafe to enter the deep ravines and washes due to potential of flash floods. Most highs were 60-70 with lows 40-50 which kept spirits high that it was survivable, but also meant the search area could be growing with each hour.
Terrain: Our main search area was focused on the many arroyos, ravines, gullies, and gulches that emptied into the main wash. There were hundreds of them that, when followed up hill, would branch into several others, each of them branching out much like a trunk of a tree keeps branching out until you get to the top, except the top of these were miles away and leading to steep mountains. Gullies were as small as a few feet deep and a foot apart from each other, to hundreds of feet wide and deep. Aircraft pilots were confident they had good coverage, but once we started finding hidden ravines 5 feet wide and 40 feet deep with very unstable sides, and some of them, once entered, with no way out for over a half mile, we realized we needed an intensive grid search. The only real answer is ground searchers and lots of them.
With a 36 hour head start, the theoretical search area calculated with a hiker being able to travel @ 2 miles per hour was many thousands of square miles. Our team of 10 volunteers used subjective data of the rough terrain, knowledge that the missing person had just ridden a bike 51 miles, the fact he had at least some night travel, massive mountains on each side of the valley being very difficult to traverse and a paved road dissecting the area, to limit a search area @ 4 miles out, but that still meant an area of over 50 square miles. Outside of that area was left to aircraft and Law Enforcement officers, who had filed a missing persons report, checked hospitals, released a report to the media, monitored credit cards and cell phone etc.
The Death Valley Park Rangers put up posters and spoke with people entering and leaving the park, as well as helped us on the ground and air. Our area has very deceiving gently sloping alluvial fans from the foothills of the mountain ranges down to the valley floor, I can tell you there was nothing gentle about them. Except for a few places in the wash, the wind has removed almost all sand and clays from the surface leaving a jumble of loose rock much like walking on marbles while stepping over basketballs.
Our first day with our team of 10 we sent 8 out on a hasty search of the highest probable areas and a team of two to try and cut across a sandy wash 4 miles down to try and eliminate anyone traveling out into the flats of Death Valley. We also called for mutual aid, as we knew this area was too large for us; many volunteers could only take one day off of work at a time, so search time was limited as some drove for many hours just to get to the site. Air support was flying day and night. We hit the few sandy bottom washes hard looking for tracks in what was also the best places to travel. Tracks would be difficult to confirm, but one set drew our attention about 4 miles out, as the size was correct and there was a difference in right and left stride length, which was significant when we learned he had taken a fall on his bike and might have been seen shuffling his feet with a possible slight injury. While tracking these tracks we also found 4 large arrows drawn in the dirt, all pointing south back towards the camp. These tracks ended up not belonging to our subject, but did seem to be from someone who was also lost or afraid of becoming lost. Everyone else in campground is accounted for, but please be careful: it is easy to lose your bearings in unfamiliar surroundings.
Media releases were issued as there was a real possibility our subject had hitched a ride out; from this several possible sightings were received, some about 18 miles away, but all proved to be false. As more people from his group were interviewed we learned he had taken a fall and possibly hit his head but denied any serious injury; this information caused us to increase our coverage in the areas closest to the campground. We averaged @ 25 ground searchers per day for the remainder of the search.
When the subject was found he was within the search area predicted on day 1: despite numerous dog teams, air craft and ground searchers, he could only be seen from a few yards away and at certain angles. Unpredictable and ever-changing winds kept dog teams working hard. It was a perfect case of how your search and rescue teams can use your support either by volunteering time or donating, so others can train and be equipped to handle all of the unique missions thrown at them in a moments notice.
Many people took off work drove many miles, abused their bodies in rough terrain. A tough job and all who participated did contribute to finding him. The only thing that could have helped was a bunch more trained and equipped searchers: please think about how you would feel if you or your loved ones ever need the services of the Search and Rescue volunteers who equip themselves and operate without compensation. Only those who participated can appreciate the scope and difficulty involved. The family and the Inyo team thank you all. A special thanks goes out to: The Park Service, who really went out of their way to take care of us; China Lake Naval air base, which flew many missions, as did Nellis Air Force Base; Carda sent out many dog teams; San Bernardino brought out the CALEMA satellite truck to help with communication and an overhead team with searchers; San Gorgonio, Tulare, China Lake Mountain Rescue, Kern County, and Mono County SAR teams sent members to help. Great multi-team effort got a difficult job done. Rescue22