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Mission incredible

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Missing hiker, severely injured, was found alive after night and two days in the woods

By Vicky Gits

After looking for the missing hiker in the deep woods for some 32 hours, the searchers had to admit that chances of finding the 74-year-old father and retired insurance executive alive appeared to be approaching zero.

 

About 60 people were on the ground looking. It was 5:30 p.m. and about to get dark in an hour, meaning the search was getting desperate. Not a single reliable trace of the 5-foot-7, 195-pound outdoorsman had been identified.

On the plus side, the man was a tough ex-Marine and experienced hiker who frequently hiked the area around Lair o' the Bear Open Space Park, and it was a warm and sunny day in mid-October.

On the minus side, he almost never followed a trail, was wearing only a light camouflage jacket for a day hike, was hard of hearing, and hadn't called anyone using his cellphone, which he carried.

Authorities initially assumed he could be almost anywhere within a 6-square-mile area containing three mountain parks.

The subject of the search, Bob Johnson of Lakewood, parked his car in Lair o' the Bear parking lot about 9 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 13.

Some 33 hours later, three rescuers discovered Johnson lying unconscious at the bottom of a rock formation in Denver Mountain Parks' Little Park near Idledale. (Sources asked the names and affiliation of the rescuers remain anonymous.) As of Nov. 4, he was still in the intensive care unit at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood but was expected to make a full recovery in six to eight weeks.

Johnson was familiar with the area and once lived in Evergreen for about eight years. He helped start the formerly Evergreen-based company Life Quotes Inc. with founder Ken Manley said his friend Larry Gysin of Evergreen.

A close call

"It was one of those incredible ones, and I've been on some incredible ones," said Paul Woodward of Alpine Rescue, a senior mission leader and veteran of more than 900 missions. "He probably couldn't have made it another night." Johnson was thought to have only enough water and food for a day hike.

"What made it incredible was, a lot of things had to come together with decisions being made and trusting the limited clues and our instincts," Woodward said.

"We had people clearing every high point. The search area was humongous, and a lot was done in the middle of the night. We dropped people off at O'Fallon and had them work their way back to (Lair o' the Bear) park," Woodward said.

By putting together bits and pieces of information from dogs, ground searchers and interviews with Johnson's children, the searchers finally arrived within a few feet of the missing man.

Johnson's son, Bob Johnson of Algonquin, Ill., was hopeful as he flew in from Chicago. He knew that as a young man his father had survived a 1960 airplane crash in Toledo in which he was pitched out of the plane onto the tarmac. Out of about 35 passengers, more than half died.

Johnson said his father loved to go hiking and just look at the elk. He wasn't really interested in hunting anymore.

"I think when he fell, he was done. He laid there and he shut himself down," said the son. "The thought was, 'I gotta survive.' "

That survival instinct held on just long enough. The sturdy and fit hiker was alive, if not that alert, when he was miraculously discovered. His vital signs were described as strong, despite dire injuries, including numerous broken ribs, a punctured lung, a gash on his head, and a hairline fracture of his leg. One eye was swollen shut and the other covered with blood.

Gysin, owner of Gysin Insurance Agency of Evergreen and one of Bob Johnson Sr.'s longtime friends, said he is "tough as nails. … That's why he survived. … He's probably the most hardy person I've ever met. He used to do 100-mile bike rides; he always went hiking on his own."

Stranded on the slope

Lair o' the Bear is near Idledale, about 7 miles west of Morrison on Bear Creek off Highway 74. The usually sleepy Open Space park lies in the heart of a red, pink and orange sandstone canyon with rugged walls that rise at 45-degree angles about 1,000 feet above the serpentine two-lane highway.

By the time the rescuers found him about 5:45 p.m. on Friday afternoon, Oct. 14, Johnson reportedly couldn't see or walk. He was facing the prospect of another night alone in the woods at 7,000 feet, at the bottom of a rock formation, hidden in pine trees and virtually invisible to dozens of searchers.

He was lying about half a mile from the Open Space parking lot at Little Park but nowhere near a hiking trail. He was stranded on a slippery slope that would be rated Black Diamond if it were ski-able.

Even the dogs had trouble getting a read on the location. Four trained scent-finding dogs and about 60 members of various Colorado rescue teams were combing the trails and bushes looking for clues. They had been doing this since Thursday night, Oct. 13.

At one point someone found a plastic Kirkland water bottle, which was what Johnson usually carried. Searchers located fresh human waste and some toilet paper and were told to bring it back to the command post at Lair o' the Bear. Neither turned out to be significant.

Fortuitous factors combine

In the end it was a combination of factors that turned a potentially tragic situation into a cause for celebration.

The dogs seemed to be interested in the general area just west of Devil's Gulch in Little Park. That made sense because that was where Johnson was known to go trekking, said his son Bob and daughter Jennifer Johnson Sigety of Milford, Mich.

It seemed likely he had taken the Bruin Bluff Trail from Lair o' the Bear, bushwhacked to the top of the bluff and walked eastward on the ridge to a point above Little Park, and then worked his way down to the creek.

In fact, he wasn't that far from the off-trail route the siblings had been on before. He had just walked too far east on the ridge and tried to come down in the woods rather than through the clearing a little farther west. Jennifer Sigety thinks he just made a mistake and tried to descend in the wrong place.

Tom Wood of the Alpine Rescue Team, who was present for the evacuation operation, said Johnson probably fell off a cluster of rocks and landed in the soft spot at the bottom. It was more of a roll or somersault rather than a freefall.

Hiker reported missing

A member of the Alpine Rescue Team of Evergreen was one of the first to get the call from the Sheriff's Office about the missing hiker on Thursday night, Oct. 13. Reached at home, the on-call mission leader was just sitting down on the couch to enjoy a movie with his wife.

The Alpine Rescue Team, which had its 50th anniversary in 2009, responded to a record 116 missions in 2010. Members of the organization are highly trained and experienced mountaineers who volunteer to find missing snowmobilers, lost hikers, wandering children and climbers stuck on mountain ledges. The group is headquartered on Rainbow Hill at the Evergreen Parkway exit off I-70.

As the mission leader, the Golden mountaineer was responsible for initiating and orchestrating the rescue process, with the assistance of several other top regular mission leaders, who together make decisions and interpret clues.

He would speak about the rescue only on the condition that his name not be used because he prefers that his service be anonymous. However, he did agree to give a detailed account of the events from a leader's perspective.

He sent a telephone page to 60 Alpine Rescue Team members in the metro area, and 30 responded immediately to Lair o’ the Bear. When he got there, teammates identified the missing man's vehicle. Open Space rangers were returning from riding the trails on mountain bikes in search of Johnson; they had come up with nothing.

"When his wife arrived, we learned he loved to go into the area and hike off the trail, to go to high places where he could watch for elk," the mission leader said.

"That made it more difficult, because there is a lot of off-trail."

There are also two adjoining Denver Mountain Parks, O'Fallon and Pence, so the search wasn't limited to Lair, and the search area included 6 square miles. His wife said the missing man was wearing newly soled hiking boots, had food and water, and was probably appropriately dressed. When he didn't return home at 5 o'clock, she immediately called the Jeffco Sheriff's Office, which called the Alpine Rescue Team.

Search began in the dark

The game plan was to send people up the social trails and send sheriff's officers to the residential areas. Other teams were sent east to Devil's Gulch near Idledale. ATV teams were running in O'Fallon and Pence parks, clearing the trails. A photo of Johnson went out on the news media, as did 2,500 reverse-911 calls in the vicinity.

"Here's an individual that puts hearing aids in his pack and likes to get up high," the mission leader was thinking. Some teams were following trails, and others were working in the rough terrain.

They tried yelling and shining their headlamps. A bank of lights was burning in the command post so if Johnson was lost he could see where to go, but in fact the lights must have been invisible.

Verizon Wireless tried to help by getting a location on Johnson’s cellphone and got a ping from a cell tower, but when searchers reached the GPS coordinates, there was no hiker. The next day the process was repeated, and the location was across the highway on Grapevine Road.

Most newer cellphones can be tracked by GPS coordinates, but Johnson was in a steep, gulley-like area, which could have interfered with satellite reception and rendered a false location, said Loren Pfau, president of the Alpine Rescue Team and a search participant.

A man who had rented a helicopter out of Centennial Airport to propose to his girlfriend volunteered to search Mount Falcon Park while he was on the way to the engagement location.

Two teams said they heard voices in the Devil's Gulch area. A couple of inconclusive footprints also were discovered.

All night long, Jefferson County dispatchers kept calling the cellphone in hopes that it would ring within hearing distance of a searcher.

About 2 a.m. the search was called off. Fortunately it was a relatively balmy night in the 50s. A call went out across the state for additional resources. All day long the search had gone on without turning up an encouraging clue.

The Friday search

By Friday, Oct. 14, about 60 people and a dozen different agencies were searching for Johnson, along with four dog teams. In the end the canines were pointing people in the right direction.

It helped that Johnson's son-in-law, Reid Segity, could supply GPS coordinates and track logs of where they had been hiking in the area in the past.

According to the mission leader, on Friday afternoon at 5:20, one of the dogs showed interest in a particular direction. Several dogs had shown interest in the same direction from different points as well. A field team was returning to the area where the dogs were pointing to, but it was just a guess.

Meanwhile, the sun was setting, and the mission leader was getting ready to shut down the search for another night.

Then he got a call from another dog team saying an animal was reluctant to leave. Five minutes later, a ground-search team said something like, "We've found the subject." It was exactly 5:42 p.m.

It would be going too far to give the dogs all the credit for discovering the missing hiker, the mission leader said. It was more of a man-dog team effort. "The dogs got searchers in an area where they could find him."

When they found Johnson, rescuers gathered around and bundled him into a carrying basket, put him in a body splint, tied him into the basket and then laboriously worked their way down the steep slope using ropes and belay devices for the next three hours.

According to tradition, the Alpine Rescue Team does not release the names of the three who found the hiker, because such a rescue is considered a team effort.

"It's kind of a combination of factors," Woodward said. "We kind of knew from the planning process. We were getting these clues. … We had a line drawn (on the map) almost to where he was found. It was bringing the clues together. The information from the dogs, ground searchers and the cellphone all kind of led to one area."

"What they did was unbelievable," said Johnson’s son. "Especially being a volunteer team. It's just unbelievable what they did and how they found him."

Contact Vicky Gits at vicky@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042.


Agencies that helped in the search for Bob Johnson

Oct. 13 and 14

Jefferson County Sheriff's Office

Jefferson County Open Space

Denver Mountain Parks

Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado

Front Range Rescue Dogs

Arapahoe Rescue Patrol

Rocky Mountain Rescue Group

Douglas County Search and Rescue

Larimer County Search and Rescue

El Paso County Search and Rescue

Highlands Rescue

Colorado Search and Rescue Board state coordinator

Alpine Rescue Team