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"WE NEVER THROUGH IN THE TOWEL"
Couple rescued after two cold nights in forest
Air/ground search near Big Lake was in second day; couple had gun, lacked map, compass
By Barney Lerten
August 4, 2002
August 6 - After two nights spent lost in the freezing Central Oregon wilderness, the subject of a major search effort, a Portland-area couple say they’ll never head out in the woods again without a map, a compass and a lot more provisions than they had on hand.
“We had one bottle of Gatorade, two bottles of water, one granola bar and two bags of gummy bears – by Sunday morning, they were gone,” Dennis Hickethier, owner of an Aloha, Ore., landscaping firm, told http://bend.com/ Monday night as he and wife Caryn Clendenin gathered with family and friends in the lobby of St. Charles Medical Center.
The couple used a variety of means – toilet paper spread in a HELP sign, a white first aid kit waving from a stick, even shots from a 9 mm pistol – to try to help rescuers from four counties find them. It finally paid off early Monday evening, more than 48 hours after the couple had left their son Steven, 15, in their RV at the Big Lake Campground, south of Hoodoo Ski Area.
It was supposed to be a 2-hour or so hike around the lake, located beside the Mt. Washington Wilderness Area, west of the 7,800-foot peak.
“Never plan to go out for a day without provisions for several days – you could turn an ankle, bump your head, anything.” That’s the big lesson Hickethier, 48, said he learned. (What about a map and compass?? -Webmeister). He and his wife, 34, met up with oldest daughter Shelly and numerous other family and friends Monday night in the lobby of St. Charles Medical Center, where stories were told and some tears shed over their ordeal – and how much worse it might have been.
The couple’s son reported them missing at midday Sunday, when they still had failed to return. Hickethier said daughter Shelly is a horse wrangler at the Big Lake Youth Camp, while their other daughter, Sandra, 14, is currently a camper there.
The search effort involved volunteers and full-time searchers from Deschutes, Linn, Lane and Jefferson counties, along with sheriff’s posses on horseback and helicopters from Lane County and the Army National Guard’s 1042nd Medical Company, out of Salem. The Guard chopper used its FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera to try to detect heat sources for a while early Monday, before cloud cover ended that effort after about an hour.
Around 2:30 p.m. Monday, that HELP sign in toilet paper was spotted by a helicopter crew from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, about three miles southwest of the campground, about a half-mile downhill from the hiking trails, said Linn County Sheriff Dave Burright.
Couple used toilet paper to write 'HELP' - then moved on
Ground teams got to the area about an hour later, finding tracks to the west. The chopper took up the search once again and found the couple shortly after 5 p.m., just over a mile further west – with Hickethier waving for attention, putting their white first aid kit on a long stick and waving it over his head. He also fired the gun he’d brought along, and that was heard by nearby searchers.
The pair did several things right, but not everything, said Deschutes County sheriff’s Cpl. Neil Mackey. For example, they might have been found sooner, had they stayed with the HELP sign.
As it was, after an Air Life of Oregon helicopter trip to the Bend hospital, the couple were treated and released. “They were a little dehydrated, a little sunburned, scratched a bit from the lava and the branches,” but otherwise just fine, Mackey said.
Hickethier said he believes they became lost Saturday when they took a wrong turn at a spot on the trail around the lake, at a point where blown-down trees blocked the actual trail. He said only had his prescription sunglasses with him, so “it got dark for me around 8:30” each night.
Dressed for far more typical August weather, Mackey said the couple spent the first night “snuggled up with each other. They realized they were lost, and they kept their heads.”
Hickethier had snowmobiled in the area before, so he expected to be able to figure out where he was when the sun rose Sunday. But it rose above overcast skies, so he couldn’t use that bright sight to gain a sense of direction.
Pair had no compass or map, but did have gun
Mackey said the man thought he saw the slopes of Three-Fingered Jack. Instead, he most likely spotted the slopes of Mt. Washington, to the east – so instead of heading north, toward Highway 20 and the campsite, the couple apparently headed south or southeast.
“Their focus on Sunday was getting up on higher ground, to get their bearings,” Mackey said after interviewing the pair.
Hickethier also had a 9 mm gun with him, and a couple magazines of ammunition, so he fired off occasional rounds, amid the shouts for help, in hopes of being heard. “They were trying to follow some trails, but there was a lot of debris,” making it difficult, the corporal said.
Some time on Sunday, having heard helicopters nearby, they took their role of toilet paper and printed out HELP on a meadow, in hopes of drawing attention from the air.
“They tried to build a fire, rubbing sticks together, but Dennis said, ‘That only works in the movies,’” Mackey recalled. “Sunday afternoon they quit early. They knew they were not getting anywhere, so they cut some boughs” from the trees, both as bedding and to cover themselves through another sub-freezing night.
Did they ever panic?
“We were afraid a lot, but we never threw in the towel,” Hickethier said. “I kept yelling for help, firing two or three shots into the air.”
Searchers had grown concerned, when trail search proved fruitless
It wasn't looking good for searchers earlier Monday. “There are trails everywhere up there, and they are widely used,” Burright had said at midday. “We fully expected someone would come across them by now. You can make all kinds of wild guesses what’s going on, but until we find them, we don’t know.”
“The crew has run all the trails, anywhere in the near area,” Burright said. “Early this afternoon, they’ll start to concentrate off the trails, but then we are really looking for a needle in a haystack.”
After the hospital checkup, Mackey said, “we had a bit of a debriefing, talked about some of the pluses and minuses” of their actions, trying to put the emphasis on the positive: ‘Okay, what did you do right?’ They had food and water. They kept their heads.” But when they built the TP signal, he said, “they should have stayed by it.” And a trail map and compass would have been very good to have.
What about a cell phone, which has helped several lost or injured folks get rescued in the Central Oregon outdoors this summer?
“Probably, up there, it would not have worked. There are too few towers in that area,” Mackey said. If it did work, a phone might have let searchers know they are alive. But without GPS technology, it would not necessarily have helped rescuers locate the couple, since they didn’t know where they were.
“I think they probably could have survived” a third night in the cold forest, Mackey said. “Food would have been a concern, but you can get by longer without water than most people think.” Still, exposure would have loomed as a health danger, had the search taken much longer to have a happy ending.
“This is what we were living on: strawberry leaves,” Hickethier said, pulling some from his pocket. There weren’t any berries: “The animals had pretty much eaten all the berries,” except for some Oregon grape.
There was one other thing working on their behalf: their faith.
“Lots of prayer,” Clendenin said, as the couple headed off to a Bend-area motel for a warm night's sleep before their return home Tuesday.
A suggested minimum standard news advisory for all backcountry travelers
"We would like to take this opportunity to ask our visitors to the backcountry of Oregon to plan for the unexpected. Each person should dress for the forecast weather and take minimum extra clothing protection from a drop in temperature and possible rain or snow storm or an unexpected cold wet night out, insulation from the wet ground or snow, high carbohydrate snacks, two quarts of water or Gatorade, a map and compass and optional inexpensive GPS and the skills to use them, and a charged cell phone and inexpensive walkie-talkie radios. Carry the traditional personal "Ten Essentials Systems" in a day pack sized for the season and the forecast weather.
Visitors are reminded to tell a Responsible Person where they are going, where they plan to park, when they will be back and to make sure that person understands that they are relied upon to call 911 at a certain time if the backcountry traveler has not returned. If you become lost or stranded, mark your location and stay still or move around your marked location to stay warm. Do not try to find your way until you are exhausted, or worse yet - wet. Wait for rescuers.
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