NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – If a father and his two kids had not heard a cry for help, and didn’t give up when rescuers did, a hiker stranded in the Santa Fe National Forest for 14 days may have never made it out of the wilderness.
“I’m not sure he had more than a day or two left,” said John Utsey, who was the first to find the hiker in distress.
Utsey did not expect to launch a two-day rescue mission on Saturday when he took his kids up to Windsor Trail towards the Santa Fe Baldy. His daughter was leading the pack.
“I called her name and she didn’t call back to me, so I called her name really loud and then I heard her yell back to me from way up around the corner. I couldn’t see her but she had gone the right way. Then, I heard somebody else answer from way off the trail,” said Utsey.
Twenty minutes of shouting back and forth and scrambling 600 yards off the trail down a steep hillside, led the family to a man who was in bad shape. He told the trio he had been stranded in the forest for 14 days.
“He was lying beside a creek–his legs didn’t–he couldn’t stand he couldn’t move; he was delirious. So he wasn’t making much sense,” Utsey continued, “His lips were all chapped to the point they were bleeding. His tongue was swollen; he was super gaunt and skinny. I was like this guy really needs help.”
Utsey and his kids gave the man all of the food and water they had before hiking the remaining three miles to the trailhead so they could call 911. Santa Fe firefighters arrived within the hour. The crew had the exact GPS location of the hiker, that Utsey said he gave to them. The crew then headed out.
However, firefighters could not find the hiker and ended up calling the search off after eight hours. “It was a little bit difficult to have to call off the search and rescue efforts,” said Captain Nathan Garcia of the Santa Fe Fire Department.
The news made Utsey feel bad. “So, I’m laying there like, this guy is still in the mountains. So, at 9 o’clock Sunday morning I get in and put my hiking boots back on and hike back and he was exactly where I left him,” said Utsey.
Utsey called 911 again, just before noon. This time he had to wait several hours for crews to arrive, which he says they did around 4 p.m. Utsey then led two separate groups of rescuers to the man.
“Never had we found somebody who had been out for that long,” said Garcia, “It’s hard to say. The human body can do some amazing things sometimes but I don’t think he had very much left in him. He seemed kind of at the end when we did actually encounter him.”
Garcia says the man hurt his back while hiking and couldn’t even stand up. The man, who is older than 50, went for more than a week without food. He was relying on his filtering water bottle for survival.
“He would wiggle his way to the stream. He would drink water from the stream and then wiggle his way away from the stream at nightfall because of the colder temperatures that the stream brought,” said Garcia.
The hiker’s body temperature was so low when crews found him; they made a fire to warm him up. They then wrapped him in blankets and carried him out. “He had the will to survive for sure,” said Garcia.
A will, that may not have had a way to get out, if not for the determination of this father and his two kids. Utsey said they had already hiked ten miles but his kids went up the slope with him because they wanted to help find the stranded hiker. Firefighters say the man was an experienced hiker; he is recovering at a Santa Fe hospital.