5280 associate editor Patrick Doyle recently spoke with the Joneses about their mountain mishap.
TERRY: It was September 2007. We planned to hike from Chapin Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park to Highway 14, and camp one night along the way. We had a map, but it didn’t include our trail, and on day two we lost our way. We couldn’t find the intersection we were expecting about seven miles in. We followed the river down because it flowed right past our car. It was walkable at first but eventually became rugged, and we had to climb above some cliffs. We went until dark, set up the tent, ate our last food, and went to sleep.
The next day we talked about turning back or crossing the river, but we found passable terrain. We soon encountered cliffs again and had to climb higher, where it got totally discouraging. We couldn’t see Highway 14, only miles of canyon. We were on an impassable mountain shelf, 800 feet above the river, but with no food or water. We had told our children where we were going, so we decided to hole up and wait for help.
We started a big fire and found mushrooms, which was lucky because Marion had learned how to identify edible ones as a child. By the next morning we felt OK, so we kept eating them. We also found grape holly berries, rose hips, and juniper berries.
MARION: We were nervous to separate because of mountain lions. Terry climbed higher, hoping to get cell phone reception, but nothing. On day three we decided to head back. Down at the river we saw a news helicopter, but the canyon was so narrow it couldn’t see us, so we decided to climb back up to the shelf.
Another helicopter came the next day. We were yelling and signaling by waving white T-shirts, and we had green wood on the fire to make it smoke. But they were flying below our cliff and didn’t see us. That was a low point.
TERRY: On day five a plane finally found us. We were elated, hugging each other and crying. It turned out that we had gotten stranded just two miles from our car.
Ford Church, founder of the Cottonwood Institute survival school, assesses the Joneses’ survival strategies.
What they did right
- Told people where they were going, so search and rescue knew where to get started.
- Made a fire, which is great for warmth, but more importantly for signaling their rescue crew. Fire, signal mirrors, whistles, headlamps, and creating signs on the ground for planes and helicopters are great strategies.
- Were familiar with local edible plants. Novices should not just start eating any mushroom or berry in sight or it could kill them.
What they did wrong
- Didn’t bring a proper map of the area.
- Left the main trail and didn’t turn back when the terrain became too rough. Search and rescue will start looking on roads and trails in the area before they head into the wilderness.
- Didn’t stay put in the beginning when they realized they were lost, and thought they could figure their way out, which got them more lost.