Lost in the Woods

Craig McClure of Deschutes County SAR. / Photo by Brian Bulemore

On June 28, 2012, at approximately 3 p.m., the Deschutes County Sheriff ’s Office Search & Rescue received a 911 phone call from Monica Fitzgerald. She anxiously reported that her husband, Frank, was lost in the Three Sisters Wilderness somewhere near Horse Lake. No, he was not prepared to spend the night outdoors, she said.

Fitzgerald described to sheriff’s deputies how the couple, along with two friends, had driven to the north end of Elk Lake just west of Mt. Bachelor ski area. They had set out on what they thought would be a leisurely eight-mile hike in the backcountry. But after about four miles, Monica and her friends decided to turn around and head back to the original trailhead. Frank, however, wanted to get a glimpse of Horse Lake. He never found it.


“I went up to the top of this bluff and got just enough out of sight of my group that I couldn’t see them anymore,” said 47-year old Frank Fitzgerald, of Walnut Creek, California. “Then, after walking for about ten minutes and not being able to find my footprints, I called my group and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you try and make some noise because, clearly, I’m on the wrong side of you guys.’ I couldn’t hear a thing, so I called back and told them to call 911 to report a lost hiker.” 

This scenario is an all-too-familiar headline: Lost Hiker Rescued Near Pacific Crest Trail, Gold Beach Mushroom Pickers Found Alive, Search Continues for Possible Downed Plane in Klamath Lake, Forest Fire Threatens Residents Near Sisters, Bodies of Alpine Climbers Recovered on Mt. Hood. Stories abound of thrill seekers traipsing off into the great outdoors, not prepared for the contingencies of adventuring.What if you get hurt? What if you don’t have a map? What if you’re making your situation even worse by walking in the wrong direction?

According to last year’s Oregon Emergency Management’s Search & Rescue annual report, 655 males and 388 females were the subject of search or rescue missions last year. In all, Oregon rescue groups conducted 858 operational missions ranging from air, land, and water searches and rescues, to medical evacuations, evidence searches, body recoveries and forest fire evacuations. Search and rescue volunteers logged 134,891 hours of community service throughout 2011.

“The people who sign up to do this job are already a little nutty, a little high drive and maybe slightly type A,” says Craig McClure, 37, a behavioral expert specializing in lost persons at the Deschutes County SAR. “The people who go out and hang 300 feet above the ground at Smith Rock State Park are going to do that anyway, but now they get to do that with their friends and with a slightly higher consequence.”


“This is the densest forest I’ve ever hiked, in or out of Oregon,” said Fitzgerald. “There are no trailheads per se, no landmarks, no other hikers.”

McClure joined SAR in Lake Tahoe, California in 2002, as an excuse to ski in the backcountry at night with his friends. He spent the next seven years working with rescue dogs and various Portland K-9 units. Now living in Central Oregon and working with Deschutes County, he also gives lectures around the country on the science behind the behavior of lost people.

“The missions that get the most attention are the sexy ones involving big mountaintops and helicopters, but that’s not the bulk of what we do,” says McClure. “A big part of our job is reassuring people who are lost, and their families, that they’re going to be okay. Before cell phone communication, people always wondered if we were going to come and find them. When I have the opportunity to talk with a lost person, I tell them, ‘We’re good at what we do. We’re going to find you.’”

It begins with the call. When SAR first receives a call from 911, they try to immediately establish a cell phone ‘ping’ from the lost subject’s phone, says Lt. Scott Shelton, special services coordinator for the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. Depending on the type of service coverage, they should be able to establish the latitude-longitude position of the subject within 200 to 300 meters. “Sometimes a rescue is as easy as making another phone call, pulling up a topographical map and talking them out of their situation,” Shelton says. “But depending upon weather conditions, area terrain and the physical condition of our subject, we may have them stay put and then we go and get them.”


“After a few hours, it dawned on me that I could be here for the evening, so I found a place to rest and got some tree branches to prepare bedding,” said Fitzgerald. “I had planned for a warm day, so I was only in T-shirt and shorts. I had left my backpack where we had lunch.”

Just after Monica Fitzgerald’s call, an incident command management team assembled at SAR headquarters in Bend to construct an operational plan. The mission began. Sixteen members, including a hasty team (highly mobile searchers who quickly arrived at high-probability recovery areas), two tracking teams, and three ground-search teams immediately deployed to the forest. AirLink, a critical care transport helicopter, raced in to help with the search.

In Oregon, a sheriff’s office must fund and support a search and rescue unit in each of its thirty-six counties. Every day across the state, 2,000 to 4,000 volunteers stand ready to respond. Standardized state certification is mandatory for each volunteer, and training is comprehensive. All SAR units in Oregon must receive training in disciplines such as emergency survival skills, incident management, radio communications, land navigation, GPS operation, search techniques, man tracking and clue awareness, wilderness medicine and CPR, and searcher safety and rescue techniques. In addition to proficiency in ground searching, SAR units also rely on specialty teams such as incident management, medical, mountain rescue, tracking, K-9, swift water, horse, mountain bike, dive, air ops, winter ops, ATV and logistics.


“We thought the Sheriff’s Office and the Search and Rescue people were amazing. This was taken right after the Sheriff first arrived, and we all thought Frank would be found very quickly.” —Monica Fitzgerald

Bonnie and Paul Dickman, one of many search and rescue husband and wife teams, operate at a high level of proficiency and experience among volunteers. The Dickmans, who also assisted in the search for Frank Fitzgerald, are sign cutter-certified (the highest certification available for tracking humans). They also have certifications in mission management and mountain rescue.

Bonnie recounts “Westside Variation,” the codename for a “particularly hairy rescue” of two teenage climbers who got stuck 250 feet up a wall at Smith Rock State Park in July of 2009. “If it’s a Smith Rock high-angle rescue, I’m pumped right off the charts because it’s very technical, very risky, and even though we’re are well-trained, there are a lot of variables,” says Bonnie, 55.


“Our assignment was to proceed up on the Horse Lake Trail to one of the cell phone ping locations,” said ground searcher Sam Pronesti, 61. “Almost immediately, the trail turned into huge banks of snow that were from six to eight feet tall and maybe fifty to sixty feet long. It was pretty nasty, especially with all the blown-down trees.”

It was night by the time the rescue team arrived. They had to approach the climbers from ‘Springboard,’ a narrow ridge with 350-foot cliffs on all sides. That became the working area for eight rescuers. “One bump and somebody was going to get hurt,” Paul recalls. “We lowered one of our guys over the side of the cliff, and he reached the stranded climbers about 100 feet down. After assessing their condition, he attached both climbers to a rope system, and then we lowered the three of them approximately 250 feet to the ground at the same time. Unorthodox maybe, but they were all safe.”

Aside from the search and rescue organizations associated with sheriff’s offices, there are also the federal Air National Guard, Army helicopter group, Coast Guard, Forest Service, the American Red Cross and the Pacific Region Civil Air Patrol. In addition, Oregon has many other highly qualified independent all-volunteer, nonprofit SAR units at the city and county levels, such as Portland Mountain Rescue, Eugene Mountain Rescue and the Crag Rats of Hood River.

Topography, climate, season and proximity to outdoor recreational opportunities all play a role in the incidents of any given county. The Crag Rats of Hood River get called in for specialized low-elevation operations in the Columbia River Gorge and high-altitude, high-angle snow, ice, and rock rescues and recoveries on Mt. Hood. Over the years, they’ve executed a litany of searches and rescues including the ill-fated December 2006 expedition of Kelly James, a 48-year-old from Dallas, Texas; Brian Hall, 37, also from Dallas; and Jerry Cooke, 36, from New York City. The three were attempting to summit the difficult north face of Mt. Hood when a fierce Pacific storm blew in, trapping them on the side of the mountain. All three died. James’ body was later found in a snow cave near the summit. Hall and Cooke’s bodies have not yet been found.

“You know, Mt. Hood is kind of a rotten rock to start with,” says 83-year-old Bill Pattison whose Crag Rats membership dates back to 1953. “The weather really turned sour after these guys were reported missing. The Crag Rats portion of that search seemed encouraging because we’ve got people who know basically every rock on that north side of Mt. Hood.”

Although no longer dangling from ropes on high, Pattison serves the group as its elder spokesman. “These three climbers came in from out of the area and cardinal rules were violated,” Pattison claims. “They didn’t check or understand the weather forecast, and they overestimated their ability to prepare for the mountain terrain.”

The Crag Rats began in 1926 and are the oldest mountain search and rescue organization in the country. “After WWI, there was a lot of recreation in the Oregon outdoors,” says Pattison. “Many of the members worked fire suppression for the Forest Service in the summers. Many had Finnish backgrounds. There were a number of Scots who liked to climb, and we had two or three Norwegians who loved the winter sports, primarily ski jumping. Those men would go out on weekends to climb, and ski and play in the mountains. One day, one of the wives of the men joked, ‘Well those dirty rats are out in the crags again,’ and that’s how we got our name.”

“After midnight, I got a vibe that my search partner, Jeff Jones, and I were in a really good area that no other teams had searched yet,” said Pronesti. “At that point, we began our sound sweeps, which is where we blow a whistle twice, call out the subject’s name, and then silently hold our position and listen for a response. We continued that every 400 to 500 feet up the trail with no luck. Then we stopped, and I looked at my GPS to see how close we were to the ‘ping’ coordinates we had been given. That moment, I heard my partner encounter someone and say, ‘Are you Frank?’ I thought, ‘Who else would be out here?’”

Today the Crag Rats crew is composed of 105 members including emergency medical technicians, expert ice and rock climbers, and skiers. There are men and women of all ages and occupations—from circuit judges to professional skiers, says Pattison. Since they began their operations more than eighty years ago, the Crag Rats have worn their signature black and white buffalo wool plaid shirts made for them by the Woolrich Company.

The Lane County Search & Rescue, under the direction of thirty-year veteran, John Miller, is another celebrated unit. Covering a territory from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascade Range, Miller’s oufit oversees lots of territory where people can get in trouble. “Lane County is blessed with the McKenzie, Willamette and Siuslaw rivers,” says Miller, 62. “During the warm weather of the summer season, we have non-stop water rescues. Sometimes we have to call in the Blackhawk and the Coast Guard helicopters to hoist up subjects that we can’t get to safely. Most of them are tubers who pop their thin-skinned rubber rafts and don’t have the ability to get back to shore.”

The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area along the coast keeps Miller’s volunteers busy, too. “Folks go out there on foot, or on fourwheel ATVs, or in vehicles and get themselves disoriented and then get lost in the fog,” he says. “It seems rather absurd that you can get lost, when you consider that the ocean is to the west and the highway is to the east, but believe me they do.”

The great nineteenth century American transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” This moment of introspection is often thrust upon those who lose their way in the woods. After assessing the gravity of their predicament, they might call to order a ‘come-to-Jesus’ meeting with themselves. Their mortality comes into sharp focus. If they are honest with themselves, this exercise can result in an epiphany of consequential proportions. But what about the rescuers of these lost souls? What is the motivation of those who take to the woods at night, probe cold rivers and descend sheer rock faces to save others?

“Personally speaking, it does a hell of a lot for your ego,” says Crag Rat Pattison. “You come away having a ‘bad job well done’ kind of feeling. Sometimes you come back elated, knowing that you did your best. But other times you come away with that big cloud over you that says, ‘Hey you failed, your victim died.’”

For behavioral expert, McClure, it’s the affirmation of goodness in the face of helplessness. “It’s the big, long, protracted searches where the family is there, and it’s pretty much the crappiest moment in their lives,” he says. “There’s nothing they can do to fix the situation, but they see a whole bunch of people they don’t know trying to help them.”

Deschutes County’s Lt. Shelton talks about the feeling of providing closure. “A number of years ago, we did a mission where Alex Thompson, a young man from Oregon State University, had drowned in the Crooked River at Smith Rock,” he recalls. “It took us over forty days to find him. We recovered [his body], and we were able to return him to his parents. At the memorial service, the mom gave me a hug and thanked me for what we had done. She let me know that I was the last person to see her son and she would never forget that I had brought her boy home to her. To see someone who is so grateful for us never stopping and to be able to return a loved one home is just something that sits in your heart forever. ”


“About 1:30 in the morning, I see some lights flashing and here come a couple of guys,” recalled Fitzgerald. “They asked me how I felt, and I told them I just wanted to get out of there. They gave me a sandwich, a Power Bar, a bottle of water and a fleece jacket. Then we got up and started walking back to the trailhead. We arrived back to where my wife was waiting with a deputy at about four o’clock in the morning.”

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  1. says: Sharon Kirkwood

    Amazing article. I have a greater appreciation for "rescue teams" after reading this. I was glad that my niece, Erin Kirkwood shared this on Facebook.