One of the most somber tasks of anyone who works in the backcountry is that of finding someone who has become lost. It is the hope and goal of every individual on a search and rescue team to bring back that person alive and well. To search for hours or days for a missing person and then to have the mission switch to one of recovery creates a stress in the rescuer that often can not be put into words. Nobody wants to carry a dead body out of the woods. Unfortunately, it does happen all too often because many people fail to take the necessary precautions and plan adequately for their adventure.
The first time I was ever tasked with searching for a missing person was while working at Mt. Rogers. I had never had any formal training, but since I was at my cabin in the backcountry, I was the most logical choice. I was ready to settle down for the night and, as usual, my USFS radio was on. It was my only contact with anyone not on the mountain. One of the law enforcement officers (LEO’s) contacted me and informed me that an individual had left Grayson Highlands State Park earlier that day on what was supposed to be a short day hike. He was an older gentleman and when he failed to return his wife became nervous and alerted the authorities. The State Park contacted the Forest Service and I became the first responder. It was well after dark, and for reasons unknown, there was a reasonable belief that he could be close to my cabin. I felt comfortable enough with my night hiking capabilities and proceeded south on the AT from the cabin. The Scales, a historical cattle weighing station, now a Forest Service camping area, was less than a half mile away and I had been asked to look for him in that area and if I did not find him, I was to await the arrival of the LEO at that point. With no moon out that night, my flashlight could be readily seen and anyone who knows me knows my voice can be fairly loud. As I hiked I called his name, stopping every so often and waving the flashlight around the landscape hoping it would act as a beacon. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at The Scales and there was one lone gentleman asking for directions back to his car!
He had become turned around on the trails of the high country, and without a map and dark nearing, he arrived at The Scales and decided to wait. When I found him, he was in good spirits, albeit a little confused. He insisted that he could find his way back if I simply showed him a map, but with no flashlight and no water, I was not about to let him wander off by himself alone. The LEO, had instructed me, after I found this person, to have him wait at The Scales and I could return to the cabin. I chose to wait until the LEO arrived to make sure that this gentleman did not strike off on his own. It was about 45 minutes before the LEO arrived to take him around to the State Park. He seemed to wonder why I was still there. A few days later, when I was in the office for some business, the LEO thanked me for waiting around and said he was glad I did. If I had left as instructed, neither of us were sure what the outcome might have been.
My first search, although somewhat benign, was a successful one. It would be many years before I would have another opportunity to take part in a SAR and it would involve much different circumstances and many more people. Luckily, I have never had to carry a body out. I pray I never do.