Police: Lost hiker ignored rescuers calls because of they came from “unknown phone number”

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LAKE COUNTY, CO – A Colorado Search and Rescue (SAR) team was called on to aid in the search for a lost hiker on Mt. Elbert last week.

That individual was part of a group that had been hiking the tallest mountain in the Colorado Rocky Mountain range. When they returned from their day on the trails, they discovered that they were one short. 

The Lake County SAR was called and they searched the area the next day, but were unable to find the hiker. According to reports, the missing person had wandered away from the main trail and spent the night trying to find their way back.

About 24 hours after it was noticed they were gone, they found their way back to their vehicle and returned to their group, completely unaware that people were searching for them.

In addition to performing a physical search, members of the SAR team had trying calling the individual on their cell, but had been unable to reach them. Turns out, the calls were going through, but the missing hiker was ignoring the calls. 

Why? It was an unknown number. 

Even when lost on the 2nd highest mountain in the contiguous United States, no one wants to run the risk of answering a call from an unknown number and having to talk about the extended warranty on a vehicle they haven’t owned in 5 years. 

From the LCSAR Facebook page: 

“At approximately 2000 on October 18th LCSAR was called out for an overdue hiker on Mount Elbert. The reporting party reported the subject had started hiking Mount Elbert from the South Trailhead at 0900 that morning, and had not returned by 2000 that evening.

Multiple attempts to contact the subject via their cell phone were unsuccessful. 5 LCSAR members deployed at 2200 to search high probability areas on Mount Elbert, but did not locate the subject, and left the field at approximately 0300 on the 19th.

At approximately 0700 on the 19th, a team of 3 LCSAR members began the search in a new area where hikers typically lose the trail. At approximately 0930 the reporting party reported the subject had returned to their place of lodging. 
All personnel were out of the field by 1000.
 
The subject stated they’d lost the trail around nightfall and spent the night searching for the trail, and once on the trail, bounced around onto different trails trying to locate the proper trailhead, finally reaching their car the next morning, approximately 24 hours after they’d started their hike. They had no idea that SAR was out looking for them.
 
One notable take-away is that the subject ignored repeated phone calls from us because they didn’t recognize the number. If you’re overdue according to your itinerary, and you start getting repeated calls from an unknown number, please answer the phone; it may be a SAR team trying to confirm you’re safe!
 
Finally, to Mount Elbert hikers, please remember that the trail is obscured by snow above treeline, and will be in that condition now through probably late June. Please don’t count on following your ascent tracks to descend the mountain, as wind will often cover your tracks.”
 
Interestingly enough, this scenario sparked a viral conversation about cell phone usage when you think there could be a possibility of disappearing. 
 
One popular version went like this: 
 
“If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken-down car, etc., and you notice your cell phone is either low on power or has no signal, here is a tip that very well may save your life.

Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc.) and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc.

The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works, so anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find you or where to send help!”

This idea sparked numerous conversations, some coming from search and rescue teams that said, absolutely, under no circumstances, should you take the time to do this. 

The Alpine Rescue Team in Evergreen, Colorado offered the following rebuttal:

1. Without a signal (connection to the cell system) YOU CAN’T CHANGE YOUR VOICEMAIL. The voicemail system resides with your cell provider. To change your outgoing message, you have to CALL into your voicemail and then navigate the menus, record a new greeting, confirm the new greeting, etc. YOU CANNOT DO THIS WITH NO SIGNAL.
 
2. If your battery is low do not waste its power by calling your voicemail—or a friend or relative. Call 9-1-1 for help.
 
3. If you have no signal, text for help to 9-1-1. Many, if not most, 9-1-1 centers can receive a text.
 
4. Text takes much less power, is far more likely to get through, will automatically retry many times if you have spotty service, leaves record others can see and can give you an indication that it got thru. BTW, because of the automatic retries, you can compose and hit send on a text and then get your phone as high as possible to improve the chances of getting the message out.
 
5. Stay put. Okay, if you’re lost or broken down and you’ve called for help (assuming you have signal and battery) please stay in one location—UNLESS YOU MUST MOVE FOR SAFETY REASONS. Changing your location makes our job more difficult. Trying to reach someone whose GPS location we have (within a circle, of course) is faster for us than trying to nail down a moving target. STAY PUT.
 
6. Maximize battery life. In order to make the battery last longer, turn off everything you do not need. Close all apps. Turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Don’t use your cell phone as a GPS/map device and especially do not use the compass if your phone has one — the compass feature in some phones is a serious battery drain. Pull out your map and compass and/or use a dedicated GPS unit.

You may be instructed, by text, to turn your phone off and text back at a specific time. Also, keep your phone just a little warm with some body heat or a handwarmer.

The SAR from Lake County, while saying this was sound advice, did add some additional information. 

“We do have 1 revision specific to Lake County: you cannot text 911 in Lake County. Our county currently does not have the system set up yet to receive 911 texts,” they wrote on their Facebook page.

Fortunately, this scenario ended with all parties uninjured. Sadly, this isn’t always the case.  

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Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue team member dies trying to find missing hiker

NOTE: While we realize that this story is almost 2-years old, it serves as a stark reminder that both commissioned and volunteer members of our law enforcement community face the perils of injury and death every time they go to work. Whether they are confronting a violent bad actor or looking for a missing hiker, they run the risk of losing their life in the service of others. That needs to be recognized and voiced much more frequently in this nation. 

SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA- Heartbreaking news out of California, where we’ve just learned that a search and rescue volunteer trying to find a missing hiker has died.

Things started going south on Saturday, when around 1 p.m. a frantic call came in.

A San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue team member radioed and advised he was separated from his partner, Timothy Staples.

About a half hour later, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department helicopter responded to search for the team members.

Police said the helicopter found Staples unresponsive in an area of ice and snow.

They lowered a medic too him but police said it was too late – he was already dead.  They brought his body into the helicopter and brought it out of the wilderness.

Shortly after, the surviving team member was hoisted from the mountain and returned to the command post.

The sheriff’s department said Staples and his partner were part of the ongoing search efforts to locate missing hiker Sree Mokkapati.

Staples was part of a huge team – he was one of the 126 people working in 23 teams searching large sections of Mt. Baldy.

Police said he was a dedicated volunteer and a 9-year veteran with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department – Search and Rescue Team assigned to the West Valley Search and Rescue Unit.

The sheriff’s department said investigators are now conducting interviews and trying to get to the bottom of what happened.  For now, all remaining search teams have been recalled from the mountain.

“The initial search operation for Mr. Mokkapati has been suspended and search operations will be reevaluated,” said the department, which thanked the allied agencies for their assistance during this difficult search.

 

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