My First Time Searching for a Missing Hiker and What I Learnt
I was sitting eating some fruit and finishing a coffee one morning when I spotted the post on a outdoor Facebook group. The call was out if anybody was available to search for a missing hiker in Lamington National Park in Queensland, Australia. It didn't take me long to make the decision, I wanted to help. After all, the opportunity doesn't come along everyday.
The man had been missing for just over 3 days, with only a sandwich and some sultanas for food, and less than a litre of water. The chances of his survival were quickly narrowing and the need to find him was becoming urgent.
I contacted the organiser of the Facebook post, and arranged to meet at Beaudesert, a nearby town, with several other hikers who would also help. I had never been involved in a search before, but the organiser had posted to a few outdoor groups on Facebook seeking as many volunteers as possible. The others that would be involved were all part of FMR (Federation Mountain Rescue), a voluntary group of climbers and hikers who assist in certain cases.
The SES (state emergency service) and police had already been looking for the previous 3 days, and were now calling for people familiar with the area to search along the creeks.
Packing overnight gear, we would head in and stay a few nights to help where we could.
Arriving at the command tent after the long drive, we were briefed by the police. The missing hiker, known as Brian, had made a call to police after he was unsure of where to go. He had been intending to hike to Running creek falls by himself, in the southern part of the national park, and said he had become lost. We were told about the areas that had been covered, where we would be looking, and the procedure should we find him.
And at this stage, the police warned us we could potentially be looking for a body.
Initially we thought it would be a straightforward search, as the track runs along the creek. For most people, navigation would be straightforward and becoming lost an unlikely event.
But the more information the police revealed about the case, the more things weren't as they seemed.
But I will get to that later...
THE SEARCH BEGINS
We hiked in and set up camp for the night in the rainforest. It was late May and heading into the middle of winter. Even though it was rainforest, the temperatures drop quite low, and that night we were expecting temperatures less than 10°C (50°F). Occasionally, it could even get down to just above freezing.
We thought about how Brian would be trying to keep warm. His phone call to police had revealed he had no warm jacket with him. He didn't have much on him at all in fact. And at age 58, with medication he also relied upon, things weren't looking good.
Waking up early the next morning, we would begin searching the creek from Running creek falls and then back downstream. The police had flown the helicopter around the valley a few times, and using thermal imaging cameras, had found nothing. The top of the ridges along the valley had also been searched by the SES, also with no success. It was now down to the creek, as Brian may have lost the track and started following the waterway.
As we made our way along, we came across the spot a previous missing person had been found deceased according to one member in our group who had found them. I won’t go into detail but it was very sobering. It doesn't take much for things to go very wrong, a simple slip on your own and surrounded by water... A reminder to be prepared and avoid solo travel around waterways.
We continued on searching in pools, under rock boulder caves and among the thick vegetation on the creek side. Looking up at the steep inclines, it was hard to imagine anyone trying to get up on the ridge like Brian said he was going to do. By mid afternoon we were back in camp with the creek thoroughly scoured by our team.
Walking into the clearing we had camped, a piece of paper had been pinned to a tree. We knew immediately it had news about our missing hiker.
Brian had been found!
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING HIKER CONTINUES
Brian had walked out of the rainforest in the next valley over. This had explained why the police helicopter, with its thermal imaging camera, and the SES searching the ridge lines, had found so sign.
No one thought it was possible he would have drifted from a track that followed a creek, climb over 400 vertical meters of steep, overgrown terrain to gain a ridge, then descend into another valley. It just didn't make sense. Things were getting strange.
Here is the information we had, some of which before we started and the rest immediately after:
◘ Police had triangulated his emergency mobile phone call, and contrary to what he said, it had placed him not at the waterfall, but rather at the start of the hike. This was also where his vehicle was. While the police admitted there could be a small margin of error in its accuracy, they had serious doubts he had made the call from the waterfall. Though the reception is virtually nonexistent in most of the national park, Running creek falls does have a very small amount of mobile coverage so we could give a benefit of doubt on this issue.
◘ Another issue was that police had told him to stay at his current location and stay put, which meant that the police officers that walked in the next day could have easily found him. When they told him this on the phone, he had said he would head up the ridge instead and hung up. They were unable to call him back.
◘ When he walked out, he approached a farmhouse, at which point the owners called the paramedics. These were first on the scene and reported in their statements to police that he had joked as to ‘how much the media would pay for the story’. They also found him with almost no scratches and in excellent health, not at all the condition someone would be in after 5 days missing in the remote rainforest.
◘ Christmas creek valley, the one next to where he walked out from, was a significant distance away, about 15km (9mi). It was quite a big effort to get to. Even as an experienced hiker myself, it would have been a massive ordeal to fight the uphill battle against the vines and vegetation.
◘ Brian had spent a total of five days in the rainforest, and with such low temperatures and zero supplies on him including no warm clothes, he was in amazing physical and mental condition according to rescuers.
These were the main inconsistencies that bothered police and certainly made us wonder too. This doubt was reinforced when in the days following he sought media outlets that would pay the most for the story. Hmmmm, I know right?
THE LESSONS WE LEARN
The search for Brian had been the first, and so far, only search I have been involved in. It had been calculated the effort cost over $135,000 AUD. Not a cheap affair at all!
Doing it again though, I wouldn’t hesitate.
Because I believe every person deserves that kind of help. No matter how experienced or inexperienced they may be, we will all need help at some point, regardless of whether its indoors or outdoors. The best we can do is educate people looking to get into outdoor activities with the right information and support. Hoax calls are very rare, it just happened to be one this time round.
Being involved in a search was a very interesting experience and highlighted the importance of a few things when heading outdoors.
◘ Be prepared by carrying the necessary supplies and gear. By checking the weather, you will see what sort of temperatures you will encounter. Always carry a jacket, even in hot environments, as night temperatures can often be very low.
◘ Assess whether you have the right experience and skill to tackle your adventure. It’s not going anywhere, so take the time to build your skills or do a course.
◘ If you plan of hiking or adventuring often, consider purchasing a PLB. Used for life threatening emergencies, this will let rescuers find you without a lengthy or costly search. This is especially true if you plan on doing solo adventures!
◘ When you make an emergency call, listen to all instructions, especially when they tell you to stay where you are. This avoids long searches which are costly.
So before you embark on your next adventure, its always good to have a think about if you have the right experience and equipment for what you are about to do.