Mutual-Aid Callout, Marin County

By John Hubinger

On June 25, CoCoSAR received an early-morning mutual-aid call to a search in Marin County at the Bon Tempe Lake on the north side of Mt. Tamalpais. We would be looking for a 38-year-old male who had been hiking in the early evening when he realized, as it was getting dark, that he was lost and contacted his family just before his phone batteries died.

With the fog and rain, this was June’s coldest day so far.

Teams from Marin SAR had been called out at midnight and approximately 20 team members began searching around 1 a.m. The Mutual-aid callout happened circa 4 a.m.

Self-transporting, I arrived at the CP just after 8 and shortly thereafter we heard that the subject had been located in good condition.  At about 8:25, the subject arrived at CP mildly hypothermic, wet, tired, confused and wrapped in a blanket. The incident commander asked me to get the subject a cup of coffee, so when I brought it to him, I was able to listen to his debrief. 

Here is what he said:

After sending a picture text to his family, the subject became aware it was getting dark and he was still about three hours out. Trying to return to his car, he took a wrong turn and instead, headed in the opposite direction. At about 9:30 he called his family saying he was lost and soon after that his iPhone batteries died (so now he had no communication, map or light). He walked another hour until the trail ended, then made the decision to stay put for the night, huddling by a tree and using his hoody for cover and shelter.

At first light, he started to retrace his path and eventually was able to find the right trail. Several teams came very close to him, both at night and that morning, but none saw him.

After his debrief by the IC commander, he was given a full medical by a team of paramedics and the SAR personnel were debriefed, thanked and dismissed.  

Lessons learned:

·       Many moderately experienced hikers go out for “day hikes” without proper clothing, food, water and navigational information.

·       It is not uncommon for hikers to rely too heavily on smart phones (or GPS), only to find they don’t get reception, they run out of batteries or that the phones are of limited value – in this case all of the above!

·       Remembering that a landmark such as a lake was on the “right side” going out and therefore now should be on the left side coming back, doesn’t help if the lake in question is a different lake and you have no map or position on a GPS device.

That last point became clear to me after the assignment was over because I chose to stay to explore and hike the unfamiliar area. I retraced the path of the subject (the path he outlined was fairly clear). About three hours into my hike/run it became quite clear where he might have been when he made that “I think I’m lost” phone call. The whole retrace took me about 6.5 hours (with GPS, water, charged phone, map and some gear – no pack, but more than I usually take trail running on my own). It was interesting to imagine myself in the boots of the lost hiker at the point where he spent a cold uncomfortable evening.