Day Two, Mission One:
The news vans and search and rescue crews did not bring good news, as we found out Thursday after work. We headed up to the Ski Basin and the search and rescue (SAR) headquarters around five to see if we could help, but they put us on standby. We waited and watched fog rush into the ski basin, turning the lifts a hundred feet away opaque. The sky turned black and everyone started looking a little grim. Audrey, the missing woman, had already been out one night. That afternoon she walked off was nice and sunny and only a few light sprinkles had blown in overnight. She was wearing shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Later her husband would determine that she might have a cheap poncho on her since it wasn’t in his backpack. Now she had been missing for thirty-some hours and rain, hail, and lightning was blowing into the mountain. She is seventy-five.
We were ill-equipped for searching in this weather, having left the yurt in sunshine, but we stuck around long enough for someone to tell us that they would not be sending anyone out until the lightning quit. We decided to head back to the yurt and see what the storm did. We made dinner and started a movie when Ranger Travis and his wife Carla swung by to see if we wanted to go back out and help. They had gone out and gotten stuck in that storm, so they came back to Hyde to change into warm, dry clothes.
We got dressed and headed up to the base around eight. Night had draped itself around the mountain. Everyone else was off the mountain, having been out all day, so they got us set to do a sound check mission. After an hour of trying to decide on our mission and getting a radio to work, we were delayed by the necessary arrangements to get a Black Hawk helicopter in the air to do infared searches. In the meantime, we looked at the map, noting pinpoints marked where Wednesday two separate parties hiking the Lower Nambe Trail (403) had heard a woman calling for help. Other pins marked tracks picked up by a tracker, able to tell that the person favored the left side over the right, as Audrey would have due to an old injury. The description of the situation said she is an experienced hiker, often hiking 8 to 10 miles. She is 75, but fit and in good health. She is an avid mushroomer, and while not a local, spends summers in Santa Fe and knows the trails well. In the featured picture, she doesn’t look a day over 55.
At ten pm, the four of us (team 20) set off up the Winsor Trail, flashlights bouncing off trees and roots, and stopping now and then to make sure that flash of white was only a rock. We stopped every 200 feet or so to do a sound check. On the count of three, we yelled “Audrey” as loud as possible and then waited in silence, trying to decipher our echoes and the chopper’s loud thumping from someone calling to us for help. Several times we thought we might have heard something, but could hear no more on a second listen, or were able to determine it was only our echoes. When the Black Hawk flew over us, we’d spread out, so they’d be able to identify us as four and not one. We got to our destination and after hearing nothing, all of us hesitated to head back. We walked on, making sure that we’d return to “incident base” by midnight, its importance having been reiterated to us several times before we left. When we turned around, we continued to do sound checks and hike silently, just in case.
Exhausted and disappointed that we hadn’t found her, we debriefed at base and headed back down the mountain, saying silent prayers that she’d found a good shelter to wait out the storms and the cold night. Huddled under our down comforter in the dry yurt, I thought, “Audrey, stay strong.”
Day Three, Mission One:
After a long, hard sleep, we got up and got ready to head back up to help again, since it was Bryan’s day off. Plans of a Bandelier visit could be put on hold until next week. I felt guilty for not getting up there sooner. They said they were sending out big missions at eight, but we just couldn’t get up there that soon after the late night. It was okay that we got there when we did though, because they had new information and a new mission and direction they needed a team for. A group of hikers, not on the SAR had found hiking poles in a meadow up the Raven’s Ridge Trail, which follows the wilderness gate all the way up to Lake Peak and Deception Peaks. After photos were sent to the husband, it was believed that they were hers. She had last been seen moving west along that wilderness boundary fence, but perhaps she headed back the other way as her husband napped in the shade there. They sent us up there to hike Raven’s Ridge to Lake Peak. Our team (team 30) of two became three when Patty, a friend of Audrey’s joined us. As we were given our mission directions, we got the expected information after the stormy night. If we found her, we were to send one person down with two staying on the trail. That person could check her pulse. If she was dead, he was to turn directly around, return to the trail, touching nothing, and call in the medivac. Doing anything else would be tampering with a crime scene, since the police must rule out foul play. The coordinator apologized to Patty as she cringed, but with eyes welled up, she said she understood. We all went in with the hope that we would find her and find her alive.
We set off toward our destination and Patty described Audrey and the hikes they had done together, about the way that she might be called flighty, which might explain her setting her poles down and hiking off the trail. Seeing the trail we were to take, we all felt a little baffled about getting lost from it, given that it follows the wilderness barbed wire fence nearly all the way to the peak. However, if she hit her head or just got far enough off the path to become disoriented, anything could have happened. Patty said she and Audrey had hiked that way before and that she would not have climbed very high up it, especially if she had told her husband she’d be back in 45 minutes.
The land to the right of the trail slopes downward, and Bryan walked in the woods about 60 feet off the trail, looking down, stopping us occasionally to check something out. Each time, we hoped in vain that he had found her. Later on that stretch, crows gathered on the forest floor, potentially a sign, but there was nothing there. A National Guard captain would later check that same signage and find nothing. On we hiked. Some mushroomers came up behind us and we explained what we were doing and what to do if they came upon Audrey. I’m sure it was disconcerting to be potentially following her footsteps and doing the same thing she had been doing when she disappeared.
When we made it to the meadow where her poles were found, a Santa Fe County Fire Department crew was getting ready to do a grid search from that area. That is where you make a line across a wide swatch of land, getting far enough apart that you can just see the person to your right and left. You yell communications and orders down the line before doing anything, including holding, moving, etc. Then you walk, searching the ground between you and the next people. We got more information about the poles and their mission and continued on our mission. We got just north of them on the trail and Bryan found a plastic bag, the type you’d put vegetables in at the grocery store, full of mushrooms. He yelled to the crew behind us (team 10) so they could come mark it since they had tape. They communicated it back to base and we got orders to stay with them and participate in their grid search. We let our dogs loose and hoped that they’d find her if we didn’t. I think we all felt sure that we’d find her after we found that bag, but we grid searched from that meadow (11,212 elev.) all the way up to Lake Peak at 12,027 feet. By that point, the mountainside had narrowed, piling our grid into tight quarters. On the left, a huge cliff and on the right, a huge boulder field formed an upside down V to where the trail ends. The boulder field could have held a clave she could have found, but from foot, it would be impossible to search it. A water bottle and Cliff bar wrapper (which she may have had) were found down the cliff a little, but that could have been any hiker’s doing. Remington, one of the firemen, flagged all along the far side of our grid, so it would be clear what had been done. All the while, we radioed in coordinates and information so they could map our grid back at base.
Despite the grim circumstances, and the fog rolling in, it would be impossible not to note the absolutely stunning views from Lake Peak on both sides. We paused up there for lunch, and Patty headed back down the mountainside, sure in her knowledge of Audrey that she would not have come up that far. I think she was frustrated by the grid search, which was slow moving and she may have felt, in vain. I just tried to trust that the SAR coordinators have the experience to know where to send teams, not to mention that they really have to search everywhere, despite logic or even if they are sure she shouldn’t be there. Also, if Audrey hit her head or became incoherent from hypothermia or hunger, she could have moved anywhere, logical, in-character, or not. As we ate our lunches, the fire crew sympathized with Patty and all the others who know Audrey. Last summer a buddy of theirs crashed his ATV on a work mission and they searched for him for eight days. You get the sense, despite there being more than 30 teams of searchers out here, that there is just so much beyond where you search. I know other crews were working those areas, and that they’re keeping precise information about area’s searched, but I just kept looking out into the distance and thinking, but what if THAT’S where she is?
Meanwhile, a team of National Guard soldiers did a grid below the meadow and found nothing. We headed back to the wilderness gate ahead of the crew and paused there. From that point, the ski basin is around 800 feet and a mile or so below us, so we radioed in to see if they planned to send us out on another mission. We didn’t want to hike down to base and then have to hike up the steep switchbacks again for a new mission. They told us to standby and then told us to head back to base. Reluctantly, we went down at 4:15.
We were there ten minutes, when they asked if we would do one more short mission with the remaining fire crew. They apologized for sending us all the way back down, but at least we got a soda out of the hike down. Despite it being nearly dinnertime and six miles and at least a couple thousand feet of hiking in, we wanted to find Audrey. We also looked around and nearly all the cars that filled the lots when we arrived were gone. It was basically the coordinators, the fire crew, and us, so we joined up.
Day Three, Mission Two:
The coordinator said that there had been some criticism of search areas and that a meadow not far away hadn’t been searched yet. Several people felt that it was possible she was there, having searched other possibilities. Just below where the mountain moves up to Aspen Peak (elev. 11,109), is a meadow. Given where voices were heard on Wednesday, it’s possible that she headed that way to make her way down to the Ski Basin, or that she found cover in the many downed trees there. From that point, and basically any peak you can find in that area, you can see the Ski Basin, so you would think if she was coherent enough, she’d move down that slope.
With tired poodles in tow, we headed up the Winsor again, following the fire crew who had shed their hard hats, fire gear, and overflowing backpacks for a lighter load. We climbed until Remington’s GPS read 10,800 feet and we started working our wa y west to find the meadow, but started a grid search through the woods in between the trail and the meadow. When we got to the area just before the meadow, it was chocked full of downed trees. Bryan and I went up the steep slope with the dogs, hoping if someone was out there that they’d find her and bark. It looked like that stretch went on for a mile or more, and I hope others searched there thoroughly. We looked lightly, since we hadn’t actually gotten to start our assignment yet.
When we started our grid of the meadow, half of us were on the steep, wooded area around it and the other half were out in the meadow. We made a pivoting sweep around the head of the fire crew, Walter. Imagine a weather radar, the way it sweeps around a center. That’s what we did. I was on the bottom part, moving through the woods and navigating the steep slope and downed trees and Bryan was on the perimeter of the woods. The dogs ran back and forth between us the entire time. Nothing.
We pivoted back up the steep slope on land pockmarked by cattle hooves, and eventually made our way back onto the meadow. One of the fire crew took a detour on a game trail, just in case, as we waited in the field for him. Exhausted, we gridded our way through the meadow, climbing its steep face. When we got all the way to the top, we reached the point where we had started our grid. Nothing. We had gridded 360 degrees. She was not here. According to Remington’s GPS, we had gridded 14 acres just on this meadow mission. When we turned around to return to base, we took in the meadow, which no trails hit at all, so many people have never seen. It cascades steeply down the mountainside, all aglow with wildflowers in the gathering dusk. Beyond it the ski slopes, beyond them wild mountainsides, a little glimpse of Santa Fe, and the Sandia Mountains beyond it. It really was an incredible view and I’d like to think that Audrey glimpsed it too and was waiting to be found just below us. Maybe we’d find her on our way out down. Nothing.
Defeated and exhausted, we climbed down the meadow and the mountainside, trying not to slide on the damp, downed trees everywhere, always keeping an eye out for white and grey. Nothing. When we made it back, the coordinators were grim-faced as were we. We didn’t have much to report, other than that the area we gridded was clear. As we left, I think only one other team was still out, and they suspended searches for the night to be picked back up at 6am. I went to bed with prayers that Audrey is strong, did in fact have that poncho, found shelter, and will be found today.
Update: As of Sunday at 2pm, nothing.