Hunches, ‘trail angels’ key in hiker’s rescue

DARRINGTON — Rescuers weren’t optimistic they’d find the missing hiker alive.

Last Friday, Takahisa Nezu was several days overdue on what was supposed to be a five-day solo trek along a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail around Glacier Peak.

The weather had changed dramatically four days earlier. His trail disappeared beneath an early October snowfall. Nezu, a Japanese man in his 30s, set up camp under some trees after realizing it was futile to continue.

One hiking party that traversed the same stretch ahead of Nezu was a day overdue when they emerged near Stehekin in Chelan County on Oct. 2, safe but fearing they might be suffering from hypothermia.

“Given the number of days he was missing and the conditions, it really gave us cause for concern,” said Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Air Support Unit. “To be honest, we didn’t think we would find him,”

Sometimes everything goes right.

Hunches based on knowledge of the rugged terrain gave searchers a good starting point.

A retired Baring couple who host dozens of Pacific Crest Trail hikers each year had earlier insisted Nezu take more food before he resumed his journey. They alerted authorities when he was overdue in Stehekin.

Nezu also managed not to cross paths with a large bear whose tracks were found near where he was forced to hunker down.

“We really expected the worst,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, who oversees the county’s search and rescue operations. “It was really uplifting to see him standing there in that snowfield.”

The sheriff’s office received initial word that there was a missing hiker around noon Oct. 3. It was able to get the helicopter up that afternoon, searching the Pacific Crest Trail on the northwest side of Glacier Peak as well as a number of drainages nearby.

Rescuers spotted animal tracks but there was no signs of Nezu — no signal, no campfire smoke, nothing.

With fog predicted for the lowlands the next day, the decision was made to leave the SnowHawk 10 helicopter at a Darrington air field instead of its customary station at Taylor’s Landing near Snohomish. A sheriff’s sergeant assigned to the small town checked on the aircraft periodically overnight. A crew with Snohomish County Fire District 22, better known as the Getchell Fire Department, dropped off fuel.

Hikers who know the mountain trail where Nezu was thought to be were consulted for advice.

Three teams of volunteers from the Everett Mountain Rescue Unit were given assignments on Friday. The plan was to drop them off by helicopter in areas where Nezu most likely might be.

At one point, just below Fire Creek Pass, rescuers spotted tracks in the snow. One of the rescue teams was lowered for a closer look. The tracks weren’t human. They were so large the crew wondered if the prints belonged to a grizzly bear. A biologist later examined photos of the prints and concluded that they were from a very large black bear.

At 10:23 a.m. Friday, as the helicopter flew over the east fork of Milk Creek, Nezu was spotted waving a make-shift flag tied to a stick.

A minute earlier, the Japanese Consulate called county officials requesting an update on the search.

Nezu had been rationing his food. He had less than a day’s worth left.

The stranded hiker was grateful to the rescuers, who, in turn, were thankful to the Baring couple who monitored his progress through reports from other hikers and called authorities when he was overdue.

Jerry and Andrea Dinsmore are what are known as trail angels in the hiking community. There are a few others sprinkled in rural communities along the 2,633-mile Pacific Crest Trail that stretches along mountain ranges from Mexico to the Canadian border.

Andrea is a retired long haul truck driver; Jerry was a Kenworth mechanic. For the last 11 years, they have provided a haven for hikers.

Andrea would like to see Pacific Crest Trail hikers consider starting their treks through Washington no later than mid-September because of how quickly the weather can turn bad.

One day after Nezu was found, a 23-year-old Oregon woman missing while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in southwest Washington was found safe. A search team spotted Alejandra Wilson walking on the trail. Wilson reported that she got stuck a snow storm about a week before and waited until conditions improved before walking out.

“I understand how treacherous things are up there and how unaware some of these hikers are about the real dangers,” Andrea Dinsmore said.

The Dinsmores try to keep track of all the hikers they meet along their journeys.

Andrea said she almost feels like a mother or grandmother to the hikers.

When someone is overdue, she frets.

Nezu was no exception. She was relieved when he was found.

“Jerry is not a crier. Mom here is,” she said, describing herself.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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