As of Friday, July 11, 2014
A hiking trip for three Portlandarea teens nearly ended in disaster on Thursday after the young men got lost while hiking near Wyeth and then became trapped in a canyon by wildfire — which ironically spread due to the very helicopter that came to rescue them.
James Armstrong and Rowan Singley, both 18 and of Tigard, as well as Dante Garcia, 19, of Beaverton, came to the Gorge early Wednesday afternoon to go for a hike got lost while hiking on forest trails south of Wyeth.
According to Hood River County Sheriff Matt English, the teens originally intended to hike Mt. Defiance, but it was unclear exactly what trail the youths had taken when they got lost, although it was believed to Gorton Creek Trail.
The mother of Armstrong, who declined to give her name, reported that her son’s vehicle was parked at the Wyeth trailhead near exit 51 off Interstate 84. According to James Armstrong, he and his friends didn’t pack any food and only “brought water and Gatorade, but that didn’t last us very long.”
English reported that the teens called 911 at approximately 8:30 p.m. and were able to provide GPS coordinates to the dispatcher. He said members of the Hood River Crag Rats left from Herman Creek campground and were able to climb to Indian Point, directly west and above the group, but received no response from the teens, and turned around to make their descent back to the staging area.
According to Armstrong, the teens climbed down through a canyon and out onto a rocky cliff near a waterfall — likely part of Grays Creek — and spent the night. Armstrong said they tentatively drank from the stream, as they were unsure of the water’s purity, and decided to make a campfire “just to stay warm because we were right next to a waterfall, and it was freezing and we were just in shorts and tank tops, which was just miserable.”
He added that he hoped someone might see the campfire and be able to help them. English said a search plane piloted by former Sheriff Joe Wampler took off prior to 8 a.m. Thursday to search for the teens, but the trees cast long shadows into the canyon due to the angle of the morning sun, making the search a fruitless endeavor.
A member of the Crag Rats and Wind River Search and Rescue began to hike in again to try to find the youths, while authorities requested an HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter with a crew from the Oregon Army National Guard out of Salem.
Members of Portland Mountain Rescue and the U.S. Forest Service assisted from a staging area set up on Herman Creek Road. English reported the Blackhawk arrived about noon, spotted the group, and lowered a medic to evaluate the teens before returning to Troutdale for fuel.
However, English said the campfire the teens had started the previous night apparently wasn’t completely out and the rotor wash from the helicopter kicked up the embers into a full-blown forest fire.
With the helicopter gone, the teens and the medic retreated back up the canyon to move away from the fire. English said the group was able to get about 150 feet away from the fire, which he reported was a legitimate forest fire for approximately 20 minutes before it died out on the rocks.
English estimated the Blackhawk returned approximately 40 minutes later and plucked the teens — and the medic — one-by-one, from out of the forest and brought them to safety at Cascade Locks Airport, where they were handed water by Cascade Locks Fire and EMS and were embraced by relieved family members.
They were dirty, dehydrated, tired, hungry, and had some scratches, but otherwise were okay. Armstrong’s mother was extremely grateful to everyone for their efforts.
“The sheriff ’s department, especially the volunteers, did an outstanding job, the dispatchers, everyone involved, and so — a happy ending,” she said. James Armstrong was as well. “The teams that rescued us did an amazing job,” he said. “We had to go through hell and back to get to a point where we could even get out. It was ridiculous.”
The Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area division of the U.S. Forest Service closed the Wyeth, Gorton Creek, and Nick Eaton trails as a result of the fire, but those trails were reopened Friday morning