Unprepared hunter survives five days in wild


November 11, 1990|By Peter Baker

Five days after he became lost and a day after searchers had virtually given him up for dead, Bob Wiehr walked out of Colorado's West Elk Wilderness Area on the arm of an elk hunter.

"By all rights, I should have been dead," said Wiehr, a 44-year-old carpenter from Bryantown in Charles County.

More than 100 people, two helicopters and four airplanes were mobilized to hunt for the experienced Maryland hunter who had become separated from his companions during a blinding snowstorm in central Colorado late last month.

The story of the hunt for Bob Wiehr is one of ignorance and innocence, self-reliance and faith and the willingness of some searchers to buck the odds that said Wiehr could not survive.

On Thursday, Oct. 22, Wiehr, John Wilson, John Williams and Jeff Meidinger, all Maryland residents in their 40s, made base camp at 11,300 feet near Red Creek in the tortuous terrain that borders Gunnison National Forest and the West Elk Wilderness in western Gunnison County.

It is a place where dense stands of evergreens climb craggy peaks, small rivers and big creeks rush along the boulder-strewn bottom of deep canyons and where, in scattered flatlands between, high meadows are spread with wildflowers.

"It was a beautiful place," Wiehr said last week from his home, where he is recovering from severely frostbitten feet. "There were vistas where you could look out for miles. Or you could walk down a path like a little country lane where there was all kinds of game -- elk and deer.

"But, as I look back at it, it also is incredible how much danger there is there. It is big country, not like back here in Maryland."

It was a place only Meidinger had hunted. It was a hunt for which all but Wiehr had prepared diligently.

Wiehr, a divorced father of two, was a late addition to the group after a neighbor of Wilson had dropped out, and Wiehr missed the eight hours of orientation Meidinger provided for the other hunters.

"I have one key word for the Rocky Mountains, and this is respect," said Meidinger, a computer design architect with the Marriott Corp. who has hunted the West Elk area since 1978. "The Rockies can treat you gentle as a lamb, and, when you turn around, it is as mean a lion in full charge.

"I guess if you say it straight: The problem was that he [Wiehr] went out unprepared. He just didn't realize that you don't go out without some survival gear. You need to take a survival blanket, at least two days of food, waterproof matches, candy bars, rope.

On that Thursday night at the base camp, while Williams and Wilson drove into Gunnison for supplies, Meidinger said he and Wiehr talked about the nature of the land and the possibility of becoming lost.

"He and I sat with our survival knives, and we sliced a can of Spam and heated it over the fire," Meidinger said, "and we talked about where the area was and to be sure, wherever you were, to go due east and walk down along the water."

In this part of Gunnison County, the mountain passes run south to north, and the creeks run into Blue Mesa Reservoir, a heavily used recreation area along Route 50.

On Friday morning, the Maryland hunters decided to scout in pairs for signs of elk in the area in preparation for opening day of elk season the next morning. At 11 a.m., the skies were clear, and the temperature was 50 degrees, Wilson said, "an absolutely beautiful Colorado day. You could have sat with gym shorts on in the sun."

Williams and Meidinger, equipped with maps, radios, compasses and basic survival gear, headed north-northeast to high meadows. Wilson and Wiehr headed south-southwest toward a forbidding area that Wilson said held an unusual fascination for Wiehr.

"From the beginning," said Wilson, an employee of Bernard Johnson, Inc., an architectural and engineering firm, "Bob had expressed an interest in going down to this southwest area he pointed to on the topos [topographical maps] where all the contour lines come together. That means altitude, cliffs. Very dense lines, very steep cliffs. A very nasty place where elk like to hide."

Wilson carried a topographical map, a compass, a two-way radio and snacks. Wiehr had neither map nor compass, he said, and did not take a radio because the sets had failed to test out the day before. Expecting the scouting to be completed without incident, Wiehr dressed lightly -- jeans, long johns, a sweater and hood, down vest, wool gloves and thermal boots -- and carried no food and only a small canteen of water with him.

Perhaps it was the weather that lulled the hunters, into a "cavalier attitude toward things, although I think Bob was the most cavalier among us -- and I have told him so," Wilson said.

Late Friday morning and early that afternoon, both groups encountered abundant sign of elk, although Wiehr and Wilson already were having trouble maintaining their sense of direction.

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