Former Marine John Utsey loves outdoor recreation and nature exploration. He decided to take his kids to the Santa Fe National Forest on a bright summer morning to enjoy some time in the sun on the stunning Windsor Trail. He and his kids were excited about their hike.
But they had no idea that something unfortunate would happen. John Utsey lost sight of his daughter for a few minutes and became incredibly worried. Then he discovered something that would take him on a two-day rescue mission where having military experience would be essential. What did he find?
It All Started on a Family Hike
It was a beautiful summer Saturday, and John Utsey wanted to spend the morning hiking with his 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. Fun activities like that in the outdoors can get kids overexcited, and parents sometimes find it difficult to keep them under control.
Utsey’s daughter was so fascinated by the beauty of the nature surrounding her that she sprinted ahead of them and eventually got lost. If she had stayed with the group, maybe things would’ve turned out much differently. But what eventually happened shocked all of them.
Wandering Off into Unknown Territory
Since Utsey is a former U.S. Marine, it’s not surprising that his preteen daughter clearly has the genes of a leader and an adventurer. But even though the hiking trails are usually easy to navigate, they are still in the woods, and it’s vital for groups to stay together.
Utsey lost track of his daughter when she rushed ahead of him and turned the corner. He quickly realized how easily his daughter could get lost in the wilderness and called out her name with his sonorous Marine cry, hoping she would hear him and return to the group.
Calling Out to His Daughter
Although his daughter wasn’t much farther ahead of him, Utsey knew that children are naturally curious and didn’t want to completely lose her. In an interview with Fox 29 WFLX News, he recalled the incident. “I called her name, and she didn’t answer. I [then] called her name really loud . . .
“. . . and then I heard her yell back to me from way up around the corner of the trail.” But why didn’t she answer her father the first time? Why did she risk getting lost? As he approached the corner, Utsey heard something that sent shivers down his spine.
It’s Difficult to Keep a Cool Head
Imagine going out on a beautiful summer Saturday morning and finding yourself in a dangerous situation where you could potentially lose your daughter. Although he’s a former U.S. Marine, this must have been a scary moment for Utsey. Emotions began rushing through his mind.
He had already heard her voice and was moving closer, but it didn’t mean she was safe. Being a military man, Utsey knew this wasn’t the time to panic. Precarious situations like this required him to keep a cool head and make the proper decision. So he swung to action.
He Heard Another Voice
Although most trails are public, you usually don’t expect to meet too many people while hiking. So when Utsey called out to his daughter, he expected to hear only her voice in response. But when she shouted back her response, he immediately heard something else deep in the woods.
Could that have been an echo? Was his mind playing tricks on him? He was almost sure he just heard another person responding to his calls. According to Utsey, “I heard somebody else answer from way off the trail.” So who could that possibly be?
He Rushed to Meet His Daughter
Utsey was undoubtedly thrown off guard when he heard someone other than his daughter respond to his call. They had been hiking for some time and hadn’t met anyone for miles. He was already sure it wasn’t his or his daughter’s voice echoing through the woods.
Was there a creep playing games with them? Or maybe someone was just joking after hearing his loud cry. But whatever it was, Utsey didn’t want to waste much time, so he rushed over to his daughter. He would deal with the voice when he was sure of his daughter’s safety.
The Voice Got Louder
Utsey was startled by the second voice he heard in the woods, but he was a father out to find his daughter. It was difficult to see very far in front due to the dense brush and woods, but judging from his daughter’s voice, she was still on the trail.
He was confident he could find her as long as she stayed on the trail. Her voice grew louder as he called out. But at the same time, the strange voice continued to ring louder. It was then Utsey knew that finding his daughter wouldn’t be his only mission.
He Finally Saw His Daughter
Utsey eagerly continued on the trail in search of his daughter. At last, he saw her, unscathed. But he was confused. He hadn’t expected her to be alone. So he concluded that whoever was responding from the woods wasn’t fooling around or dangerous.
It was a distress call from someone who needed help! Utsey’s attention quickly turned to finding the mysterious person. As a trained Marine, he knew better than to leave someone behind in the woods. So he called out again and hoped the unknown person would respond back.
On a Rescue Mission
Utsey was relieved to find that his daughter was fine, so he turned to find the strange person. He began shouting, “Are you okay?” hoping to hear a response from the voice. It seemed like the person was in urgent need of help. Utsey’s Marine instincts switched on.
He was now in full rescue mode. He had found his daughter, and now his new mission was to save this fellow hiker. So Utsey and his kids began searching the Santa Fe Trail. Judging by the distress calls, they knew they had to find the person quickly.
He Wasn’t Ready for the Surprise
They began venturing deep into the woods, calling out to the mysterious person. And it was then that Utsey realized they had gone about 600 yards away from the trail. Minutes went by, and there was an eerie tension. Was it smart to have come this deep with his kids?
But knowing they were the only ones around for miles, Utsey was intent on tracking down this mysterious voice. After shouting and searching thoroughly for half an hour, they finally stumbled on the person. The unknown man was on the ground and looked to be in a terrible state.
They Stumbled on the Mysterious Person
The scene looked quite shocking and disturbing, especially for the kids. The victim appeared to be in critical condition and was surrounded by a makeshift camp. He was so disoriented that he had trouble getting to his feet. He obviously needed emergency medical care.
Utsey later told KRQE that the man’s lips were so badly cracked that they were bleeding. “His tongue was swollen; he was really gaunt and skinny. I’m like, ‘This guy really needs help.’ I think, ‘This guy needs help,’ genuinely.” He needed to move quickly because there wasn’t much he could do for the strange man.
Utsey Quickly Assessed the Situation
The man who was lying there appeared to be in his 60s. Even so, he had the strength and experience to get to the stream and keep himself hydrated. Utsey was mindful that before acting, it was essential to do a thorough assessment of the problem.
Any quick or unexpected moves in circumstances like these could risk causing further injury. In Utsey’s words to CBC, “I asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘My legs don’t work.’ And I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘I think I fell.’” What happened, then?
He Was Stranded in the Wilderness
The victim was in and out of consciousness, so he couldn’t give detailed information. It wasn’t clear how long he had been lost in the woods, but Utsey guessed it would have been close to two weeks or even more. The man obviously required medical attention right away.
But there was no way to get him to safety. Since they were so far into the woods, their phones had no signal, and his children weren’t big enough or strong enough to help carry the man. So, what could he do to help him?
They Decided to Leave the Man
The family knew this was a tricky situation. This man may not last a day, so they didn’t want to abandon him. But there was no way they could help him alone. Utsey knew he had no choice but to hike back to the beginning of the trail.
He needed to call for professional help. The family left the victim with enough food and water, and Utsey took the GPS coordinates of the location. Then they hiked back three miles to call 911. But they didn’t know the rescue mission was far from over.
The Start of Many Problems
The hiking trip had abruptly changed into an unexpected set of events when Utsey lost sight of his daughter. And although his daughter was unharmed, he never would have predicted that his search would turn up an elderly hiker who was badly hurt. After an hour of hiking, the family called for assistance.
Thankfully, firefighters showed up immediately. Since they already had knowledge of the injured man’s precise location, the team’s job was already made easier—or so they thought. As it turned out, the coordinates did no good, and the squad eventually had trouble finding the man.
The Victim Was Nowhere to Be Found
The rescue team’s arrival brought relief to the family because they knew the man would finally receive proper care. But despite eight hours of rigorous searching, the elderly man was nowhere to be found. Utsey was absolutely shocked by this news. He was sure he had gotten the coordinates right.
So where did this man go? He was obviously in no condition to move. And he wouldn’t have been able to get very far even with the supplies left by the family. With no success, the fire department’s captain had to make a tough call.
Moving into Survival Mode
It was a miracle that the injured hiker had been able to survive for as long as he had. We can’t imagine what he had gone through all alone in the middle of the wild. We don’t know how many distresses calls he made before Utsey finally found him.
Although there are different survival strategies, experts agree that it is crucial to maintain both physical and mental health. In a conversation with WFLX, John said, “He had the will to survive, for sure.” But why did the man disappear when he was so close to being rescued?
It Was a Hard Call to Make
The injured hiker was nowhere around the GPS coordinates. Utsey had reassured him that help would come as soon as possible. There was no way the man could have gotten very far, even with the food and water they had given him.
Despite all efforts, the search for the man proved fruitless for the rescue crew. As darkness fell, they had to postpone the rescue. Santa Fe Fire Department Captain Nathan Garcia subsequently described the hard call to KRQE, saying, “It was a little bit difficult to have to call off the search and rescue efforts.”
Something Must Have Happened
When the rescue team called it a day and returned to base, they told Utsey that the injured hiker wasn’t at the coordinates he gave them. And after they swept the area in a thorough search, there were no traces of him that they could follow. Utsey was speechless.
“I thought it was strange,” the ex-Marine told the BBC. “I figured if they were standing there and he wasn’t, then something must have happened. . . . It was so surreal.” Although most people would feel they had done their best, Utsey wasn’t going to let this go.
Going Back into the Wild
That night after returning home, Utsey couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t get the hiker who was stranded in the woods out of his mind. He felt guilty for abandoning him. So at daybreak, Utsey embarked on a one-man rescue mission. He was determined to bring this man back home.
“So I’m laying there [on Saturday night] like, ‘This guy is still in the mountains.’ So at 9 o’clock Sunday morning, I get in and put my hiking boots back on and hike back, and he was exactly where I left him,” John shared with KRQE. How amazing!
Not Leaving Him Behind This Time
Utsey had no idea what to expect as he returned to the woods. There was a possibility that he would discover the hiker dead because the woods can be unforgiving. Or even worse, he might never even find him! These thoughts went through Utsey’s mind as he followed the trail.
But despite these worries, a voice in the back of his head urged him to take all possible steps to locate the helpless, elderly man. Amazingly, after a few hours of searching, he found the man once more. He was determined to stick by him this time until help arrived.
The Rescue Team Finally Arrives
Although they spent eight hours combing the woods, the rescue team couldn’t find the injured man the previous day. Luckily, Utsey was right beside him this time and made it easier for the search party to navigate their way and find them. He called 911 around noon.
Hours passed, and around 4:00 p.m., Utsey finally heard the search party approaching them. The injured man was already in critical condition, and it was unbelievable that he had even survived up until then, given his age and the state he was in.
How Did He Survive That Long?
The fact that the hurt hiker was still hanging on after such a long time shocked everyone. However, as Captain Nathan Garcia explained to KRQE, “The human body can do some amazing things sometimes, but I don’t think he had very much left in him. . . .
“. . . He seemed kind of at the end when we did actually encounter him.” So the man was close to the end, and it was a rush against time. But no one was giving up on him! Before moving him, the firefighters had to evaluate the situation.
Getting His Temperature Up
After deeper examination, the group discovered that the man’s low body temperature made moving him dangerous. He could go into a deeper state of shock and trigger severe complications because his organs were giving out. They made a fire and wrapped him in hypothermia blankets.
That was meant to prevent his temperature from falling more and to increase his body temperature to a suitable degree. Finally, he was warm enough, and the rescue squad started moving him out of the woods and on to the hospital. There was no chance Utsey would leave him again, and he stayed with the injured man.
A Needle in a Haystack
Utsey and his children had no idea that a regular morning hike down the trail would become a two-day rescue mission. Stumbling on the man in such an expanse of wilderness was a miracle. And if Utsey’s daughter hadn’t wandered off, the injured hiker may have never been found.
These events led to finding the man after he had survived for so long in the wilderness. According to Utsey, one of the firefighters had the right words to describe it. “I heard one of the firefighters describe it as a needle in a haystack. And it really, really is.”
Leave No Man Behind
Being a former U.S. Marine, John Utsey continues to live by the principle to leave no man behind. But his drive to save the injured, elderly hiker was only matched by the hiker’s drive to live. With nothing but a few provisions when they found him, the hiker’s survival was amazing.
Speaking to KRQE again, Captain Garcia admitted that the Fire Department had “never found somebody who had been out for that long.” It was obvious that the man had something burning inside of him that kept him going. But how did he get in that situation in the first place?
How It All Happened
When the man finally reached safety, everyone was shocked and even surprised that he had lasted so long with his limited supplies. There was also a sense of bewilderment as to how he had come to be there.
In Utsey’s words to CBC, “The man suffered from chronic back pain and again injured his back while hiking and could not stand or walk. His gear was stolen, at which point he got lost and disoriented.” Although the story had a happy ending, it still wasn’t quite over yet.
Arriving at the Hospital in Critical Condition
The elderly man was in critical condition when he got to the hospital. The rescue operation had been successful, but now it was up to the medical staff to help him get back to a stable and healthy state. And thankfully, they looked after him well.
This story just serves to highlight how dangerous and cruel the woods can be. Although the trail is suitable for families, one mistake might be the difference between life and death. Never underrate the power of nature, and always let someone know where you’re going before exploring the wild.
The Happily Ever After Ending
John Utsey was, without a doubt, the right man for the job. However, bringing the injured hiker safely home also involved a team effort. The Santa Fe Fire Department thanked everyone involved in a statement on its Facebook page following the entire ordeal: “Special thanks to John Utsey . . .
“. . . the hiker that found him disoriented and provided food and water for him. Special thanks to the Atalaya Search and Rescue team . . . Santa Fe search and rescue and Los Alamos search and rescue for all their help in getting the patient safely out of the forest.” Timing is crucial. And this story proves it.