Lost Vail hiker found on ‘a fluke’
EDWARDS – Eileen Leland, the 57-year-old New Castle woman who endured two cold, hungry nights near Edwards last week, was preparing for a third when a helicopter rescued her late Wednesday afternoon near Middle Lake.She nearly did spend that third night outdoors, despite seeing helicopters overhead for two days running. Rescuers reported that the helicopter pilot decided to make one more trip Wednesday to the search area in order to burn up a little more fuel before calling it a day.”I understand it was a bit of a fluke” said Hal Sundin of Glenwood Springs, an organizer of Leland’s hiking group, the 100 Club.Leland was part of a 100 Club outing on Monday when she became separated from the group and took a wrong turn on the Dead Dog Trail, which branches off from the East Lake Creek Trail, and became lost.For someone who only moved to the mountains a year ago from Illinois, and had never gone camping, it was the beginning of a prolonged backcountry experience that tested her strength and resolve, and forced her to rely on her faith.”I was a different person up there. I had the strength to do what was needed to get found,” she said.Leland’s first reaction to becoming lost was one of panic, not resolve.A strong climber, she had gone ahead of her husband and others in the group, and taken a wrong turn. When she saw someone else going on the same path, she assumed she was headed the right direction, but eventually she changed her mind and turned around. But she missed the turnoff back onto the main trail.She ended up in an area of fallen trees.”I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, where am I?’ ” she said.That’s when she became flustered and panicked, she said. Taking stock of her situation, she found a stream and decided to go down it. But as she did, the stream became bigger and she was forced into the streambed, jumping rocks and boulders and grabbing branches. At some point, a branch punctured her arm.”I did not notice that until this thing was all over,” she said.Eventually cliffs rose up on either side of the stream and Leland could go no further downstream. She decided she would stay where she was for the night. She found a big boulder where she could sit in the sun and dry off, and then located a big tree root for shelter, and arranged a bed of bark and twigs.Fortunately, she said, she was “as well-dressed as could be for the time of year.” She had two pairs of pants; a coat and rain jacket, both with hoods; gloves and an extra pair of socks.”I was OK, I just had to get through the night,” she said.Little did she know she wouldn’t be getting out of the woods the next day.When morning arrived, she decided to go back upstream. She tried to stay out of the water, after enduring cold, wet feet that kept her from sleeping the previous night.But as she proceeded, she came across feeder streams, and had trouble telling which one she had come down. Finally, she decided to stop in a small, grassy area near a cliff, where she could again warm up in the sun, and could wait for help.Around noon on Tuesday, a helicopter came searching over her spot but it was too small of a clearing and rescuers didn’t see her.She decided to remain there a second night. She kept hearing helicopters conducting a systematic search, and assumed one might fly over again on Wednesday.She was right. After another long night spent shivering, she heard a helicopter return the next day, and positioned herself on a rock, hoping she would be spotted there.”He couldn’t see me on the rock I was standing on,” Leland said.It was maddening for Leland, as the helicopter hovered right over the cliff near Leland, but she couldn’t get in a position to be seen.”I couldn’t get down the rocks fast enough,” she said.She realized she had to leave her location. But by then, it was hard to move. She had been surviving on one sports bar over three days, was stiff and tired, and found it hard to gather her gear and move in a direction where she had seen a lot of helicopter activity.”It was a big effort, but I figured, ‘OK, once I get to this place I’m going to stay there,'” she said.She reached a large meadow that turned out to be where the helicopter had been dropping off searchers, and took a nap while she waited.”But nobody came for most of the afternoon,” she said.That’s when she realized she might face a third night of having to survive by her wits. She went scouting for shelter, and again prepared a bed for herself.Then she heard a helicopter.”I thought, ‘Oh please come closer.’ I can’t tell you how hard I prayed the whole time,'” she said.When the helicopter reached the edge of the clearing, a searcher on board signaled to her.”He waved to me and they circled a few times and then came down to get me, and I can’t tell you how relieved I was,” Leland said.She said she believes her faith helped her in her actions.”I do think it was a higher power that enabled me to do it,” she said. “I am a very fortunate individual.”
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