Hiker safe after stormy night on ridge

Man in good condition after hunkering down while scouting Lemon Creek drainage

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2007

Shortly before midnight Thursday members of local search and rescue teams began to rally for a 15-square-mile search for overdue hiker John Wilcock in the Lemon Creek drainage.

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Wilcock, 55, left to scout ski and snowmachine terrain on Blackerby Ridge about 12 hours earlier.

Around 10:30 a.m. Friday, Wilcock walked up to Jim Calvin of Juneau Mountain Rescue as he and his team made their way up the Lemon Creek Trail into their assigned search area.

"He found us," Calvin said.

Though Wilcock spent the night above the trail in Canyon Creek during a blustery seasonal storm with no tent, sleeping bag or fire to keep warm, he was in fine condition and needed no medical attention.

"I'm looking forward to a warm shower," Wilcock said.

After reuniting with his wife and daughter, Wilcock apologized.

"I'm sorry I scared you," he said.

The retired state employee left downtown about noon Thursday to scout for access routes and good terrain for snowmobiles on Blackerby Ridge.

Wilcock said he was part of an ad hoc group that formed after the Juneau Snowmobile Club lost its bid last June to access terrain through the Eaglecrest Ski Area.

Wilcock is a skier and Eaglecrest Ski Patrol candidate, but he thinks everyone should have more access to terrain.

He pushed through heavy brush Thursday, trying to get a better look at terrain in a basin on the north side of the ridge. Two hours passed in that pursuit and burned up precious daylight.

Wilcock said he decided to descend Canyon Creek in an attempt to reach the trail before the evening turned too dark and it became unsafe to move.

In the creek, above a final impassable waterfall, Wilcock decided that he'd not made it and that moving around by headlamp was no longer safe. The way out, he said, was back up the tight drainage and then down to the trail through less-harsh terrain to the northeast.

"I knew where I was," Wilcock said. "It was a spot that I shouldn't move around with only a headlamp."

Instead Wilcock decided to hunker down for the night. Bruce Bowler, search coordinator and member of SEADOGS rescue group, said it was the right decision.

Family friend Pauline Higdon said Wilcock's family became nervous when he didn't return for dinner as planned.

About 10 p.m. she joined Wilcock's wife Penny and daughter Mary to go look for him. Higdon said they'd only traveled a short distance up the trail before rethinking.

"We could see we needed help," she said.

Wilcock was described to searchers as an experienced long-distance hiker and was thought to have minimum emergency gear with him, including waterproof pants, a space blanket and firestarter.

Bowler said that news was good for his team as they rallied and headed into the night to begin the search.

"He had the right clothing," Bowler said. "Otherwise he probably would not have made it."

Wilcock said that he moved three times during the night. "When I started to shiver, I'd hike a short distance then find a spot to make a bed."

Dressed in a Gortex jacked and rainpants, Wilcock covered himself with his pack to keep warm during those long rest periods. At times he used a waterproof map to keep the rain off. "It makes a nice one person tarp," he said.

Eventually Wilcock found a rock ledge to hunker down under.

About 5 a.m. Friday he began his hike out.

Bowler said that the night before he interviewed Wilcock's family to learn about the man and what he might have been up to on the hike the day before. Searching is a great mystery, he said.

"You try to put yourself in the shoes of the person," Bowler said. "Get into their mind."

Family and friends relayed Wilcock's recent trips into the area behind and well above the Home Depot to look for snow-sports terrain.

Bowler said search and rescue teams went looking along possible access routes along ridges ascending the north-facing ridge and up the Blackerby Ridge trail. He called them "high probability areas."

Though Wilcock found them first, the search teams were indeed hitting the right areas.

When Wilcock walked up to the search head quarters Bowler smiled and said, "My goodness, it's good to see you."

Wilcock said that he plans to return to the area this winter to have another look at the terrain and perhaps ski for a while.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.

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