Clovis hiker's harrowing ordeal in high Sierra told

The Fresno BeeJuly 11, 2014 

Photo of missing hiker Gregory Hein, 33, who was reported missing Wednesday afternoon after he failed to return from a hiking trip in the Sierra.


Hiking from the summit of a remote peak in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks last Saturday, something went very wrong for Gregory Hein of Clovis.

Climbing down the rocky mountainside of Mount Goddard — which soars to a height of about 13,500 feet — rocks loosened beneath the 33-year-old's feet.

As he tumbled down, a large boulder plowed into his leg — breaking it in a serious compound fracture — and he fell from a ledge.

Then things got even worse.

"He could hear the sides of the mountain start to give away," his mother, Randy Hein, said Friday as she related her son's story. "He decided to slide down some ice fields. He knew his leg was very bad, so he hung on to his lower leg to keep it part of his body."

Determined to dodge falling rocks, Gregory Hein slid and slid, using his good leg to dig into the earth and slow his descent. It was a messy fall. His sides were scraped; the skin on his fingertips gone.

Stuck at the bottom of the mountain for days, on Wednesday he started to crawl. After a mile, he reached solitary Davis Lake, about two miles west of the John Muir Trail.

Hein had left his backpack — and his food and water — on the side of the mountain last Saturday. By Wednesday, he knew he couldn't go much longer without water. Finding Davis Lake, at least he could stay hydrated.

He did what he could to make a bed of dry plants. And then he continued to wait, in pain and alone.

But he wasn't forgotten.

When Hein didn't return to Clovis on Monday, his parents thought he might have extended his trip, or been delayed. But by Wednesday, they were very worried. They called the Fresno County Sheriff's Office and by Wednesday night, search and rescue personnel were in the high Sierra, looking for their son.

In all, about 80 people would search for Hein that day and the next. Hein's family joined the search, too.

"When looking out over this vast, beautiful area," Randy Hein said, "I have this feeling he's out there."

Teams from Fresno County and the National Park Service had few clues to narrow a search area that spanned hundreds of square miles.

"He left no itinerary, no route he planned to take," said Sgt. Jared McCormick with the sheriff's search and rescue unit. "He could be anywhere. ... He was known to be a real avid hiker, athletic, rock climber kind of guy." Those types of hikers sometimes choose to "conquer cross-country instead of sticking to a trail, so it was difficult to guess where he might be," McCormick said.

But they did know this: Hein parked his car at Florence Lake in Fresno County and was headed to Mount Goddard, more than 20 miles away.

Using four helicopters and three planes, and traveling on foot, by horseback or in jeeps, men and women broke into groups of two or three. They searched day and night and grabbed some sleep when they could.

"It's not uncommon to work 18-20 hours, or even 24 hours, during a search and rescue," said Lt. Kathy Curtice, in charge of the sheriff's search and rescue unit. "When they get deployed from the command post, they don't know when they get to come back. They take enough to be self-sufficient for a minimum of three days, maybe longer."

Some teams hiked so far into the remote wilderness they lost radio contact, relying on pilots to find them and deliver news from the sky, Curtice said.

A big clue in the search came Thursday. A Park Service team was dropped off via helicopter a half-mile from the summit of Mount Goddard and hiked to the top. There they found a register — the names of mountaineers who had reached the summit. Hein's name was on the list.

Meanwhile, Hein was hearing helicopters aloft, two canyons away. If they didn't find him soon, Hein thought, he would try to get somewhere higher, on top of a rock. But a handful of hours later, he was saved.

It was about 7:30 p.m. when a Park Service helicopter landed about 50 feet from Hein at Davis Lake — but not because they spotted him. The pilot was dropping off a search and rescue team in the area when he came into view. Hein threw rocks and waved a makeshift flag. They saw him.

"We think it was somewhat of a miracle," said Randy Hein, who is principal of Temperance-Kutner Elementary School. The family has strong links to Clovis Unified: Gregory Hein is the grandson of Floyd "Doc" Buchanan, former longtime district superintendent.

Rescuers scooped up Hein, his leg badly mangled and infected, loaded him into the helicopter and flew him to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. After his surgery Friday afternoon, doctors said there was a 10% to 20% chance he might lose his leg, Randy Hein said.

But not his life. That was saved by brave and compassionate rescuers, and by the prayers of family and friends, she said.

Thinking back on the terrifying days, Randy Hein also recalled the hugs and care shown to her family by those searching for her son. It meant a lot: "We want to say thank you."

Many people, like Michael Charlton, are relieved Hein is safe. Hein works part-time as a rafting guide for Charlton, owner of Redwoods & Rivers in Del Loma, northwest of Redding.

Hein was going to school at Humboldt State for environmental science and plans to attend law school, Charlton said.

"He's always giving of himself and his time," Charlton said. "We did a lot of trips with inner city kids and he always volunteered to do those without pay. He's just a great young man and he has a lot to give the world."

Charlton said he was "incredibly surprised" to hear Hein was missing and applauded him for good wilderness sense in a difficult situation: Finding water and shelter, and staying "put" — waiting for a response.

Still, McCormick of the Fresno County sheriff's search and rescue unit said Hein could have done a few things differently.

When going on a long backpack, consider carrying a satellite-linked device that sends messages about your location, which rescuers can access, he said. Before entering the backcountry, always apply for a wilderness permit so there is documentation of your proposed route, and never hike alone, McCormick said.

Back at the Hein household, there is just relief that Gregory Hein made it out alive. "We are just so blessed," his mom said. "It wasn't his time."


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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