A missing hiker who spent three days and two nights in the San Juan Mountains was able to locate a maintenance car with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad on Tuesday afternoon, surviving the perilous ordeal with some scratches and a sunburn.
According to Dan Bender, spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, authorities were alerted just before 3 p.m. that 23-year-old Melikai Hesse flagged down a maintenance car near the Tacoma Power Plant – a stop on the train’s route along the Animas River in a remote part of the canyon with no road access.
The maintenance car took Hesse to the Rockwood Station stop, a few miles south of Tacoma, which sits just off U.S. Highway 550.
Bender said Tuesday evening it was unclear if Hesse would be taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center or reunited with his family.
“Considering the terrain he was in and the weather conditions, he was very lucky,” Bender said. “It was a much better outcome than it could have been.”
Hesse, a La Plata County resident, was reported missing late Sunday afternoon. According to reports, Hesse was on a hike with friends near Haviland Lake when the group decided to turn back after walking less than a quarter mile. Hesse, desiring a longer hike, continued on and was not seen again.
Bender said search-and-rescue personnel conducted a short interview with Hesse at Rockwood. He told authorities it became dark sooner than he expected, and he became disoriented, eventually going off trail and unable to find his way back.
“He kept falling, and it got too dark,” Bender said. “It went downhill from there.”
Hesse was not familiar with the area and was markedly unprepared for a hike, let alone a three-day stint in the wilderness during fall. Authorities said Hesse was wearing only a tank top and shorts, and did not have any outdoor gear.
On both Sunday and Monday nights, temperatures dropped to the low 20s. Bender said Hesse would find a flat place and try to keep himself awake through the night, moving now and then, to prevent hypothermia.
For the past three days, the search-and-rescue mission has involved a number of personnel, a Black Hawk helicopter from New Mexico, three Flight for Life fly-bys and the use of a drone.
Yet, little evidence was found of Hesse.
He told authorities he was able to hear search helicopters, but because of the dense vegetation, he was unable to signal or see them.
Although the Tacoma Power Plant is only about 1½ miles from Haviland Lake as the crow flies, the area is known for its steep, hard-to-navigate terrain and dense vegetation.
“You can’t just go up on a hill and see a big opening and know which direction to go,” Bender said.
Hesse’s sister, Layla, said her brother is scraped, bruised and shaken up but went into survival mode to get out of the mountains alive.
“I screamed at the top of my lungs, all of Lake Haviland heard me,” Layla Hesse said of hearing news her brother was alive. “We want to say thank you so much (to search and rescue).”
Melikai Hesse was surrounded by celebratory family and friends when reached by The Durango Herald by phone late Tuesday.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” he said of spotting the train car, “‘I’m going to make it out alive.’”