Veterinarians lost in Glacier National Park survived five days in treacherous conditions before rescue


Hikers' experience and preparedness sustained them until rescue crews found them in Montana backcountry.

Chesapeake Veterinary Cardiology Associates Practice Director Katie Newbold got a call from Neal Peckens’ mother-in-law: “‘They found them.’ I think she said it three or four times,” Newbold told DVM Newsmagazine by phone from Virginia.

Peckens, DVM, DACVIM (cardiology), and Jason Hiser, DVM, were reported missing by their families Oct. 12 when the friends missed their flight home from a hiking trip in Glacier National Park in Montana. The veterinarians were found nearly a week after they started their hike Oct. 9. Perilous weather conditions caused the experienced hikers to lose their way and made it difficult for search and rescue teams to find them. The pair spent an additional five nights in the backcountry of Glacier National Park, and the National Park Service credits their safe return to the skill of search-and-rescue personnel and the preparedness of the hikers.

“These hikers were prepared with appropriate equipment, and they used their situational awareness skills to determine how to respond to the unexpected in the backcountry,” Glacier National Park Chief Ranger Mark Foust said in a press release. He recommends that anyone who is lost to “STOP”--stop, think, observe and plan--and says that’s what Peckens and Hiser did.

The veterinarians completed, as planned, the first leg of their hike from the North Shore Trailhead at the Two Medicine area of the park to the Oldman Backcountry Campground on Oct. 9. According to park rangers, after spending the night at the campground, the pair continued on their 17-mile hike on the east side of the park but encountered winter conditions along a section of trail on a ridge along the continental divide. Compromised by snow-covered trails and high wind gusts, one of the hikers slipped and fell approximately 100 feet down a steep area.

Park rangers report that Peckens and Hiser tried to parallel hike--one above and one below--but determined the best approach would be to join back up and hike together. They decided to go down the mountain with the hope of finding another route back up. As they hiked down the mountain, their map was lost in a gust of wind. They continued down the mountain, spending Wednesday night in the Nyack Lakes area where they set up camp and were able to make a fire.

Peckens and Hiser started back up the mountain Thursday, but weather conditions made navigating the terrain challenging. The National Park Service reported that after giving considerable thought to their best options, the pair decided to travel back down the mountain near the headwaters of the Nyack Drainage area to wait for a break in the weather. The poor weather conditions did not cease. Hiser and Peckens camped in that location for the next four nights, rationing their food and collecting firewood and materials to create fire and smoke. They turned their cell phones on during the day, displayed their space blanket for possible reflection during daylight hours and used it to stay warm at night. They also created an “SOS” message with logs.

At approximately 3 p.m. MST Oct. 15 two Glacier National Park employees were searching on foot when one of the searchers saw colored flagging that led them to a tent where they found Peckens and Hiser. Rangers reported that the men were cold and wet but in fairly good condition with no injuries.

The National Park service said Peckens and Hiser communicated their appreciation to the search and rescue teams and were ready to travel home with family and friends.

For everyone back home, relief has turned worry into joy. “We all want to beat the crap out of him (Peckens),” Newbold joked Tuesday. “We don’t want to give him any more vacation time.” But in truth, the staff and clients at Peckens’ practice were overjoyed with the news of his safety. “There really just aren’t words to describe it,” Newbold says. “With every passing hour we were trying to stay positive, but it just kept getting harder and harder.”

Broad Street Veterinary Hospital administrator der Au Michael said Monday--mere hours before receiving the call that the men were safe--that all the staff and clients could do was wait. She never lost hope that Hiser would be found. “He’s an excellent doctor,” Michael said. “He’s not scared of anything. He can do anything. He will come out alive and safe.”

Elation soon followed. “If any two could get through that it was these two,” Michael said Tuesday as a banner was being made to celebrate their safe return.

Newbold made phone calls to coworkers and clients after receiving the good news Monday. “They were just shrieking they were so happy,” she says. “If you look at the Facebook posts you can see what kind of person he is. Everyone that works with him adores him. He’s just one of those people everybody likes.”

While Peckens’ coworkers say there will be a long line for hugs when he returns, their first concern is seeing him home with his wife and young daughter. “We want him to take as much time as he needs with his family,” Newbold said.

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