A Santa Fe Prep educator is credited with finding a hiker who’d been missing for nearly two weeks and leading search teams to the man’s whereabouts in Santa Fe National Forest over the weekend.
John Utsey, 47, was heading back down the Winsor Trail with his two children on a long Saturday hike when he realized his daughter, Jocelyn, had moved far ahead of him and his son, Jasper.
So Utsey used his U.S. Marine voice — fine-tuned by six years of training as a combat engineer and data communications specialist — to call to her. Jocelyn stopped and turned around.
That’s when Utsey heard another voice — a man’s — call out in response from somewhere far off.
Utsey, who as a Marine was trained to never leave a man behind, sensed something was amiss. So he and his children hiked through some off-trail brush and engaged in a “call and response” with the man, whom the Utseys found on the ground near a creek, some 400-plus yards off the Winsor Trail and a couple of miles from the trailhead.
“We got to where we could see him in a clearing,” Utsey said Tuesday. “He couldn’t move or get up. I asked, ‘Are you injured?’ and he said, ‘I can’t move.’
“It wasn’t until later I realized how delirious he was,” said Utsey, director of technology at Santa Fe Prep, where Jocelyn is about to enter seventh grade. “He was scruffy and ragged-looking.”
The man, who has not yet been identified by authorities, was hospitalized at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. Hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado said the facility does not release medical information on its patients.
After finding the hiker, the Utseys gave the man power drinks, water, protein bars and trail mix.
With some 12 or 13 miles of hiking behind him, Utsey said he did not think he could carry the man and safely get his kids out at the same time. So he walked down the trail to where he could get cell service and dialed 911.
Search and rescue teams from the Santa Fe Fire Department showed up shortly thereafter, and Utsey gave them directions to the man’s whereabouts before heading home.
Still, those searchers did not get to the man until Sunday afternoon, when Utsey lead them to the spot after their Saturday search was unsuccessful.
Capt. Nathan Garcia of the Santa Fe Fire Department said search crews worked their way up and down the creek Utsey described and called out to the man but did not get a response. Other hikers the team encountered on the trail said they knew nothing about the man’s whereabouts.
He said the first search was called off around 10 p.m. Saturday.
“We searched as best as we could and called out,” Garcia said. “We did not get any type of response. I don’t know if we didn’t hear him or he didn’t hear us.”
Utsey said he received a call from state police late Saturday asking for more details of the man’s whereabouts. Utsey said he wondered if the man somehow “got enough strength to get out and move. Then I thought, that guy was in such rough shape I can’t believe he left.”
Utsey wanted to see for himself, so he went back to the scene Sunday morning and found the man again.
He gave him some water and beef jerky and said he would be back with help.
Following another 911 call, he led the fire department crew members to the man. As they built a fire and provided medical care for the man — who told Utsey he could not sleep at night because of the cold — Utsey returned home.
“He probably slept through most of the days because it was warm enough to sleep and shivered through most of the nights,” Utsey said of the hiker. “He probably had to roll over to drink water from the creek and then roll back to get away from the cold because he was so weak.”
Other search teams, including some from the state police, Atalaya Search and Rescue, Santa Fe Search and Rescue, and Los Alamos Search and Rescue, also took part in the effort.
Jocelyn Utsey, 12, said she believed her father’s booming voice might have been the first one the missing man had heard in days, despite the fact the trail was covered with hikers Saturday.
“We’re naturally loud people,” she said.
Her 10-year-old brother, Jasper, said when he gave the man a power drink and some food, the hiker said, “Thank you, young man.”
“He was very polite,” said Jasper, a student at Atalaya Elementary School.
Jasper Utsey said the man told them he had been in the forest for 20 days. Garcia said the man said he got lost on a day hike Aug. 3. He said the man, in his 50s, had an underlying back condition that stymied efforts to find his way out of the wilderness once he became disoriented.
Garcia said the missing hiker was dressed in layers, which probably helped save his life.
“If Mr. Utsey had not found him, we might never have known he was there,” Garcia said.
John Utsey said he still recalls a ROTC crew hike into the wilds of Colorado some 30 years ago when he fell ill with elevation sickness and pneumonia — potential killers in a wilderness environment. Utsey said the adult chaperone on that excursion, a retired Marine officer named George Franklin, ran across a valley and over a ridge to catch up to a pair of men packing horses out to convince them to take the boy out on horseback.
“I truly believe I would not have made it out of there without Maj. George Franklin,” Utsey recalled. “I guess I feel I owe something back.”
Jasper Utsey said he’s proud of his father. And while he might have a good story to tell when school begins Thursday, he’s not sure how well it will play with his classmates.
“Yeah, they’ll never believe it,” he said.