Injured hiker spends two days alone |

Injured hiker spends two days alone

by Gregory Crofton, Tribune staff writer

He lit a small fire and hoped the helicopter would see him this time.

With his leg broken above the knee, he dragged himself the last 30 hours in and out of the sunlight; sometimes burning sometimes freezing, but always dehydrated.

The only thing he remembers is his left leg hitting him in the chest and a wave of excruciating pain. Immobilized, he blew his bear whistle and yelled for help the first hour or so. Then he realized that ahead of him lay a night at 8,500 feet and he was wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

Bob Christoph, a 67-year-old South Lake Tahoe man, was camping off Blue Lakes Road last Thursday when he decided to hike a 9,300 foot mountain at the upper end of Faith Valley on the West Fork of Carson River.

As was his custom when he hiked alone, he left a note at his camper to tell his wife where he went and when he would be back. But last week Christoph was camping alone.

He planned to meet his wife, Katie, Friday afternoon at their campsite. She showed up sometime after noon and found a note he had left at 9:30 a.m. the day before. The note read, “I’m up on the mountain in front of you.” It was not until she saw dust on his coffee mug and talked to people camping nearby that she realized her husband of eight years might be in trouble.

“It was like somebody hit me in the face with a bucket of cold water,” Katie said. “It all sunk in that he was gone, that he hadn’t been there for about 31 hours and nobody had seen him.”

Katie sped to Sorensen’s Resort and called 911. Within an hour Alpine County Sheriff’s Department and Alpine Search and Rescue were at the scene with their command center set up in a converted bus. En route was a rescue helicopter from the Naval Air Base in Fallon, Nev., and just by coincidence a group of campers experienced in search-and-rescue operations was in the area on horseback and willing to help out.

Katie pointed out to rescuers where she thought her husband might have started up the mountain. It was essential information. Around 5 p.m. the helicopter made passes over the barren, shale-laden area of the mountain where Christoph had broken his leg. After a few more hours of unsuccessful searching, the helicopter bolted to Lake Tahoe Airport to refuel.

Back in Faith Valley, the helicopter had just enough daylight to make a few more passes on the mountain. Bingo. They spotted the small fire Christoph had started with a book of matches and saw him waving a stick with a red bandana tied to it.

“That chopper coming back saved it,” said Jim Parsons, head of Alpine County’s volunteer Search and Rescue Team. “They saw the fire, otherwise he would have been out there another night. He’s a very lucky guy.”

Surviving more than 30 hours on a mountain without food and water is not for the faint-hearted. Christoph sucked moisture from mud and wildflowers and drank his own urine, to stave off dehydration.

After being rescued, he told his wife that at night he watched satellites, stars and prayed for the sunrise.

Once the helicopter spotted him, ground personnel found him within the hour. He was suffering from hypothermia and shaking. They carried him down 500 feet, but because it was dark and the terrain was so extreme, Christoph and two rescuers spent the night on the mountain.

They put his leg in a splint, gave him water and wrapped him in a sleeping bag.

Parsons, who has made at least 70 rescues in Faith Valley, said Christoph was fortunate because the night he spent exposed, above the tree line at 8,500 feet was warmer than usual.

“We stayed up all night because we wanted to monitor Bob,” Parsons said. “Every couple hours we checked his splint and swelling. He slept fitfully and was in minimum pain as long has his leg was positioned properly.”

At first light the helicopter came back and the men hoisted Christoph off the mountain. “It was like a movie,” Katie said. “Everybody was whooping and hollering when he came out.”

By Saturday night he was in Barton Memorial Hospital with a steel rod and pins in his leg. The doctor told Katie that with all the crawling Christoph did on the mountain, back and forth from shelter to sun, he was very lucky his broken bone didn’t severe the major artery in his leg.

“He’s just the bravest man I know right now,” Katie said.

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