Steamboat men rescue woman lost in Flat Tops for more than 3 days
Steamboat Springs residents Richard Grant and Ned Skinner were fishing in a remote area in the Flat Tops Wilderness off of Dunckley Pass on Thursday, Oct. 13. They had been at the creek for about an hour and the fish were biting like crazy.
Suddenly, the silence at their secret spot was broken by a shout.
“A woman appeared on a hillside 75 yards away waving her arms and calling for help,” Grant said.
“We couldn’t understand her real well until she got down closer to us and she said could we help her,” Skinner said. “She’s been lost for three days and nights and looked a little distressed.”
Skinner and Grant helped her cross the creek, but she was able to walk on her own power up the embankment and back along a trail to Grant’s car. They gave her water, Honey Stinger products and their lunch sandwiches.
The woman, Jiji Oh, was beyond grateful to see them. She had left Stillwater Reservoir on the morning of Monday, Oct. 10, to hike Devil’s Causeway and got lost. She had been alone in the Flat Tops for three days and three nights with no food.
“I had the best peanut butter sandwich and a ham and cheese,” Oh said. “Without them, I could have died. … I started calling Ned and Richard angels, local heroes.”
What had started as a day hike turned into a harrowing fight to stay alive.
On her second day in the Yampa Valley, visiting from her home in Houston, Texas, Oh decided to hike to Devil’s Causeway. The fitness instructor parked her rental car at Stillwater, ate a muesli bar, then embarked. Typically, a trip to the popular, narrow rock bridge ranges from six to 10 miles, depending on how one returns to Stillwater.
However, Oh wasn’t certain on how to return. She didn’t go back the way she came, and remembers an old wooden sign saying Trail 1119, but soon lost the path after that.
“I wasn’t aware there are no signs, no people,” she said. “I’m alone.”
Oh had done plenty of hiking when she lived in South Korea, New Zealand and Australia, but this was the first time she was exploring the mountains in the United States. She was wearing a windproof jacket, a long sleeve shirt, leggings and sneakers. However, she only brought a fanny pack with her wallet, phone and lip balm. Before she knew it, it was getting dark.
“The first night was very scary,” she said. “I heard about the bears and the wild animals in Colorado.”
Oh positioned herself on the side of a hill where she could see her surroundings, and used the flashlight on her phone to keep animals away, but that depleted the battery. Her shoes were damp from following a creek and the temperature dropped to about 30 degrees.
She was optimistic she would find her way out or help on day two.
“I started walking from 7 a.m until 7 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m. it was getting dark and I was like, ‘Oh, another night I have to stay,’” she said.
Oh was drinking water from fast-moving portions of streams, but had no food and was exhausted on day three.
“I could not possibly believe how I couldn’t get out of the mountains,” she said. “It was hours and hours, the same scenery. A little bit of trees, lots of logs, creeks everywhere. There’s no signs and I never really experienced that kind of wild mountains.”
While hiking in New Zealand, there were more landmarks to help orient her and guide her if she ever lost her way. But the Flat Tops were seemingly endless.
She used her skills as an endurance runner and a yoga and spin instructor to maintain a mind-over-body attitude, but after three long days, she was struggling.
“I thought about the funeral. I thought about death,” Oh said. “Maybe, if I died here, no one would find me. Every once in a while it crossed my mind, ‘This is it. Who is going to be at my funeral? Who is going to be crying out for me?’ I just said, ‘There must be a way. I must walk, walk, walk.’”
She continued following the same creek and on day four, Thursday morning, she encountered a pair of fly fishermen.
“I cried. I nearly rolled down the hill,” Oh said. “I said, ‘I am so glad I ran into you. Can you help me?’ I cried. I burst into tears.”
There is 12 miles separating Oh’s start point from her rescue point, but she said she knows she walked more than that. Her feet were black and blue from bruises and her legs were scraped from bushwhacking through brush to follow the creek.
“She was remarkably sane for having been out for three days and three nights,” Skinner said.
Grant and Skinner drove more than an hour and a half with Oh back to her car at Stillwater. Skinner then drove her car back to her hotel in Steamboat, as he said she wasn’t fit to drive with her legs and arms shaking.
Grant had Friends of the Wilderness training and felt equipped to help her even if her condition was worse. He too astounded by how lucid Oh was when their paths crossed.
Oh visited Urgent Care to make sure she was OK before heading back home to Houston on Friday, Oct. 14, and said she planned to visit a doctor again once there.
Despite a horrifying first experience, Oh said she would undoubtedly return to Steamboat and the Flat Tops, although next time she vows to not go alone and to study the route before heading out.
“Steamboat’s become very special,” Oh said. “It’s the people. It’s the memory and a story. I will come back.”
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