Woman finds inner strength during backcountry ordeal
New Castle hiker ‘a different person up there’By Dennis WebbGSPI News EditorEileen Leland lost her way but found her inner strength during a three-day ordeal in the backcountry south of Edwards this week.The 57-year-old New Castle woman had endured two cold, hungry nights alone and was preparing for a third when a helicopter rescued her late Wednesday afternoon near Middle Lake.She nearly did spend that third night outdoors, despite seeing helicopters overhead for two days running. Rescuers reported that the helicopter pilot decided to make one more trip Wednesday to the search area in order to burn up a little more fuel before calling it a day.”I understand it was a bit of a fluke,” said Hal Sundin of Glenwood Springs, an organizer of Leland’s hiking group, the 100 Club.Leland was part of a 100 Club outing on Monday when she became separated from the group and took a wrong turn on the Dead Dog Trail, which branches off from the East Lake Creek Trail, and became lost.For someone who only moved to the mountains a year ago from Illinois, and had never gone camping, it was the beginning of a prolonged backcountry experience that tested her strength and resolve, and forced her to rely on her faith.”I was a different person up there. I had the strength to do what was needed to get found,” she said.Leland’s first reaction to becoming lost was one of panic, not resolve.A strong climber, she had gone ahead of her husband and others in the group, and taken a wrong turn. When she saw someone else going on the same path, she assumed she was headed the right direction, but eventually she changed her mind and turned around. But she missed the turnoff back onto the main trail.She ended up in an area of fallen trees.”I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, where am I?’ ” she said.That’s when she became flustered and panicked, she said. Taking stock of her situation, she found a stream and decided to go down it. But as she did, the stream became bigger and she was forced into the streambed, jumping rocks and boulders and grabbing branches. At some point, a branch punctured her arm.”I did not notice that until this thing was all over,” she said.Eventually cliffs rose up on either side of the stream and Leland could go no further downstream. She decided she would stay where she was for the night. She found a big boulder where she could sit in the sun and dry off, and then located a big tree root for shelter, and arranged a bed of bark and twigs.Fortunately, she said, she was “as well-dressed as could be for the time of year.” She had two pairs of pants; a coat and rain jacket, both with hoods; gloves and an extra pair of socks.”I was OK, I just had to get through the night,” she said.Little did she know she wouldn’t be getting out of the woods the next day.When morning arrived, she decided to go back upstream. She tried to stay out of the water, after enduring cold, wet feet that kept her from sleeping the previous night.But as she proceeded, she came across feeder streams, and had trouble telling which one she had come down. Finally, she decided to stop in a small, grassy area near a cliff, where she could again warm up in the sun, and could wait for help.Around noon on Tuesday, a helicopter came searching over her spot but it was too small of a clearing and rescuers didn’t see her.She decided to remain there a second night. She kept hearing helicopters conducting a systematic search, and assumed one might fly over again on Wednesday.She was right. After another long night spent shivering, she heard a helicopter return the next day, and positioned herself on a rock, hoping she would be spotted there.”He couldn’t see me on the rock I was standing on,” Leland said.It was maddening for Leland, as the helicopter hovered right over the cliff near Leland, but she couldn’t get in a position to be seen.”I couldn’t get down the rocks fast enough,” she said.She realized she had to leave her location. But by then, it was hard to move. She had been surviving on one sports bar over three days, was stiff and tired, and found it hard to gather her gear and move in a direction where she had seen a lot of helicopter activity.”It was a big effort, but I figured, ‘OK, once I get to this place I’m going to stay there,'” she said.She reached a large meadow that turned out to be where the helicopter had been dropping off searchers, and took a nap while she waited.”But nobody came for most of the afternoon,” she said.That’s when she realized she might face a third night of having to survive by her wits. She went scouting for shelter, and again prepared a bed for herself.Then she heard a helicopter.”I thought, ‘Oh please come closer.’ I can’t tell you how hard I prayed the whole time,'” she said.When the helicopter reached the edge of the clearing, a searcher on board signaled to her.”He waved to me and they circled a few times and then came down to get me, and I can’t tell you how relieved I was,” Leland said.Although it was difficult for Leland to see helicopters earlier and yet not have them spot her, she said their very presence gave her hope that she would be found.”I don’t think I ever once thought I wasn’t going to be rescued. I had a very positive attitude about it all,” she said.After the initial panic of the first day, she never panicked again through her ordeal and never imagined she wouldn’t make it out alive, she said.”I just went through all the positive things in my life and my love for my husband. I thought, this isn’t meant to happen to me.”Even when she tried to think negative thoughts, she couldn’t, she said.”It was like there was too much to live for, too many good things to live for in life.”One of those things is a planned hike to Crested Butte Monday, a hike she still plans to take.”I mean, I had all these things planned,” she said, also mentioning her involvement with her church and with the Extended Table soup kitchen in Glenwood Springs.”It just kept me going and kept me feisty, and I thought, I’m just going to get out of this.”Her experience also gave her a chance to think about life, what’s good about it, what she wants to change.”It was sort of a forced solitude experience, in some ways a spiritual one, in some ways beautiful,” she said.Between the clouds, the sunsets and her surroundings, “the beauty of the place helped to keep my spirits up,” she said.Leland worried about being lost a fourth day, wondering when searchers might give up. But she approached her meals as if a fourth day wouldn’t be necessary, nibbling on her one sports bar over the first two days so she had some left for the third.”I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be rescued today, I’ll finish it, and that’s what happened,” she said.Ironically, Leland said, she wasn’t hungry when rescuers offered her food just after her rescue. It was as if her body had adjusted to the idea of going hungry for a while.She drank often from streams while she was lost, deciding it was better to risk giardia than to become dehydrated.The weather was dry and relatively warm during Leland’s ordeal, with temperatures dropping into the 40s at night. She said she had no run-ins with animals, and didn’t worry about them, being too occupied with trying to keep warm and plan her next step.She and her husband are highly appreciative of the efforts of rescuers, well-wishers, and those who looked after Bruce while she was missing.”We’re absolutely overwhelmed by the caring and the feeling of community and the way that we have been – I’m going to get weepy saying this – everybody just went far out of their way to be helpful and supportive,” Bruce said.”This is a remarkable place. We knew we were lucky to be here but that feeling is tripled,” he said.Eileen Leland said she was humbled that strangers made the effort to look for her, and also appreciated the efforts of the 25 or so 100 Club members who joined the search.Sundin said it was the first time his club has been asked to join a search.”It’s dull work,” he said. “You roam and you look and you roam some more.”Obviously when you don’t produce any results it’s very disappointing because you don’t have anything to show for your efforts. But I think that’s the nature of search and rescue.”In this case, Leland was fortunate to be found in good condition, and not to have sustained any injuries that would have immobilized her while scrambling in such rough country, he said.Sundin said the 100 Club has been in existence for 14 years, and organizes two hikes a week. In all that time, it has never had hikers get lost for more than a few hours.He said that while the group spreads out according to the hikers’ different paces, one rule is that no one hike alone, as Leland chose to do.People make mistakes, he said, but in this case it turned out all right, and everyone can learn from Leland’s experience, he said.”We now will take much more seriously the list of what you have to carry with you even on a couple-hour hike,” Bruce said.And Eileen “said she’s not letting me out of her sight again,” he said.Eileen said she particularly wishes she had packed a compass, a space blanket, and a flashlight for signaling rescuers.”I just never thought I would need them because I was with my group, but I did get out of sight of them,” she said.She had her faith, though, which she believes helped her in her actions.”I do think it was a higher power that enabled me to do it,” she said.She added, “I am a fighter, and I gave it all I had.””I am a very fortunate individual. Very, very fortunate.”
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