About a disappearance in a national park


This happens all too often in the rugged backcountry of the West: A hiker goes out for a day, or an afternoon, and never returns. A search is launched, and eventually the person is found safe -- or it ends less happily, and a body is recovered. This time it happened at Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado.

On a scorching Sunday afternoon in early June, a man vanished; he'd told his wife he was walking down to Spruce Tree House, a ruin just a quarter-mile away on a paved trail. But he never returned, and by Monday morning the park had organized a search.

It didn't sound promising. Daytime highs were over 100 degrees. The 51-year-old carried no water, no extra gear; he was from Goliad, Texas, near sea level, while much of the park is over 7,000 feet high. So the park sent out searchers on foot, dog teams and horses, and a helicopter clattered low over the rocky canyons all day.

I was visiting the park that Monday afternoon, and I decided to hike the 3-mile-long Petroglyph Point trail, which splits off from the Spruce Tree House trail. Steep and rugged, it sidles along ledges and alcoves, squeezes between tall rocks, and ascends rough stair steps hewn from sandstone blocks. After an hour of walking, I suddenly heard a weary male voice call "I need some help."

I thought of the missing hiker. Perhaps after visiting Spruce Tree House, he'd attempted this trail and run into trouble. I called out several times, but got no response. I thought about going off-trail to look, but figured I'd become Victim #2 if I tried to scramble down those ledges and cliffs. My cellphone had no signal.

I hiked back down the trail as fast as I could, and when I found the chief ranger, I told him what I'd heard. Relief washed over his face as another staffer said, "We thought we heard a call for help in that area yesterday." They quickly began planning to bring in dogs and more searchers. I left the ranger station and stood looking at the opposite side of the canyon, where I'd heard the call. I said a silent prayer.

When I got back to my western Colorado home the following day, I checked the news, thinking I'd read that the hiker been found. Instead, I learned that Mitchell Dale Stehling was still missing, and now, 70 people were looking for him.

As I write this, it's been almost two weeks since Stehling vanished, and the search has been scaled down. "A group of us think he's still somewhere in the park," said chief ranger Jessie Farias. "We've all heard of planned disappearances, but it doesn't smell that way."

The odds of him being found alive are basically zero, though. Perhaps he fell between big rocks in a place where searchers can't see him; perhaps wind shifts made the dogs miss his scent.

Dying alone in the wild sounds like a free and romantic way to exit this earth, and many of my outdoor friends say they’d prefer to perish outside. "Like Lawrence Oates," I’ve told them in agreement, remembering the member of Scott's ill-fated 1911 polar expedition who walked out into a blizzard to die. "On some freezing cold night, I'll say what he did: 'I'm just going outside, and may be some time.' "

My friend, Albert, imagines another sort of ending: "My last moment will be at 12,000 feet in a thunderstorm. There'll be a big flash and all that'll be left is my flask and my hiking boots." And Joe has already picked out a sleeping bag to be buried in.

But is that really how any of us wants to die, alone in the wilderness, unattended except by beetles and vultures? Better, I think, to be with those you love.

The writer Ana Maria Spagna applauds those who "face the gentle night with agonized patience and those brave enough to usher them through, rather than champion one quick cold night in the forest." When it comes to facing death, she writes, "I'll offer comfort. And, when the time comes, I'll take it."

I have no idea if Mitchell Dale Stehling was the man I heard calling for help among the cliffs on that hot Monday afternoon. I don't know anything about him, really, or his family. But I think that, given the choice, his wife and daughters would have wanted the chance to offer him comfort before he died. And I think he would have wanted the chance to receive it.

Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed syndicate of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the managing editor of the magazine in Paonia, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Abigail Wright
Abigail Wright
Jun 25, 2013 01:37 PM
Thank you, Jodi. Though we all must cross the threshold alone, I too want my loved ones to help me to the door and wave me through.
Jeremy Apodaca
Jeremy Apodaca
Jun 25, 2013 10:31 PM
This unfortunate incident highlights the deceptive nature of what the NPS has done to the traveling public. With all their rules, permit requirements, paved trails and point of interest markers, guide books, and ever-present hand-holding while providing entertainment services, the agency has succeeded in a demonstrable dumbing-down of outdoor skills.

They have created an expectation on the part of the peculiar clientele they cater to that there are no real dangers (despite warning signs and suggestions saying otherwise in generally muted language so as to not unduly upset the entertainees), and that if by some chance a problem should be encountered, a friendly park ranger will be there to kiss the booboo and make it all better.

Going to a national park has taken on the undertone of some Disney-like experience where everything is sanitary and neatly controlled to the extent possible (and beyond if they can at all accomplish it).

I don't know if Mr. Stehling was one of those "customers", but the description of his preparedness suggests he was. As noted, this was very unfortunate, but until the NPS stops their methods of coddling tourists, it will continue to occur.

I know that when I step into NPS territory, a high percentage of folks there are decidedly unlike their counterparts who frequent BLM and USFS lands, where such an intense level of care does not exists and the expectation and requirement is that you will be able to make informed decisions along with taking care of yourself.

The NPS has chosen to create a "guardrail" experience that tends to go horribly wrong when their customers venture beyond the velvet rope.

You might say the NPS failed Mr. Stehling. Condolences to his family.

John W Stephens
John W Stephens Subscriber
Jun 26, 2013 08:13 AM
I think that Jeremy Apodaca is wrong, both in details and in the whole. 'Nuff said.
Steve Woods
Steve Woods Subscriber
Jun 26, 2013 08:43 AM
Classy and correct Mr. Stephens and Ms. Wright.
Denean Stehling
Denean Stehling
Jun 28, 2013 10:12 AM
Let me start by saying Dale is my husband. I agree with both Jodi Peterson And Jeremy Apodaca.
Dale very much knows how to prepare for rugged conditions And hiking. He was not Prepared that Sunday afternoon because he did not intend to go on a back country trail. (flashlight ,water and knife in his bag. Not with him) I believe after seeing the area And the trail markings much more could be done to prevent this from happening again. I was reptatedly told by park rangers that people frequently get off on the wrong trail and I needed to give him about 3hrs to get back. Not knowing how long it should take to go to STH. I started inquiring about an hour after he left,
I heard several people talk about getting on the wrong trail and not having enough water.
I saw so many attempting the trails that had NO idea what was ahead of them and yes the NPH tries to sugarcoat it. Mr FariuS informed my Sister and I he took his Childs class on a hike. Like it was no Big deal. I could go on about what all I don't agree with but to no avail.
Though there is NO sign of my husband, dead or alive, once the NPH decided he couldnt survive the search was basically over and did not go outside the boundariesof the park. So my children and I will Soon return to try to expand on the search.
Scott Haas
Scott Haas
Jun 28, 2013 01:51 PM
I have to partially agree with Jeremy Apodaca but I can't place blame with the National Park Service. There is in fact a perception among the public that when you enter a park it is a "controlled atmosphere" and nothing will go wrong but should anything go wrong someone will be there to "fix it" for you. This is simply not true in the park or anywhere else for that matter. The NPS does what they can to warn visitors about the dangers of each park and being in the outdoors but I regularly see visitors pushing way beyond the boundaries of safety despite these ample warnings. Whose fault is that? Certainly not the NPS. The fault lies in the much broader tendency in our society to think that we can bring all of nature and every kind of danger under our control and we pass that buck to others like the NPS so we need do nothing ourselves. We are all in danger at all times whether in a park or in our house and it is our own personal responsibility to be aware of and minimize danger. But, even if we do...things still happen.

I dare say there are few of us, no matter how practiced in the outdoors, that would have "geared up" to make that quarter mile trek. The fact that this man didn't "gear up" should not be held to his account. The truth is anyone, no matter how experienced, can take a wrong turn, stumble off a trail or have some other calamity that rips us out of our safe element...and it can happen a very short distance from our car.

I feel bad for this man and for his wife who wrote in here. Obviously this is one of those circumstances that could have been avoided but if it were me I likely would not have taken my day pack safety kit with me either on that short hike but in the future I may reconsider that and carry at least a whistle at all times in a park even if the trail is very short and paved.

Denean Stehling
Denean Stehling
Jun 29, 2013 12:13 PM
I pray people learn from my husbands story to always be prepared, because yes, anything can happen. Besides a whistle, which we will always have now, is the importance of bright clothing. Dale was in all khaki and brown, not easy to spot in the terrain he was in.
Charles Quimby
Charles Quimby Subscriber
Jul 02, 2013 02:00 PM
My condolences to Mr. Stehling's family. Erica Olsen's short story collection RECAPTURE may be of interest to the commenters because it deals with these themes and locales. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/452490401
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Jul 10, 2013 10:01 AM
Today's Cortez Journal (http://www.cortezjournal.com/[…]/Still-no-sign-of-Texas-father-husband) reports that Dale Stehling is still missing. He apparently was last seen at the Petroglyph Panel on that Sunday -- just a few yards from where I heard the call for help the next day ... it haunts me that the voice may have been his. I hope for his family's sake that there is some resolution to this eventually. Sincerely, Jodi Peterson, HCN Managing Editor