‘A miracle’: Missing hiker found safe after 5 days

Nathan Mitchell survived on drinking creek water in the wilderness

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Last week, Chuck Mitchell and his son, Nathan, hiked 18 miles together in Table Mountain. The 2 have hiked together for years, but, according to Chuck, Nathan called this the biggest bonding experience the father and son have had.

During the hike, Chuck recalled his son, a positive person by nature, saying something that stuck with him.

“Never go to the dark side,” Chuck remembers Nathan saying in the hopes his father would always stay positive — no matter what happened.

Over a week later, Nathan’s advice waned in his father’s consciousness. It had been 5 days since Nathan had headed into the Mt. Hood wilderness for a solo hike. A storm hit that Saturday night, and Nathan didn’t return.

The Mitchell family hugs after Nathan Mitchell was found alive after being missing for 5 days in the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, October 26, 2017 (KOIN)

Chuck and Nathan’s friend, Alex Johnson, headed to the search and rescue command center Thursday to plan another day of hikes and tears when someone approached them. The person said they had news. On day 5, Chuck’s optimism fizzled.

“News can go bad and news can go good,” Chuck said. “Sometimes your mind goes to dark places.”

The news stopped Chuck’s wondering mind right in its tracks. Nathan, wet, cold and fighting aching foot pain, had been found. The dark side had found light.

“I didn’t listen to it,” Chuck said in regard to his son’s advice about staying positive. “And I was wrong.”

Nathan was found in the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness after over 100 volunteers had spent 5 days searching a 40-mile radius from where his car was found on Saturday.

Back at the command center, people celebrated the news. Nathan’s mother, Gay, said people danced, rejoiced and cried. Some people even popped champagne.

“This is probably the happiest day of my life,” Gay said. “The nights were very hard … it’s the best possible outcome, and I didn’t know it would be this good. We’re very lucky.”

The outcome didn’t look good for days. It started on Saturday.

Hiking is something Nathan could be considered an expert at doing. Chuck said his son has hiked in Peru, Panama and all over the Pacific Northwest. And a veteran hiker is always prepared. Nathan’s sister Becky said her brother had packed plenty of clothes and supplies for a day hike.

“He even picked up some rain pants on the way,” she said. “And a beanie.”

Nathan Mitchell’s family from left to right: Gay, Chuck, Becky (KOIN)

But Saturday’s hike had an element Nathan wasn’t fully prepared to face. An atmospheric river sent storms all over Oregon. Nathan, during his 14-mile round-trip hike, faced the storm head on. According to his family, Nathan hunkered down and waited for better weather.

Later, when he had an opening, Nathan tried walking back to his car, but he couldn’t. He found a ridge and fell asleep.

While sleeping, Nathan’s family said he started tumbling and rolled down a hill. When he woke, he was lost.

“Mt. Hood is a jungle,” Chuck, also an experienced hiker, said. “Once you get in there you can get disoriented because everything looks the same.”

Nathan decided to use an old family hiking tip that Chuck’s father had taught him to use in a case like this. When you’re lost, head downhill and find a stream.

“That wasn’t best decision in this case,” Chuck said.

There, near some drainage of Salmon River trail, Nathan stayed. He was feeling sick and tired — he slept most days and waited, his parents said. Without any food, Nathan drank water from the creek to survive. Nathan told his family the water was pure and beautiful.

“He really enjoyed drinking it,” Gay said.

As the days went on, Nathan’s family and the rest of the search team — not too far away from where he was located — didn’t lose hope, but they did understand the reality of the situation.

“We had discussions about when the plug was going to get pulled on this rodeo,” Chuck said.

Then, a friend of Nathan’s, who had taken boy scouts survival classes with him as a kid, found the missing hiker. Two people stayed with Nathan while another one went back to the command center to alert the others.

The Mitchell family hugs after Nathan Mitchell was found alive after being missing for 5 days in the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, October 26, 2017 (KOIN)

Elsewhere, Becky and other people were hiking trails, searching for her missing brother. While searching, someone she didn’t recognize approached her and told her where they had found her brother.

“We just ran as fast as we could,” she said. “We slid down the ravine. It really was a beautiful moment.”

During Thursday’s press conference, Chuck constantly called his son tough. After the storm hit Saturday, Nathan developed trench foot — a painful condition common in World War I that happened to soldiers when their feet were submerged in water for too long.

Still, the pain didn’t stop Nathan from completing the hike.

“He walked out himself,” Becky said. “He didn’t want to be carried.”

Nathan was immediately transported to the hospital after he was found. He was in relatively good condition for someone who hadn’t eaten in 5 days. He had an immediate idea on how to fix that. He asked his family for a cheeseburger.

“It’s in his room right now,” Gay said Thursday night.

The Mitchell family hugs after Nathan Mitchell was found alive after being missing for 5 days in the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, October 26, 2017 (KOIN)

And as for any injuries, Chuck said he’ll have no residual effects, “except for some bruises and some big stories to tell.”

The Mitchell family was also blown away from all the support they received. Gay said you really find out who your friends are in a situation like this, and it looks like they have many. She estimates hundreds of people volunteered. Rescue teams from all over the state joined the search. The family said Nathan’s old babysitter showed up.

“If it would’ve gone the other way we would’ve still had the same feelings,” Chuck said from the command center after he was found.

“We’d still feel grateful,” Gay interjected.

“But with a lot less joy,” Chuck said.

Throughout the search, Chuck said he cried a lot. He tried to stay positive, but reality sometimes took him elsewhere. On Thursday, he only shed tears of joy.

“It truly is an amazing miracle,” Gay said.