Two hikers from Virginia who spent several more days than expected in Glacier National Park had the gear and the skills to survive, according to park officials.
Neal Peckens, of Herndon, and Jason Hiser, of Richmond, returned to Virginia Tuesday.
“Overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from everyone,” Peckens said. “Our family’s received just a ton of support. We really appreciate that, and we can’t express enough gratitude for everything that everyone has done on our behalf since we’ve been gone.”
On the east side of the park last Wednesday, the 32-year-olds hiked in to wintry conditions along the Continental Divide -- including snow and strong winds. One of the hikers slipped and fell 100 feet down a steep incline. Though separated, they tried to hike parallel to each other before deciding it was best to try to go down the mountain together and find a new route up the mountain.
Then another setback: Their map of the area was lost to an extreme gust of wind, park officials said.
Peckens and Hiser set up a camp and fire in the Nyack Lakes area Wednesday night. On Thursday, they attempted a new route up the mountain, but the weather and terrain were too treacherous, so they headed back down and set up camp near the headwaters of the Nyack Drainage at an elevation of about 6,000 feet where they planned to wait for a break in the weather. Rationing their food, the two camped there for four days.
When Peckens and Hiser missed their flights home Friday, they were reported missing.
"Weather conditions certainly played a role in this incident, both for the hikers and for the search personnel," Glacier National Park Chief Ranger Mark Foust said.
Searchers were hampered by poor visibility, low cloud cover, mud, snow and wind.
In hopes of being found, the hikers kept their cell phones on during the day, spread out their space blanket for possible reflection during the day when they weren’t keeping warm with it, and used logs to create an SOS message, according to park rangers.
Monday afternoon, a Glacier National Park searcher spotted colored flagging which led him to a tent and the hikers, who were cold and wet but uninjured, officials said.
"These hikers were prepared with appropriate equipment and they used their situational awareness skills to determine how to respond to the unexpected in the backcountry," Foust said.
Foust also credited search-and-rescue personnel for the safe rescue of Peckens and Hiser.
"We are fortunate to have some very experienced and talented staff at Glacier National Park, as well as with our cooperators," Foust said, thanking the Flathead County Sheriff's Office, Flathead County Search and Rescue, North Valley Search and Rescue, Flathead Emergency Aviation Resources, U.S. Border Patrol and the pilots at Minuteman Aviation.
The hikers never lost faith they would be found, Peckens said.
“We’re just relieved to be back, back with family and friends," he said. "And we have the rescue teams to thank for that, and our heartfelt gratitude to them as well.”