The Lost Runner 

How a runner's obsession left him missing in the wilderness.

Page 5 of 7

Torres took the initial report, then went in the squad room to brief night sergeant Joe Garofalo. "I said this guy is missing in Beat 5, and I showed the picture. I asked, 'Have you seen him?'" Torres said she was joking around, but Garofalo glanced at the picture and thought he'd actually seen Mintz walking around Colusa County that week, looking "grungy." It was a fortuitous case of mistaken identity. "John said he was in the wilderness the whole time," Melanie said. "And it's not easy for me to say that a deputy, who to me should have very keen powers of observation, is wrong. But if the deputy hadn't said that, we might not have found John. Because boy, were we excited."

Torres wired Deputy Karl Rudolf in Beat 5, which is up in the mountains. On Friday morning he checked the trailhead registers to see if Mintz had signed in. He hadn't, but that didn't matter because Rudolf found his silver Ford Focus almost immediately. He ordered a helicopter from the California Highway Patrol. He notified Sergeant Gary Basor in Lake County, where Mintz or his body was probably located. Basor took up the case that Saturday, following a limited trail search by Colusa County officials, which ended with Rudolf circling the area in a CHP helicopter. Basor filed a third missing-person report.

By then Mintz had been lost for almost a week. The case looked grim. Nonetheless, his search party tried to remain optimistic that Mintz had not died. "That thought never crosses my mind with lost people," Rudolf said.

Mintz spent his first night in Snow Mountain lying on a dead tree, right next to the stream. The next day he tried to ascend the ridge he had come down the day before, not realizing how far he had descended or how steep it was to go back uphill. In fact, the incline was precipitous. By then he had gotten pretty far off trail. To get out of the canyon he would have to climb through thorny briars and trees with thick, webby branches. "You go up, you're gonna get scratched," Mintz said. "I was bleeding a couple times." He didn't have a watch, so he never quite knew what time it was. That threw him off. After roughly an hour of plowing through the brush he was covered with bruises, and still not anywhere near the top of the ridge. "I knew that I had really gone down a lot further than I thought I did," he said. "That concerned me." On top of that, his portable Garmin GPS device had drained its batteries, so he could no longer measure his speed or distance. "This was another bad omen," he said. "It really took a toll on me."

It was Sunday, and Mintz figured a lot of campers and hikers would be wandering the trails above him. He tried calling out, but heard no one. "It just didn't happen," he said. "It's not a very well-populated area." By mid-morning the sun was scorching hot, and he needed water. So he climbed back down to the stream and — for the first time in his life — spent a second night in the wilderness.

The next day, he adopted a different strategy, thinking that if he followed the stream down to the bottom of the gully, it might lead him out of the woods. "It was a very extreme thing," he later recalled. He had begun his descent from the peak at about 7,000 feet of elevation, and by that time he thought he'd dropped to about 3,000 feet. (His car was parked at 4,000 feet.) As he followed the stream, the path became more and more treacherous. At times he was hopping stones and wading through the stream. The stream's current accelerated as the drops got steeper and steeper. In some places, the water level was deep enough to swim. Finally, Mintz reached a vertical slope that shot down about fifteen feet. "I was almost tempted to go down," he recalled. "Then I saw how dangerous it was." Had Mintz fallen down the cliff, he could have incurred a major injury — or worse — with no one around to help him. "It was kind of a point where I really got scared. ... I almost saw my life pass there."

So he gave up. He climbed back up the cliff and tried to retrace his steps. But he felt straitjacketed and began to despair. "I'm down in the canyon and I gotta climb one, two, maybe three thousand feet up just to get to one ridge. But then I find out there's another ridge. And another ridge. And then there's plenty of ridges all over. I'm off trail, and the ridges are all there. There's no guarantee I'm gonna find anything anywhere. So you can try to go one place or another, but it just got kinda bleak."

In the days that followed, his chances of escape only got slimmer. Few hikers and backpackers come on the weekdays, so there wasn't much use calling for help. He didn't have any food. He started eating dead ants and blades of grass for sustenance. (Humans can't actually digest grass, but Mintz said he didn't eat enough to upset his stomach.) He drank water from the stream. He lost his socks. The nights got colder — so cold, in fact, that he had to get up every fifteen minutes or so and do jumping jacks to get his blood circulating. The days were unbearably hot. "Feel somewhat resigned where I may have to play waiting game and just hope I am found, or be a Robinson Crusoe," he later wrote in a diary entry recounting the ordeal. By Thursday, he was disconsolate. "Reach age 43," he wrote, "and not a single happy moment except surviving the day and night."

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