A Sheridan couple was found alive in the Bighorn Mountains last week after spending a harrowing five days stranded on Black Tooth Mountain facing freezing temperatures and deadly wind chills with little more than their wits and the clothes on their back.
More than 50 search and rescue volunteers from Johnson, Sheridan, Bighorn and Washakie counties mounted a massive coordinated effort with the Johnson County Sheriff’s office and multiple other government agencies to find and bring the couple home safely.
Snow, hail and below-freezing temperatures at 12,000 feet in elevation battered Alissa DeVille and Blake Fuhriman.
Dressed in summer clothing, with no food, little water, and in a makeshift refuge of rocks, the young couple was the subject of countless prayers for five days and was lucky to get out alive.
And though a helicopter flew so close that Fuhriman said he could identify the pilot in a line-up, rescuers couldn’t see him.
It was supposed to be a moment in time DeVille and Fuhriman would look back upon fondly – his marriage proposal.
The pair would sit, young, in love and planning their future, as they absorbed the beauty of the Bighorn Mountains beneath them.
Instead, the scene was one of nightmares as a romantic getaway turned into five days stranded on a cliff, unable to make it back to camp safely and with no option to climb higher.
As DeVille and Fuhriman huddled together for warmth, more than 50 people were on the ground discussing the logistics of retrieval, afraid to say the word “bodies” out loud.
“(We thought they were dead) all the way up until we found them alive,” Johnson County Search and Rescue volunteer Dennis Thorson said.
DeVille and Fuhriman had been missing for almost four nights before Search and Rescue was called.
“It was very, very cold and their camp was found somewhere else; we didn’t think they were even anywhere near prepared to do what they thought they were going to do,” Thorson said.
A modest proposal
It all began on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 29, when Sheridan couple Fuhriman and DeVille left their camp near Kearney Lake.
They had done everything right.
The pair had set up a camp, distributed a detailed itinerary to close friends and family, never strayed from it and stayed together.
Fuhriman had it planned out – with a ring box burning a hole in his pocket, he and his girlfriend would hike to a peak and he would propose.
It was around 8 p.m. when they realized they couldn’t descend the craggy cliff without ropes.
A night on the mountain had proved a struggle and Fuhriman, ex-military, knew the pair couldn’t stay there if they’d live to walk away.
With no climbing equipment, no food in their daypack and minimal water, the next day was spent exercising their only option – climbing higher.
But DeVille was injured, she had sprained her ankle during the climb and wasn’t able to move easily.
By nightfall Saturday, the pair had managed to build an impressive wind shelter from rocks, said Johnson County Search and Rescue captain Dave Loden. They had no way of knowing this would be their only refuge for the next four days.
According to Fuhriman, the couple survived by burning off anything they could find and drinking melted snow.
“Everything they took they burnt in that little cave to stay warm for five days, so I’d say something had to kick in to ration it out the way he did, because he was just out of stuff to burn,” Thorson said.
Temperatures reached below freezing at some points, Johnson County Sheriff Steve Kozisek said, and snow and hail battered the makeshift shelter from Saturday through Monday.
The pair didn’t know for sure that help was coming.
Fuhriman wouldn’t leave his new fiancée on that cliff, and their cell phone had lost battery power days prior.
Though there was another thing they didn’t know, something Kozisek said was imperative to honing in on the couple’s location – someone had tried to send a text message to the couple at some point in their first few days, and while the signal wasn’t strong enough to get through to the phone itself, it was strong enough to show a tiny “beep” on a military location search.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office received a call at 12:43 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2, almost 82 hours since the hikers left their camp, alerting them to the missing couple. Within 17 minutes, search and rescue volunteers were climbing out of bed and instigating a command center.
Before long, 50 people had assembled to help, made up of volunteers from Big Horn, Washakie, Sheridan and Johnson counties’ search and rescue teams, the Wyoming Air Guard, Civil Air Patrol, and the Sheriff’s Department.
Captain Loden split the search and rescue crews into four-man teams who would spend the next 12 hours trudging through the forest to even reach the initial search area.
With the help of Kozisek, two aircraft were distributed and flew in shifts looking for any signs of life from the hikers.
Though it wasn’t a lengthy search by search and rescue standards, having lasted fewer than 48 hours as opposed to days or weeks, the conditions were close to impossible.
“Lots of boulders, it was very, very steep in a lot of places,” Thorson said. “There’s probably not that many people who’ve ever been on the side of that hill. … We were surprised they were even walking out of there.”
By Wednesday morning, 18.6 square miles of land had been identified as either high or medium probability, there were fewer than 48 hours left in the air guard’s flight commitment, and volunteers were tired, cold and hungry, but soldiering on.
Kozisek, despite recounts from the volunteers saying otherwise, was positive the pair would be found alive.
“We always look very positive towards things; that’s always a thought you have in the back of your mind but until we feel as a team after confirming with all the guys on the ground, we would never make (the decision to stop searching) without completely agreeing on it,” he said.
One of the couple’s cell phones had received a text message during the search, and while on a regular phone tower’s location program it would be impossible to pinpoint an area in that range, the military aircraft had different capabilities showing a sign of hope for the search.
“The initial report we got from the telephone company was that it was completely out of our search area,” Kozisek said. “Fortunately the military has pretty good programs, they were able to do the same thing and through that program they were able to develop a map system of where within our search area that phone could’ve picked up that signal. We were searching four or five locations, and one of those was the area they were at. That’s a real good learning experience for us that that technology is there.”
At around 2 p.m. Wednesday, Fuhriman stumbled up to a volunteer at the base of the Black Tooth Mountain, severely dehydrated and hallucinating, but alive.
He had made the impossible decision, after a failed attempt at trying to shine a mirror at the military aircraft, and confident there were ground searchers in the area, to leave DeVille on the cliff to find help.
The team was surprised to find him walking, the thought of finding a body creeping into their forethought more and more with each passing hour, according to Thorson.
It was when Fuhriman described DeVille’s location that the six-man high-angle team knew their job wasn’t over and it would be eight hours more until both hikers were safe on the ground.
Monthly search and rescue trainings were what rescue volunteer Erick Loden said saved them from complete overwhelm—knowing they were trained, technically if not emotionally, to complete the rescue.
The six-man team was helicoptered in to DeVille’s location, they rappelled several hundred feet down to a ledge, moved horizontally several hundred more feet and used ropes and technical equipment to climb to her location.
They then had to do the same with an injured patient on their backs to get her to the helicopter basket.
By 10:15 p.m., DeVille was loaded into the helicopter and headed for the Johnson County Hospital to be evaluated and reunited with her fiancée.
The majority of the estimated 50 volunteers on the ground were sent home, but the high-angle team got insight to the couple’s struggle, spending a night at 12,000 feet to await helicopter retrieval the next morning.
Sleeping bags, 24-hour packs, food and water were flown in to make the crew as comfortable as possible.
“It was quite an effort when you stop and think about it,” Kozisek said. “You put (the volunteers) next to anybody else in the state of Wyoming or Western United States, they’re such a great bunch of people, well trained and they work hard. I’ve been involved with search and rescue (since 1972), and I don’t think you’ll find a better bunch of people.”