Stranded camper was on the brink as help arrived

Times Staff Writer

Carolyn Dorn has long been considered a free spirit by her family, an outdoor lover who thought nothing of grabbing a child’s tent and a wilderness survival guide and hitting the trail for a couple weeks on her own.

The 52-year-old from South Carolina was drawn to southwestern New Mexico, where the rugged landscape is peppered with cliff dwellings used by people of the Mogollon culture more than 700 years ago.

So when Dorn called family members last month to let them know she was heading into the wilderness, they figured she would soon return with tales of her adventures.

They were wrong.

Five days into her trip, which began Dec. 6 near Silver City, N.M., Dorn got lost, and the Gila River had become so swollen from rain and snow that she couldn’t find a spot to cross.

For the next few weeks, she pitched her tent and huddled beneath a rock formation, bracing against waves of snow storms, heavy rains and plummeting temperatures.


That Dorn was located at all is surprising. That Dorn was found alive -- and is now listed in good condition at the Gila Regional Medical Center -- is considered shocking by the state investigators and National Guardsmen who rescued her early Sunday.

“It is a miracle she came out alive,” Frankie Benoist, incident commander for Grant County Search and Rescue, told the Associated Press.

Search teams began looking for Dorn on Christmas Eve. Over two days, they covered an 11-mile radius around a ravine off Turkey Creek Road, near Gila, N.M., where Dorn’s locked vehicle was found Dec. 11.

But by then, her trail had grown old and the weather had dropped to the single digits at night.

Dorn’s brother-in-law, Stan Cornine, arrived from South Carolina and remained in the area to continue the search. But the family reportedly gave up hope earlier this month, and Cornine stopped looking. Benoist said at the time, “We are afraid she may have succumbed to hypothermia.”

Dorn nearly did.

She ran out of food after the second week and began scrounging for plants to eat, according to her rescuers.

Her supply of clean water ended around week three, so she turned to the river and snow for fluids, they said.

As the days passed, the 5-foot-tall Dorn told rescuers, she lost so much weight that she barely had the energy to stand.

Dorn scavenged as much wood as she could find from the crescent-shaped area that was relatively protected from the weather, but eventually there was nothing more to burn.

“So she started tearing pages out of the wilderness guide to use as fuel,” said Albert Kottke, 24, who was hiking out of the Gila Wilderness on Friday with his 20-year-old brother, Peter, when they came upon Dorn, east of the Gila River about six miles from a road.

Albert Kottke first thought Dorn’s faint plea for help was a raven cawing from deep inside the forest, he said.

Then his brother pointed across the river. There was a slight, bedraggled woman, covered in ash and dressed in long underwear, tennis shoes, a knit cap and a leather jacket.

“When we got to her, the first thing she said was, ‘I haven’t eaten in three weeks. I’m real hungry,’ ” Albert Kottke said. “She said that before, she weighed about 120, 130. When we found her, she barely weighed 100 pounds. She was gaunt.”

The Kottke brothers helped carry her back to her tent, gingerly feeding her bits of granola and noodle soup as they asked her what happened.

“She told us that it got bad when it started to snow. She got scared,” Albert Kottke said. She tried to cross the river, “but then it got too high and she thought she’d wait for the water level to drop. After she waited awhile, she got scared of getting even more wet than she was. She got weak from the lack of food, which made her even more worried.

“The fear just built on itself.”

It’s unclear how much backpacking experience Dorn had. Albert Kottke, who has been hiking in the wilderness for nearly a decade, said she didn’t seem prepared for emergencies or extreme weather.

“There was no stove that we could see. She was dressed in waffle-pattern cotton long underwear, which got wet, so it wasn’t keeping in any heat,” he said. “The tent was this tiny little bright-blue-and-teal kids tent, without any decent rain or wind protection.

“At least she had a sleeping bag and a blanket.”

The brothers raided their own dwindling stock of supplies, leaving more than 2 pounds of food: bites of cheese, bags of granola, dried fruit and nuts, handfuls of brown sugar.

After collecting a large stack of firewood and leaving her with a book -- Michael Connelly’s “Chasing the Dime” -- the pair promised Dorn that they would send help.

The Kottkes then hiked nearly 20 miles over the next day and a half. When they reached a main road, they hitchhiked into Silver City on Saturday and alerted the authorities. Albert Kottke said he used maps to show authorities where he and his brother had found Dorn.

The New Mexico Army National Guard sent out a helicopter team, including a medic, from the Santa Fe station late Saturday. But snow and sleet forced the crew to wait at Las Cruces, N.M., until around 4 a.m. Sunday.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Race Baker, one of the pilots, said they flew along the river and scanned the steep ravines with their night-vision goggles. They found her about 23 miles north of Silver City, Baker said, standing by a fire waving a white cloth.

“She was so weak, Staff Sgt. [Greg] Holmes had to carry her across the creek,” Baker said. “She was very dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia. She was in pretty bad shape.

“We’re not sure how much longer she could have lasted.”