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Massive search ends with recovery effort

June 20, 2014

Search and Rescue members rappel off a ledge Friday that leads to a chute where the body of 60-year-old Dumont, N.J. resident John Likely. His remains were spotted from air Thursday night during an extensive, five-day search that included 14 different agencies from across the state. It’s believed he may have been headed to Mirror Lake (below) when he fell about 50 feet to his death. Photo courtesy Inyo County Search and Rescue

One of the largest search and rescue operations in Inyo County history came to an end this week with the discovery of hiker John Likely’s body.
The discovery – made early Thursday evening during the last planned reconnaissance flight of the day – brought a sad conclusion to a massive, five-day search involving almost 100 experts and professionals from across California.
It was obviously not the conclusion hoped for by either Likely’s family or the searchers themselves, who refused to consider their mission a recovery rather than a rescue operation.
“This has been an extremely difficult five-day search,” Inyo County Search and Rescue Coordinator Nate Derr said Friday morning. “From the beginning, we’ve treated this mission as a rescue, not a recovery. As a team, we are deeply saddened, and our thoughts go out to Likely’s family and friends during this very difficult time.”
Likely’s body was recovered Friday afternoon from a steep chute at 11,450 feet – about 10 minutes off the Mt. Whitney Trail not far from Outpost Camp. According to Inyo County Assistant Search and Rescue Coordinator Brian Hohenstein, the recovery operation took about two hours. His team was flown into the air by an Army National Guard Chinook helicopter early Friday morning. From there, they hiked and rappelled down to the location of Likely’s body, getting it ready for transport back to the airport via Sequoia Kings Canyon helicopter. His body was lowered from the mountainside into a meadow below by the helicopter’s long line and then secured and flown back to the airport in Lone Pine, where the Inyo County Coroner was waiting.
It was a final display of teamwork in a week filled with grueling physical exertion and raw grit and determination from hundreds of strangers focused on finding a man they had never met.
Derr pointed out that many searchers chose to camp on Whitney and in other areas rather than return home to rest. They wanted to be able to be up and ready to go at first light, he explained, as well as stay on the scene to track down clues and interview hikers.
Hohenstein classified the mood during the search as one of unwavering camaraderie.
“Everyone was really focused and determined,” he said. “Nobody once ever gave up hope. Everybody was on top of their game, and even when they were exhausted everyone gave 110 percent. It was a great show of camaraderie by all the agencies involved.”
Thursday morning, Derr had brought in a dog team from the California Rescue Dog Association, sparking speculation that searchers suspected they were looking for a body rather than an injured hiker.
Not so, said Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Carma Roper. The dogs were just one more tactic being employed by a very determined incident commander.
“Mr. Derr wanted to use every resource at his disposal to find Mr. Likely,” Roper said.
As it was, search teams were running out of ideas as to where Likely might have gone. He was last seen Saturday afternoon descending Mt. Whitney Trail in the area of the 97 Switchbacks. His two hiking partners, with whom he’d been hiking for some 30 years, had gone ahead on account of Likely’s slower pace. According to the Sheriff’s Department, they said this was not an uncommon practice for them on trips with Likely. As a group, the trio had summitted Mt. Whitney five times previously.
At Trail Camp, they watched Likely through their binoculars maneuvering down the switchbacks and decided to press on for Outpost Camp, their destination for the night another 2.2 miles down the mountain. When Likely never arrived, his two hiking companions spent Saturday night and Sunday morning searching for him. Inyo County SAR was called out that afternoon.
After extensive searching by ground and air, Derr reported being mystified on Thursday as to Likely’s possible whereabouts.
“There has been very little to go on,” Derr said Thursday morning. “We have followed every lead, back-tracked the hiking route and the surrounding terrain, posted flyers, interviewed hikers and still nothing. My experience in search and rescue leads me to remain confident that the skills and expertise of the search and rescue members will result in the location of Likely. But this search mission is leaving even the seasoned experts scratching their heads.”
Some of the best search and rescue personnel in the state – from Antelope Valley, China Lake Mountain Rescue Group, Sierra Madre and Inyo, Mono, Marin, Contra Costa, Monterey, San Mateo, San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego counties – had been scouring the Sierra backcountry along and near the Mt. Whitney Trail since Sunday afternoon.
Sequoia-Kings National Park personnel searched the area between Trail Crest and Crab Tree Station.
Four different helicopters, from the California Highway Patrol out of Apple Valley, China Lake Naval Air Base out of Ridgecrest, Sequoia-Kings and the Army National Guard in Stockton, were used to insert search teams into the backcountry and for aerial reconnaissance and analysis of the Sierra Crest and areas beyond.
It was one of the helicopter crews that spotted Likely’s remains June 19 during a reconnaissance mission above Mirror Lake, just west of Outpost Camp – his intended destination Saturday.
According to the Sheriff’s Department, Likely was located in a steep chute – an area so difficult to access that the recovery required technical search and rescue expertise and specialized equipment. The recovery operation took much of the day Friday, from dawn to about 1 p.m.
According to Hohenstein, SAR can only speculate as to how Likely’s accident happened. It is possible Likely was seeking a short cut down to Mirror Lake – and Outpost Camp – by going off trail, or had already ended up off trail by mistake and decided to head for Mirror Lake. He made it about 10 minutes before falling an estimated 50 feet down the chute.
The Sheriff’s Department expressed its gratitude to all the agencies who assisted in the search, as well as the California Office of Emergency Services, which put out Inyo’s initial call for assistance.

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