WHITEFISH – Missing hikers Jason Hiser and Neal Peckens were found uninjured in Glacier National Park’s rugged backcountry on Monday afternoon after a three-day search for the Virginia veterinarians.
Friends and relatives of the men followed the search efforts with a mix of hope and trepidation, and breathed a welcome sigh of relief upon receiving the news.
“I am just overcome with relief. I am elated,” Hiser’s mother, Sandy, said in a telephone interview from her Maryland home. “Right now I just know that they are out and seem to be doing fine, but we really don’t know anything else.”
Details about the circumstances that took the hikers off course from their planned backpacking trip in Glacier Park’s Two Medicine area were scarce, but park officials reported they were found by two ground searchers at 3:30 p.m. and flown out of the backcountry to be with their families.
Hiser’s brother-in-law and two friends arrived in the area Tuesday to assist with the search, while Peckens’ wife, Deborah, arrived Sunday and provided out-of-state relatives with regular updates.
The men were reported missing by family members Friday after they did not return home to the East Coast on their scheduled flights. A search was initiated by the National Park Service that same evening.
An outpouring of support from family members, friends and colleagues followed news of the missing duo, and helped to buoy spirits in their Virginia hometowns, even as the massive search in rugged terrain was occasionally stymied by wintry backcountry conditions and poor visibility.
Denise Germann, a spokeswoman for Glacier National Park, said search crews encountered 5-foot snowdrifts, rain, strong winds and up to 18 inches of snow covering trails as they camped overnight between Dawson and Pitamakan passes Saturday and Sunday nights.
“They are in good spirits, they look well, and there are no injuries,” Germann said of the hikers. She said the men wanted only to be with their families Monday night.
Germann had no additional information about where the hikers were found or how they got off track, but search efforts focused primarily on the Two Medicine area on the park’s eastern side.
The men, both 32, work as veterinarians in the Richmond, Va., area. According to their backcountry permit, they planned to hike Oct. 9-10, departing from the North Shore Trailhead in Two Medicine and camping at Oldman Lake, a popular backcountry campground.
Sandy Hiser described her son as an experienced hiker and outdoorsman who enjoys visiting national parks in the eastern and western United States.
“He is an outstanding young man, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my son,” she said. “He is an extremely caring and kind young person.”
Although family members of Peckens could not immediately be reached Monday, his friends back home and colleagues at the veterinary clinic where he works started a fund to aid in the search efforts, and to assist family members with travel expenses.
“It was actually some friends of Neal’s who set up the fund with the intent to fund any additional search and rescue efforts that the National Park Service would allow, or to fly the families back and forth as needed,” said Katie Newbold, the office manager at Chesapeake Veterinary Cardiology Associates.
Newbold said the hospital staff reported Peckens was excited for his trip to Glacier Park in the days leading up to the vacation.
“The staff said he’d been talking about it a lot and was really looking forward to the trip,” she said.
The National Park Service dispatched as many as 50 people on foot and horseback, along with a specialized dog team, searching the backcountry near Two Medicine. Park officials said the team found a recently used fire ring Sunday and some tracks in the snow near the Nyack Drainage on the west side of the Continental Divide. The discovery led to speculation that the men may have gone off trail due to the wintry conditions, but Germann could not confirm whether they became lost or disoriented.
Peckens, of Herndon, Va., and Hiser, of Richmond, Va., became friends while studying at the Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va., Sandy Hiser said.
Peckens is a cardiologist at Chesapeake Veterinary Cardiology Associates, and Hiser works as an associate veterinarian at Broad Street Veterinary Hospital in Richmond, Va. His biography on the hospital’s website says he and his wife live in Richmond, and that he enjoys cooking, fly-fishing, golfing and hiking.
News of the successful rescue operation was well-received by park officials.
“The two missing hikers, Neal Peckens and Jason Hiser, have been located! Initial information indicates they are well and will be returning to their families! Yeah!” Glacier Park spokeswoman Denise Germann posted to the park’s popular Facebook page, which was being closely followed by subscribers across the country and prompted a flood of positive responses.
Other organizations that assisted Glacier National Park with the search included the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, Flathead Country Search and Rescue, North Valley Search and Rescue, Flathead Emergency Aviation Resources and the U.S. Border Patrol.
Additional information regarding the incident will be provided Tuesday. Watch Missoulian.com for updates during the day.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at email@example.com.