Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Michelle Yu Search: Use the Dogs First

Tragically Michelle Yu was killed early this week from a fall during a training hike in the Mt. Baldy area.  The coroner's report is not out yet, but it's more than likely that she slipped on some ice in a narrow portion of the area called the Devil's Backbone and fell 1000'-2000' to her death.  Her body was located by a helicopter in Fish Forks canyon.

Given that the details of the search wouldn't of affected the outcome I feel that I'm not being terribly tacky in doing some arm chair hindsight looking about the search

When people go missing in the mountains near me I tend to set up a Google Alerts Search.  This time because there is more that one Michelle Yu, the keywords I used were: Michelle Yu hiker.  As a result I have read every internet post that uses those keywords and am familiar with what the news broadcasts included which included details of her route and I was able to review photos of the trail.

Though she was training alone, her route was a common one and well known.  She was going to climb Mt San Antonio then traverse via the Devil's Backbone over the the Mt. Baldy ski lift and ride it down.  She was seen at "the top."  Which was implied to mean somewhere before the traverse.

The Devil's Backbone is a narrow in places ridge with a series of very steep ravines and canyons along both sides.  A map of the route can be found here (her route is the left portion going up to Mt San Antonio and then across to the right).  Photos of the trail can be seen here - in particular page down to the 6th photo and imagine that with ice on it - yikes. While her hike was not a technical one, she was surrounded by a whole lot of rugged terrain which is why is took 4 days to locate her body.

After a day or two the broadcasts started mentioning that 4 dogs were now being used.  This totally got my attention.  "Why only now?  That's completely backwards."

I know that 30-40 people were searching for Yu and that's very admirable, but even the news casts admitted that a dog can do the work of 40 people.  Granted the terrain was too steep for most dogs, but trail was not.  Effective and judicious use of tracking dogs could have saved a ton of time.

One sheriff spokesperson called the search a needle in a haystack.  I disagree.  Yes, it's a needle in a haystack, but you can make the haystack much smaller.  I have only trained one dog to track so I'm no expert but still these questions haunt me.

We know that she was seen near the top of Mt. San Antonio and intended to traverse over to the Mt Baldy ski lift.  She never showed up.  The traverse is essentially a straight line and she was training, not on some adventure.  She was on that traverse, so it doesn't take a genious to figure out that she has probably fallen.  So why not drop two dog/handler teams via helicopter at the start of the traverse?  And hold the gung ho searchers back before they go tramping all over the track.  Have the dogs follow the track until it stops.  Then start searching there!  Release the gung ho humans and let them try not to kill themselves in the steep areas.  I know holding humans back when time is ticking is just awful, but being patient and let the dogs do their job could really pay off.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Doing some research for an article, I found your post. Just wanted to clear up a few misconceptions if you don't mind...

Michelle did not fall from the Devil's Backbone trail. She was found in Fish Fork, and the Search and Rescue website shows the exact location. Fish Fork is northwest of Baldy. In order to land where she did, she had to be on the North Backbone trail, (a much less traveled trail that heads towards Wrightwood). It is believed that the fog was so thick on the summit that she took the wrong trail, believing she was on Devil's backbone, when in fact, she was on the North Backbone trail.

This is the reason why dogs most likely would have been ineffective. She was assumed to be on a different trail. In addition, scent dogs can only pick up the scent if it is heading uphill directly to the trail. The winds on Baldy can be fierce, (I've seen 80mph) and tend to swirl, which would make scent dogs useless. In fact, the only reason they found her as quickly as they did was that a rescuer saw the color of her clothing when they were circling around in a helicopter.

Hope that helps to clarify things a bit.