AJ hiker survives 6 days injured in Superstitions

Michael Ferraresi and Steve Yozwiak
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 19, 2007 04:29 PM

Lon McAdam of Apache Junction had hiked in the Superstition Wilderness, often alone, for 32 years without a hitch.

But on the third day of a nine-day trek this month, along a creek bed at the bottom of aptly named Rough Canyon – just after he had scrambled past the worst of the boulders – McAdam slipped.

“It was not like a big tumble. It was just a simple little trip,” he said.

McAdam’s left kneecap cracked against a protruding rock, leaving McAdam unable to walk, helpless and alone in the middle of nowhere, and with no one expecting him back home for six more days.

The 56-year-old building manager for Apache Junction’s Gold Canyon Elementary School had a satellite phone, but it wouldn’t work. During his fall, his water pouch burst, soaking the phone and leaving it dead.

“In 15 minutes, I broke my knee, drenched my phone and pretty much realized I was screwed,” McAdam said.

He had talked to his wife, Toni, earlier that day, letting her know everything was going well.

“My biggest concern was there are bears out there,” said McAdam, recovering this week at a Scottsdale hospital.

He had plenty of food in the wilderness, but no way of hoisting it up to store it in a tree, out of reach of wildlife.

The remote area near the Superstition Mountain’s Reavis Ranch, about 30 miles east of Mesa, was littered with bear scat. McAdam said he knew the bears were close, so he spent much of his time gripping a can of bear repellent and yelling into the woods to frighten any animals away.

At the same time, McAdam knew he needed to get to a spot where a rescue helicopter could spot him in the narrow gorge.

“I was scrambling on my butt for three days,” he said.

Only 100 feet away, he eventually made to a clearing where he set up a large blue tarp with an X on it. Then he waited.

“I knew I’d have to be patient.”

Somehow, McAdam remained calm. He knew someone would eventually come looking for him. As always, he had left a detailed itinerary with Toni.

With his kneecap split in two, McAdam gathered himself, eased through the extreme pain and eventually reached for his camera.

McAdam, a photographer published in Arizona Highways magazine, passed the time doing something he knew well.

He took photos, including some of himself.

McAdam also had plenty of time to think. He thought of Aron Ralston, the Aspen, Colo., man who in 2004 cut off his lower right arm to save his life after an 800-pound boulder pinned him for five days in southern Utah’s Blue John Canyon.

Relatives fear worst

Late on April 15, eight days after McAdam went exploring, Toni was feeling desperate. Her husband had not returned on time.

At daybreak on April 16, Toni called the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. She also called the satellite phone company to get a location of Lon’s last phone call.

“I thought he was dead,” Toni said, tears welling up again at the thought of something terrible happing to Lon.

Lon’s 78-year-old mother, Georgianna McAdam, flew in from Anaheim, Calif. “I’m going to cry. This was so scary,” she said, recalling the uncertainty while Lon was missing.

Helicopter rescue

After six days injured and alone, McAdam saw an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter hovering over Rough Canyon.

He signaled it, reflecting the sun with a small, hand-held mirror. Rescue personnel saw it. McAdam was lifted out with the help of the Pinal sheriff’s Superstition Search and Rescue squad, and within hours Lon was reunited with his family.

Recovering from surgery this week in a hospital bed at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn, McAdam received a surprise visit from Brenda Farris, principal of Gold Canyon Elementary School. Farris carried a giant get-well card, signed by many of the school’s students.

“We told them he broke his knee; kept it in as simple terms as possible,” Farris said.

Will hike again

Reflecting on his ordeal, McAdam said he enjoyed the view of the Superstitions from the rescue chopper. With the unspoiled wilderness below, he realized the trip – despite the “little trip” that nearly killed him – was worth it.

“This was just for the pure adventure and experience,” McAdam said. “I knew I was going to get out.”

And he plans to go back. But next time, he said, he’s bringing a personal locator beacon.