by Alexis Bechman roundup staff reporter
A 47 yearold Tempe man unfamiliar with the rugged
terrain disappeared into the wilds of the Mazatzal Wildness last
Michael Zelinski was already days overdue when
rescuers started to look for him Friday, Feb. 17. Days of rain and
snow had swept away most of his tracks, leading to a desperate
That search came to an end Wednesday in a way no one
had expected. “Verde River Trail #11; Verde RiverTwin Buttes
That was the handwritten note Zelinski left in his
Valley apartment. It offered the single, slender clue to the
whereabouts of the lost hiker.
Going on just that, searchers looked for Zelinski
west of Strawberry in the Twin Buttes area. By Tuesday, Zelinski had
been in the forest for nine days. Things were starting to look
grave. “We are up against the weather and time,” said Sgt. Dennis
Newman with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, who led the search in
Zelinski’s note said he would be out Sunday, Feb. 12
through Wednesday, Feb. 15. When he didn’t show up to his job at
Intel by Friday, Feb. 17, his work had contacted his family in
California. The family contacted Tempe Police who found the note in
An avid outdoorsman, rock climber and photographer,
Zelinski often took trips like this by himself, Newman said.
Shortly after Tempe Police found Zelinski’s note in
his apartment, local officers located Zelinski’s Subaru Crosstrek at
the Twin Buttes Trailhead. at the end of Forest Service Road 194 off
Hardscrabble Road, outside of Strawberry.
A helicopter crew searched for Zelinski Friday
night, but found no sign of him.
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue (TRSAR) sent a team of
four down the trail and found one footprint less than a mile from
They then lost the trail and tracks. The trail is
not maintained and has become overgrown, making it hard to locate.
The rescuers soon realized they were off of the trail. Using their
GPS, they found the trail again and suspected Zelinski may too have
lost the trail. With weather closing in, the group decided to
continue to the river on the trail, thinking Zelinski may have found
the trail again like they did and continued.
They made it to the Verde River, but found no sign
of Zelinski. After hiking 11 miles and descending 3,700 feet into
the canyon, the group decided to sleep at the river. For 14 hours it
rained on them.
Due to all the rain, the rivers were running
“unbelievably high,” said Bill Pitterle, TRSAR commander. The group
could not cross the creek and the mud had gotten so thick, they
could barely hike. A Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office helicopter crew
airlifted the rescuers out.
Reluctantly, rescuers suspended their search, said
Pitterle. Zelinski’s parents meanwhile had flown in from California
and anxiously waited at a Payson hotel for any word about their son.
Days passed and when TRSAR finally got back on the search, they
found no new clues to reveal what had become of Zelinski.
Rescuers figured Zelinski had been unable to cross
the river and focused their efforts from the air on the canyon south
of his vehicle.
Then the call came in at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Zelinski had been found — where no one had been
Yavapai County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Brent Kimbriel
was turning down Fossil Creek Road 708 from the Camp Verde side to
hook up with a helicopter crew to look for Zelinski when he spotted
Zelinski had managed to hike up to State Route 260
and Fossil Creek Road.
“I said, ‘Hey, have you been missing?’”
“He said, ‘Yes! For nine days.’”
Besides being tired and having a few bumps and
scratches, Zelinski was in remarkably good shape. Zelinski was
airlifted to the Twin Buttes Trailhead where Newman met him and
heard Zelinski’s tale Turns out, Zelinski got lost pretty much
as soon as he started.
Three quarters of a mile after leaving the
trailhead, Zelinski got off the trail, likely in the same place
TRSAR had lost the trail
Zelinski continued south to the East Verde River. He
made it to the river and followed it downstream to the confluence of
the Verde River.
With a topographic map in hand, Zelinski found his
location and decided to spend the next few days fishing the river,
as he had planned. He had boots, a fishing pole, a tent and plenty
When he decided to leave, he couldn’t find the trail
out. He spent all of Wednesday and Thursday looking for the trail,
since the cliffs blocked any other route out.
On Friday, it started raining. He managed to ford
the creek before the water rose and spent Saturday and Sunday
hunkered down in his tent. He supplemented his food supply by eating
On Monday, after the storm passed, Zelinski stashed
his heavier gear near the river and started to hike out with a few
supplies. He eventually stumbled on the Fossil Creek Road
Newman said Zelinski knew he was lost, but figured
someone would come for him. “Luckily, he never got into panic mode,”
Newman said. By 3 p.m. Wednesday, Zelinski was reunited with his
parents. “They were tickled to death,” Newman said.
In all, Zelinski told Kimbriel he probably hiked 23
miles trying to find a way out.