RSAR Missions - Twin Buttes Search


Tempe man found after nine days on Fossil Creek Road, north of Payson


Photo courtesy of Sgt. Dennis Newman/GCSO

Michael Zelinski (center) with Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers Jim McMillion, Jim Oelerich, Ron Snodgrass and Warner Thompson. The men had been looking for Zelinski after he didn’t show up to work last week. Zelinski was found walking on the Fossil  Creek Road.

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 week.

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 search

That search came to an end Wednesday in a way no one had expected. “Verde River Trail #11; Verde RiverTwin Buttes Trailhead

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 Gila Count

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 Zelinski’s apartment.

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 the trailhead.

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 looking.

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 walking.

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 of food.

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 plants.

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.

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