A photo may very well have saved a missing hiker’s life this week. 46-year-old hiker Rene Compean was reported missing near Mount Waterman in southern California on Monday evening. After disseminating a photo online that Compean had sent to a friend earlier on Monday, authorities located Compean on Tuesday.
While hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains, located about 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Rene Compean realized he was lost. His cellphone battery was dying, so he snapped a photo of his feet hanging over rocks and sent the image to his friend, along with the message that he was lost. Compean’s friend alerted authorities and provided them the image later that day.
Unfortunately, Compean had disabled location tracking on his phone, something he says he will not do moving forward after his ordeal, so the image’s metadata was unhelpful in locating the missing hiker. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department took to social media and solicited assistance to ascertain Compean’s location.
A radio operator, Benjamin Kuo, saw the post and went to work. By Tuesday morning, Kuo had compiled a Twitter thread of detailed maps and used 3D terrain information to determine where he thought Compean had captured his photo. Kuo sent the images and the coordinates to the authorities, and Compean was located that afternoon in Angeles National Forest with no apparent injuries.
|A low-resolution version of the photo that was used to find Compean. Posted to Facebook by the Los Angeles Country Sheriff’s Department.|
After receiving Kuo’s tip, Air Rescue 5 went out to check the area Kuo pinpointed. Sure enough, Compean was quickly located. ‘I think, at least for our team, we haven’t had anything exactly like this,’ said Sergeant John Gilbert, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman.
In an interview with NBC in Los Angeles, Kuo said, ‘I’ve got a very weird hobby, which is, I love taking a look at photos and figuring out where they’re taken.’ Compean and Kuo met virtually later this week, and Compean told Kuo, ‘I crazy appreciate what you did…I really don’t know if I could make it there another day. It was just so cold.’ Kuo replied, ‘From the image in the background below your shoes, I was able to figure out where you were – pretty close.’
Compean thinks that recent wildfires in the area may have destroyed signage, leading to him leaving the established trail. Sgt. Gilbert said that it was a good thing Compean was located quickly. ‘It’s steep, it’s rugged, it’s remote,’ Gilbert said of the area where Compean had gotten lost. Although it’s not clear what Compean’s level of experience is, Gilbert remarked that rescue services have been tested during the pandemic as many novice and beginner hikers are hiking more. It’s great for people to get out and enjoy nature, but there are, of course, inherent risks to hiking, especially in remote areas.
‘When we find these people, they’re making some very basic mistakes,’ said Gilbert. He implores beginner hikers and those hiking alone to tell others where they’ll be and what their hiking timeline is. It’s also never a bad idea to buy a satellite beacon or messaging device, as many remote areas have limited cellular service. For Rene Compean, it was fortunate that he could send a message and image to his friend using his cellphone. He was also lucky that Benjamin Kuo saw the Sheriff Department’s call for help.