US hiker rescued after man uses photo to pinpoint his location

Mr Rene Compean (in black) had been reported missing this week near Mount Waterman, about 80km northeast of Los Angeles.
Mr Rene Compean (in black) had been reported missing this week near Mount Waterman, about 80km northeast of Los Angeles.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The photograph didn't provide much detail: just a snapshot of Mr Rene Compean's feet dangling over a bed of rocks during a hiking trip.

It was enough, however, for a stranger to help pinpoint his possible location and help authorities rescue the hiker after he was reported missing this week near Mount Waterman, a ski destination in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 80km northeast of Los Angeles.

While hiking on Monday (April 12), Mr Compean sent a photo to a friend and said he was lost and his mobile phone battery was losing its charge, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He was reported missing around 6pm, and the photo Mr Compean took earlier that day was turned over to the authorities as search teams were deployed to start looking for him, the authorities said.

Unable to locate Mr Compean through the photo's metadata - he had disabled his phone's location settings - the authorities disseminated it on social media, where it eventually landed on the radar of the Twitter user @ai6yrham, according to Sergeant John Gilbert, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

The user, whose Twitter bio identifies him as a ham radio operator named Ben, responded to the Sheriff's Department call for assistance on Tuesday morning with a thread that included satellite images and predicted the missing hiker's coordinates. He wrote in a post that he had made sure to forward his predictions to the authorities.

Later that afternoon, Mr Compean was located by rescuers, safe with no known injuries, in Angeles National Forest.

"I think, at least for our team, we haven't had anything exactly like this," Sgt Gilbert said of the user's assistance.

In an interview with KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, the Twitter user, whom the station identified as Mr Benjamin Kuo, said he leaned on the scenery captured in Mr Compean's photo to help him deduce the hiker's location.

"I've got a very weird hobby, which is I love taking a look at photos and figuring out where they're taken," Mr Kuo told the station.

In the interview, Mr Compean expressed his thanks to Mr Kuo and promised to make sure he would enable location data for photos from now on.

On Facebook, Mr Compean said he was fortunate to be back home.

"First and foremost I want to thank God for getting me thru this safe and sound home," he wrote on Wednesday. "Also to thank all those who played a role in the search and locating me. Thank you all for your prayers and the collaboration with each other."

Mr Compean was not immediately available for an interview on Thursday. Mr Kuo could not be reached for comment.

Sgt Gilbert said it was a good thing that rescuers were able to find Mr Compean quickly, as he had wandered off a main path in the Angeles National Forest. The authorities estimate that he hiked about 8km from where his car was, near Buckhorn Campground.

"It's steep, it's rugged, it's remote," Sgt Gilbert said of the area. "But once you hit the top of Twin Peaks and you start down the ridge line toward Triplet Rock, it's really not a path, it's an area that really only experienced mountaineers with certain types of equipment should go into."

Sgt Gilbert said that in recent months, many first-time hikers have tried to traverse backcountry areas in Los Angeles County, straining volunteer search-and-rescue teams. The same pattern has also been noticed in other parts of the country; search-and-rescue teams have dealt with an influx of new hikers as more people have explored the outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.

"When we find these people, they're making some very basic mistakes," Sgt Gilbert said.

He recommended that inexperienced hikers alert others about their location and provide friends with a detailed timeline of their day. He also said new hikers should consider buying satellite locating or messaging devices that don't rely on cell towers.