TULARE COUNTY, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) – Ignacio Saldana Jr. has known 75-year-old Juan Velasquez ever since he was just five years old.
When he heard Juan was lost in the wilderness of eastern Tulare County, he said he had to help in any way he could, even though he found himself in an entirely different country.
“I told my mom, I was like, ‘You know what? I have a feeling that I need to get out there because I’m gonna find him. I am gonna find him and I’m not gonna stop until, I’m not gonna get off that mountain until I find him,” he said.
Saldana says he was in Mexico for work and to train for an ultramarathon, as Juan, his dad, younger brother, and other family members arrived in the Sierra National Forest in eastern Tulare County for their yearly hunting trip.
He was in the middle of training on Sunday, when he got a message from his cousin.
His mentor and long-time friend Juan had gone missing.
“He was like, ‘Hey man you know what? I think we lost Juan,'” said Saldana. “It was like, I don’t know, like 9 a.m. And it was early because they were only planning to go in there for like a short period of time. So, he’s like ‘We can’t find him'”.
Saldana, a wildlife photographer and world traveler, initially helped remotely.
He looked at a map of the area, roughly 6,000 feet in elevation, as he tried to direct his family to where Juan may have gone.
As search and rescue crews arrived on Sunday, the hours passed, and the day soon shifted to Monday.
That night Juan was still missing, and Ignacio knew he had to help.
He got home to Riverside around Tuesday around 1:30 a.m., he grabbed his gear and rushed to help in the search.
In a video he took of the incident, Saldana can be heard shouting, “Juan!”
Saldana would go on to document his dangerous trek through the rugged terrain, alongside his friend Manuel Ayala, who came to help.
The grueling search left the men bruised, scraped up, and exhausted, but their big break came after noon on Wednesday when Ayala spotted smoke coming from the southwest.
Ignacio says he thought he had heard a sound there just hours earlier.
“He’s in his binoculars and he sees like a white smoke just barely coming out of like the ridgeline,” said Saldana.
He says they reported the signal to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, but search and rescue teams doubted the findings.
“They’re like ‘No, we don’t plan on searching that area. We have a strong feeling he’s gonna be over here. You know, there’s nothing over there. We already kind of, we sent choppers, planes, we sent a small team by there. But there’s, there’s nobody there.’ and I was like, ah.”
While they convinced the team to check it out, they couldn’t wait.
Saldana and Ayala got a few hours of rest and marched into the wilderness on their own early Thursday.
They traveled down the entirety of the peak of a massive mountain, and Saldana said he even slipped making his way down, and nearly fell to his death before Ayala saved him.
When they got towards the bottom, Ignasio let out one more shout for Juan.
“A few seconds later, ‘¡Aquí estoy!’ In Spanish, ‘I’m right here!’ And oh my god man. You don’t even, you don’t… I’m already getting emotional man,” said an emotional Saldana.
The reunion of the three men captured by Saldana’s phone, as well as the emotional sendoff, and airlift under a helicopter, for the man trapped in the wilderness for four days.
Ignacio says he and Manuel passed up their own ride out.
Instead, they opted to hike back.