TULARE COUNTY, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) – 75-year-old Juan Velasquez was stuck in the mountains of eastern Tulare County for four days before he was rescued.
What started as the typical yearly deer hunting trip for 75-year-old Riverside resident Juan Velasquez and some of his closest family friends, would soon turn into a four-day ordeal and a fight for survival.
Over 6,000 feet up in the mountains of eastern Tulare County, only his wits stood between life and a lonely death in the wilderness.
It all started to unfold Sunday, Sep. 24, when Velasquez and his best friend left their remote campsite for what they thought would be a short hunt.
“My dad told him you know, stay right here, let me go on this side, you know? And let’s see if I can do anything and you know kind of make noise so the animals can go your way… When my dad came back, he wasn’t there,” said Maria Martinez, daughter of Juan’s best friend, and brother to the man who would later find him.
Martinez told us her father and Velasquez had split up, as her father hoped to drive deer towards the 75-year-old, who has difficulty moving as he suffers from knee and back issues.
But that’s when Velasquez found himself trapped by the treacherous terrain.
In his mind, he had only one path to potential safety.
“He knew he couldn’t turn up and go up. He said path of least resistance, which he follows down to the ravine, to the river, Ruby Creek. And that’s just what he did,” said Lt. Rodney Parker with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.
As search and rescue operations got underway, Maria Martinez’s brother Ignacio Saldana, also from Riverside, was on a trip in Mexico when he heard the news.
Saldana, an ultra-marathoner and trail runner, came straight home, grabbed his gear and GPS tracker and messager, and headed straight to the remote area to help search crews.
Saldana met up with his father and a friend, and late Wednesday, they spotted smoke and knew it had to be Juan.
“Sure enough, 7 ‘clock this morning, he sends us a GPS message saying, ‘I found him'”, said Martinez.
Four days in the wild appeared to leave its mark on the man, his face covered in dirt and grime, but he was okay.
The triumphant reunion was captured in a few photos taken by the men, all sharing a smile and a collective sigh of relief.
Saldana then relayed their coordinates to search crews, which worked with California Highway Patrol to airlift the man out of the area and to a local hospital.
He is expected to be fine.
It highlights how precious a commodity time can be, especially with a storm on the horizon in the remote area.
“If this went on a couple more days with his age, no food, and all that, it probably wouldn’t have ended well. Ok? I’m just being honest with you. We have a storm coming this weekend. We have snow expected to fall,” said Lt. Parker.
Rescuers ask residents if they come to a remote area, no matter their background, to come prepared and have a way to be found and communicate, whether that’s via satellite phone or GPS.