For one California man, what began as a day fishing trip quickly turned into a five-day fight for survival.
Mike Vilhauer, 58, went fishing Aug. 6 at Lower Sunset Lake in Alpine County when he noticed he wasn’t catching any fish. Deciding he needed more bait, Vilhauer, butterfly net in hand, left on what he thought would be a short trip to find some grasshoppers.
“I was just zigzagging up and down the mountain,” Vilhauer told ABC News. “I didn’t see anyone for quite a while.”
After a few hours, Vilhauer said it began to get late, and he decided he should probably head back to the fishing site. “That’s when the fun began,” he said.
Vilhauer began to make his way towards what he thought was the fishing site. But with darkness upon him at about 8 p.m., he decided to make shelter under a pine tree, covering himself with pine needles and willow branches in an attempt to stay warm. Vilhauer attempted to call 911, but a weak signal thwarted his efforts.
Vilhauer continued his search for the help on Thursday. Weak from his lack of food and water, he adapted what he called his “survivor man routine,” drinking water out of puddles, regardless of what else was in the puddle.
“I thought ‘I’m going to keep walking, I’m going to get back to my wife,’” said Vilhauer, who lives in West Sacramento.
After trying to find a way back the whole day, Vilhauer came across a stream and began to follow it before the sun began to set. Setting up a camp of tree bark and needles, he slept for another night in the open wilderness.
He was crushed to find on Friday morning that the stream came to a dead end. “At this point I’m thinking ‘Man, this is looking bad,’” Vilhauer said.
Vilhauer continued to wander in circles on Friday, unsure of where he was or where to go next. Exhausted and hungry, he set up camp under a large rock.
“I hadn’t slept at all,” said Villhauer, “It was cold and I just tried to keep moving around. It rained every night.”
Saturday morning brought no relief.
“I hadn’t eaten since Wednesday morning,” said Villhauer, “I was so weak, I could only do so much before getting too exhausted and having to lie down.”
Grounding himself underneath the rock, Villhauer tried to build up his strength. He decided he would try to climb up the side of the ridge, only to find out that every time he thought he had reached the top, there ended up just being another peak ahead.
Suddenly, Villhauer could hear helicopters in the distance. One flew overhead, but kept going, leaving Villhauer “disheartened.”
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions,” said Villhauer, “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m done. This is it.’”
“I was thinking about my family and my wife and all of the stupid things I’d done to get myself into that position,” said Villhauer.
“And then, after 10 to 15 minutes I decided ‘No. Hell no. I’m not going to give up, I’m going to get down to that stream and I’m going to sit there and wait until somebody finds me,’” he added.
Villhauer made his way back down the stream, drinking out of puddles along the way, and made his way back to the rock.
He picked up a piece of driftwood and began writing his last words to his wife.
“I put all of these thoughts down, I had to continue on another piece of drift wood,” Villhauer said.
He then used cypress needles to spell out “HELP”, saying “I figured if I don’t make it, at least I gave it my best shot.”
Sunday morning, Villhauer had just had his first meal in five days – a dandelion – when he heard the helicopters again.
“I got excited, I started waving around my blue shirt on a stick,” said Villhauer as the helicopter kept repeatedly flying over and then leaving.
“It was a big rush, and then the letdown. A big rush, and the letdown,” described Villhauer, who assumed that the choppers were operating on a grid system, so once they deemed the area clear they would not be returning.
“I figured, if they hadn’t seen me yet, I was in here for the long haul.”
The choppers returned and began circling Villhauer, when he suddenly heard a bark from behind him. It was a search dog leading one of the rescue teams that had been looking for Villhauer since Friday.
After five days in the wilderness, he had been saved.
Villhauer was given a tiny meal, then transported in a chopper to a base where he met some of rescue teams.
“I was shocked at how many people were yelling and screaming and crying and hugging,” Villhauer said, who soon came to realize that his disappearance had culminated in the largest rescue search of the year.
Villhauer was reunited with his wife and family on Sunday night, staying in a hotel for the night and heading back home on Monday morning, when he was able to see a doctor. He suffered no serious injuries during his ordeal, just a few scrapes and bruises, though he did lose his wedding band somewhere along the way.
Villhauer happy to be back at home, and has nothing but gratitude for those the search teams, many volunteers, who helped him to get home.
“I appreciate all of those efforts,” said Villhauer, “I couldn’t say enough about those folks.”
Despite getting lost for five days, Villhauer is more than ready to plan another fishing trip, though he’ll likely bring a friend next time.
“I plan to go back,” Villhauer said, “I’m going to go up there and buy a whole lot of rounds of beer.”