Official holds out hope for missing Boise hiker

The Boise physician found dead on Wednesday in a lava field may have left her supplies with her friend.

kterhune@idahostatesman.com, jsowell@idahostatesman.comSeptember 27, 2013 

Jo Elliott-Blakeslee may have set off across the jagged lava fields of the Craters of the Moon National Monument after seeing or hearing cars on U.S. 26 and heading toward them, authorities speculated Thursday.

She never made it.

The physician’s body was found during an aerial search at dusk Wednesday.

“What a sad ending,” said friend and former colleague Deanna Salazar-Brown of Boise. “I hope she didn't suffer much. To die alone would be a horrible thing.”

Elliot-Blakeslee’s hiking companion, Boisean Amy Linkert, remains missing. Rescue crews, friends and relatives spent Thursday — Linkert’s 70th birthday — searching for the retired special education teacher.

The two women camped in Arco about 22 miles from the monument, where they were visiting on a trip expected to last from Sept. 19 to 21.

Officials said Thursday that Elliott-Blakeslee’s body was found in a lava field about a mile from the Tree Molds Trail at the southern end of the monument’s popular hiking trails. Butte County public information officer Tracy Weaver said it appeared Elliott-Blakeslee died of exposure. Temperatures at the monument were reported near freezing and Elliott-Blakeslee was dressed in a short-sleeve shirt.

One report said that Elliott-Blakeslee was found face-up. Susie Hart, a nurse from Federal Way, Wash., who served with Elliott-Blakeslee in the U.S. Navy, said that could be a sign she suffered from hypothermia and lay down, falling asleep.

Hart said her friend had lost quite a bit of weight recently and may have been less protected from the cold.

She speculated that Linkert might have been injured and that Elliott-Blakeslee went for help. Monument Superintendent Dan Buckley wondered the same thing.

“She may have been injured and sheltered up somewhere,” he said. “(Elliott-Blakeslee) was probably headed to the highway to look for help when she was overcome by the elements.”

Otherwise, Hart said, she couldn’t imagine the two friends separating: “Until they find Amy, I think this will be a mystery unsolved.”

SEARCHES, FATALITIES RARE AT CRATERS

Buckley said park employees cannot remember a multiday search or death in the monument in at least 15 years. People have gotten lost there, but are always located after a few hours.

“We’ve had car crashes on the highway that have resulted in fatalities, but nothing inside the park,” he said.

Most monument trails are for day-use only, unless hikers obtain a permit to go into the backcountry overnight — which is rare. Trailhead parking lots are not regularly patrolled and the women’s pickup could have remained in the same spot for days without anyone noticing, Buckley said.

Just 100 to 150 visitors a year opt to stay overnight in the monument’s backcountry, he said.

While Linkert has been lost in the monument for almost a week, Buckley said he holds out hope searchers will find her alive.

Because Elliott-Blakeslee was found without a pack, searchers figure that any supplies the pair had were left with Linkert.

“That may be enough to keep Amy sustained if she’s injured somewhere,” Buckley said.

It’s not clear why the women left the Tree Molds Trail. Buckley said they may have gone off trail to explore and could not find their way back. Although there is little tree cover in Craters, it’s easy to get lost if you don’t stick to the path, Buckley said.

“It’s deceptively broken terrain,” he said. “You look across and it looks flat, but once you get out on the lava flows, there’s a lot of dips and valleys and it’s pretty easy to get disoriented.”

SEARCH LAUNCHED MONDAY

The search began after Elliott-Blakeslee, 63, did not show up for her shift as a physician at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario.

The women’s pickup was discovered at the Tree Molds Trailhead, their purses, cellphones and two dogs still inside the truck. The dogs were OK. A trailer belonging to the women was parked at a KOA campground in Arco.

After the discovery of Elliott-Blakeslee's body, the search was narrowed to a three-mile area near the Tree Molds Trail.

Officials called off the search overnight as wet and cold conditions set in. Walking over wet, slippery lava in the dark could put searchers in danger as well, Buckley said.

“We don’t want to get anyone else hurt or injured,” he said.

Two Army National Guard helicopters and one from the Teton Interagency Fire Center joined the search, which also included rescue dogs and teams of people. Bad weather grounded the helicopters early Thursday. The search was to resume Friday with fresh teams of people and dogs and possibly cavers to help look for Linkert in the many caves in the area.

“We’ll keep searching as long as we have good daylight hours and folks are not overcome by the weather themselves,” he said.

GOOD PEOPLE

Hart said Elliott-Blakeslee and Linkert were fine people, who gave to the poor and helped those less fortunate. They also preached tolerance for others.

“I learned so much from them about living a real Christian life. They were real Christians. They lived it and walked the walk every day,” Hart said.

Elliott-Blakeslee and Linkert visited her earlier this year and had planned to visit again at Thanksgiving.

Hart said she spent much of Wednesday evening phoning mutual friends after learning the two women had been reported missing. A lot of tears were shed, she said.

“It’s still very surreal,” Hart said.

Katie Terhune: 377-6219, Twitter: @IDS_Terhune John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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