Hiker missing at Mesa Verde

Texas man lost
since Sunday

A 51-year old Texas man has been missing since Sunday afternoon at Mesa Verde National Park.

Forty searchers on foot and horseback and two dog teams are combing the canyonlands around Spruce Tree House where Mitchell Stehling told his wife and parents he was going to visit Sunday afternoon.

After he did not return, rangers were notified and the search began in the Chapin Mesa area. But as of Wednesday morning, he had not been found, reports Betty Lieurance, public information officer for the park.

"The search is day to day, and we will continue the effort," she said. "It was 102 Monday in the canyons, and it is believed he did not have any water.

"People tend to underestimate Spruce Tree House because you can see the ruin while walking down. The trail is just a quarter mile, but it is steep."

Stehling, of Goliad, Texas, near the Gulf Coast, was last seen wearing a brown shirt and hat, khaki shorts and hiking boots. He has military experience, according to the Victoria Advocate, a newspaper near Goliad.

A helicopter is surveying the rugged terrain and crews on the ground were joined by Montezuma County search and rescue teams today.

"They are going to offer some needed relief so other rescuers can get some rest," Lieurance said. "Staff, archaeologists, law enforcement - everyone is out pounding the trails looking for him. They will be expanding the search area if necessary."

Searchers are battling thick yucca, cactus, and pinon-juniper stands as they investigate the base of cliff faces, speculating the man may have fallen.

It was reported that Stehling does have a cell phone but it was not turned on. Cell service at Mesa Verde National Park is generally nonexistent, but there are some spotty areas near the road and higher points where a signal can be obtained.

Mesa Verde officials did not know whether the man had any backcountry experience or had medical issues. He was not carrying any overnight gear.

A backcountry gate near Spruce Tree House ruin offers access to Spruce Canyon, and connects to a network of off-limit trails only available for special tours. There are stashes of survival gear, including water and food, at certain points.

The searchers followed up on some clues early on, following footprints, and finding a water bottle, but they turned out to be unrelated to the missing person, Lieurance said.

"It has not been confirmed that he ever went to Spruce Tree House so other nearby areas, Petroglyph Point and Spruce Canyon, are a focus of the search," she said. "It has been hot and he is not accustomed to high altitudes."

Posters alerting visitors to the park about the missing man have been put up, and hikers are being advised to be on the lookout.

Sunday evening lows reached 45 degrees.

Cooler conditions are forecast for the next few days in the park with highs in the 80s and lows in the 50s.

"It is pretty unusual for someone to be missing this long because the backcountry is off-limits," Lieurance said. "Usually, they turn up in two to five hours or are found on closed trails by rangers."

According to the Victoria Advocate, the family has high hopes that Stehling will be found safe.

Melissa Stehling told the newspaper that he comes from a military family and has the wits to survive.

"He's probably already built a tree house and is waiting for rescuers to find him," she said.

A post on Facebook by his daughter, Haley Stehling Wagner stated: "Thank you everyone for your thoughts and prayers. Please continue to pray for may dad that he is found safe soon."