The Old Man Versus the Mountain

It wasn’t the first time Bill McDonnell had blazed his own trail in the wilderness. But at 92, he had slowed a bit. And this time, he was really lost

Robert Nelson Published Jul 14, 2021 11:22:43 IST
The Old Man Versus the Mountain April Greer (Mcdonnell)

Bill McDonnell was going crazy. Deer season had begun, but it was colder than usual, so here he was, sitting among the mounted bucks inside his house in Winchester, Virginia, watching winter through the windows.

Up until his late 80s, Bill hadn’t minded hunting in sub-zero temperatures, but he had slowed in the past few years. The snow-dusted mountains of the Shenandoah Valley were no place for a 92-year-old. He knew it. But, man, did he want to get outside.Then, on 15 December, the forecast brightened, and before he announced his intentions, his wife, Joanna McDonnell, knew what he was up to. The couple went through an old song-and-dance whenever this happened.

“You’re not going,” Joanna would say.

“I’m going,” Bill would shoot back.

Joanna would try to bargain. “You’re not taking your gun. Stay on a trail.”

“I’m hunting,” he’d say.

“Take a friend,” she’d reply.

“They’re all dead.”

“Take Bill Jr.” (Not possible that day. Bill McDonnell Jr. would be at a football game.)

Joanna: “You’re a dang old fool!”

Bill: “Agreed.”

But this particular day, Joanna didn’t even try to talk sense into her husband. Bill had fought in World War II and the Korean War. He’d been a sailor, and after that a soldier. A “country boy through and through,” he might respect his wife’s wishes on most topics, but not when it came to the call of the wild. There was a place he hadn’t hunted in a long time, and he wanted to get out there once more before he was too old.

The next morning, Bill woke up at four, grabbed his muzzleloader, and steered his Jeep towards Shenandoah Mountain. At the end of the old Laurel Run logging road, he hit the trail on foot.

It was about 7:30 a.m. and 25 degrees when the sun peeked through the trees. Bill had strict instructions from Joanna to be out of the woods by 2 p.m. and home by 3 p.m.—plenty of time before sunset, in case he missed the deadline. Which he often did.

Not long into the hike, he came upon a path he didn’t remember. Maybe this was a secret route to the king of all bucks. He took it.

As the temperature climbed through the 30s, Bill veered off and back on to the trail, looking for tracks and rubbings on trees, signs that a buck might be over the next ridge. He wouldn’t kill it—he just liked to get a trophy in the sight of his scope, enough of a kick to feel the blood surging in his old veins.

Then, around 11 a.m., he emerged into a clearing along a ridgeline. He’d walked farther than he’d suspected. “What the … ?” he muttered.

It seemed that his path up the mountain had meandered quite a bit. There might be a quicker route back to the Jeep—as the crow flies, anyway.


image-56_041421053433.jpgThe search-and-rescue drone has a camera so powerful that “you can see the nose on a guy’s face on the ground from 400 feet up.” Here, it pinpoints Bill’s orange cap in the forest; Courtesy Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office


When thoughts of shortcuts come to mind, Bill looks at his left hand and remembers a little mishap he had in Hawaii. He and Joanna had taken a once-in-a-lifetime vacation for her 80th birthday. They needed an extra bag, so he took a sidewalk to a nearby store, then realized he could get back to the hotel quicker if he jumped a barrier and scrambled down an embankment. But he tripped and broke his wrist and hand. With the pins now bolting the hand together, he was lucky he could still use the thing at all.

But on this day, eyeing the line the crow would fly, Bill couldn’t help himself. I’ll just be extra careful, he reasoned, and began cutting his own path.

Before his descent, Bill had picked up a call from Joanna. “Who might this be?” he’d answered.

“Sounds like you’re still alive,” she’d said.

Bill figured he could drop into the valley, hunt a bit, tackle the next ridgeline, then maybe hunt a bit more. But the farther he snaked down through the forest, the thinner and deeper the ridges became. Before long, the canyon narrowed to a rock chute. Next thing he knew, he was looking straight down from the top of a waterfall, 100, or maybe 200, feet high.

He looked to his right and saw a 20-foot-high wall of nearly vertical rock. Behind him, the ravine he’d followed down the mountain looked steeper and longer than he’d thought it was. To his left, the wall was slightly less vertical, slightly more creviced, slightly more covered in thick laurel roots.

He knew what he should do: go back up the ravine. But if he scaled that rock to the left, he could continue across and down the ridgeline. He would make it to the Jeep in time.

Bill began the climb, carefully plotting each step, grabbing the fattest root, tugging it to test its sturdiness, then heaving himself up to reach the next solid perch, and the next one, and so on. He tried not to look down.

He kept pushing upwards until, finally, he hurled himself on to the shelf atop the rock wall. Everything burnt. He needed a rest.




By the time Bill got going again, it was nearing 2:45 p.m. Descending into the valley, he came to a trail marked by white blazes. He remembered that one of his granddaughters had mentioned seeing a waterfall while she was climbing in the area, so he called her for advice. He described the ravine, the rock walls, and the white-blazed trail that he thought might take him back to the Jeep. “It looks pretty easy,” he said. She didn’t remember the trail. Grandpa, she begged him, go back to the ridgeline.

But he wanted to take the trail. “I’ve got it figured out,” he said, then realized he was talking to air. His phone had died.He dug into his pants for the GPS device he always brought in case of emergency and pushed the ‘on’ button. Nothing. He had forgotten to charge it.

The trail looked to be angling downwards in the right direction. Soon, though, it turned and began to climb away from the road where the Jeep was parked. So Bill decided to take another shortcut. He began bushwhacking, stopping occasionally to adjust course. He reached the valley. No road.

No, I’m not lost, he told himself. His eye caught a stand of tall trees. He remembered admiring the line of majestic oaks and pines earlier. Reach them and the car wouldn’t be that far off. He’d have to cover some ground, but part of it looked like an area loggers had clear-cut. How bad could it be?

As it turned out, the loggers had left behind a gnarly thicket of limbs and branches; laurel, prickly greenbrier and other vines had sprouted up into a web of a billion needles in the pockets between the debris. Crawling through barbed wire in Korea, Bill thought, would be better than this.

He was moving slower and slower, Joanna’s 3 p.m. deadline having long since vanished. Eventually, the sun slipped below the mountain ridge behind him and the forest turned pitch-black. He hadn’t brought a flashlight. His quivering legs felt as if they’d stomped at least 25 km.

There was only one thing to say: “McDonnell, you’ve really done it this time. You are one dumb son of a b——.”

Bill McDonnell Jr. was entering the football stadium at James Madison University when he got a text from his niece. She said she’d lost contact with her grandfather around 2 p.m. and no one had heard from him in hours. “I’m sure he ignored you and took the shortcut,” Bill Jr. told her.

An avid hiker himself, Bill Jr. knew his father could cover 15 kms with all his winter gear on. But he had become more forgetful in his 90s. They agreed to call 911.

Bill Jr. headed to Winchester, where he found his mother in a panic, rifling through paperwork. She said she wanted to make sure she had the necessary documents in case her husband was dead.

Capt. Wesley Dellinger of the Shen­andoah County Sheriff’s Office sprang into action when he got the call about a missing elderly man: not quite six feet tall, 90 kilos, lost in the forest. Having made a few wrong turns in these woods himself, he felt for the guy. “You think you’ve got it figured out,” he told one of his deputies, “then all of a sudden you don’t.”

He ordered a command post to be set up near the Laurel Run trailhead, and by 6:30 p.m., he’d assembled personnel from within an hour’s radius in every direction. But Bill’s last location was in an area far too rugged and remote to attempt a full ground search, especially under a moonless sky.

So the sheriff sent his deputies out to cruise the highways and back roads, hoping Bill might have found his way to a thoroughfare. Around 9 p.m., a helicopter from the Fairfax County Police Department arrived.

It was about 9:45 p.m. when Bill heard the whoop-whoop-whoop of a helicopter and looked up from his makeshift bed. He had never minded bedding down in dirt—just make a little sleeping mat from branches, a trick he learned in the Army.

Now, as the light from the chopper danced closer, Bill struggled to rouse his achy joints and get to his feet. He managed to lift his orange hunter’s hat to the sky and wave. “I’m here!” he yelled.

The chopper hovered directly above him. But the mix of tall trees and low laurel canopies were too dense for its searchlight to penetrate. The light dimmed, and the whir of the heli­copter blades softened. Bill guessed they wouldn’t be back until morning. He tried to go to sleep but couldn’t quiet his head. He hated that search crews were wasting resources and losing sleep because he’d taken one too many shortcuts. Joanna was probably terrified. He wanted to get up and power through the darkness, but he knew he’d only end up in more trouble.

Shortly after midnight, Captain Dellinger’s phone rang. It was the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, offering its search-and-rescue drone. At $94,000 [Rs 68,23,000] (for the device, training and maintenance), the quad­copter, as it is officially called, is the hot new gear all search-and-rescue chiefs want, but few can afford.

The following morning, as the silhouette of the mountains emerged, teams of rescuers with bloodhounds started on the trail Bill had hiked. At the same time, Loudoun County master deputy Matthew Devaney and his copilot, Jamie Holben, set up a launch area for the drone, then waited for the signal to send it out.

This was the first time they would fly the drone in a real rescue ­situation. Any failure would be red meat for ­detractors, who called it a taxpayer-funded toy. The device has a five-km line of sight and a high-definition camera so powerful, Devaney says, “you can see the nose on a guy’s face on the ground from 400 feet up.”

At 9 a.m., it was time. As Devaney worked the joysticks, Holben called out adjustments. Threading the drone between tall trees, they sent it flying towards the search area.

At the same time, one of the tracking teams came upon a spot where some branches had been tamped down into a sort of mattress. They had heard the lost hunter was an old woodsman. Such a comfortable nest had to be the work of a master’s hand.

That morning, Bill had woken before dawn, replaying his wrong turns and imagining his wife’s despair. He never worried once that he wouldn’t find his way back, only about what would be waiting for him when he got there.

Just after 7 a.m., the sky lightened and the thicket around him began to reappear. He ate a few snacks and got ready to battle with the laurel.

The light was still bad, and each step took some thought to avoid thorns or a twisted ankle. After about 15 minutes, Bill came to a spot where he could see the landscape around him more clearly. There, only a few hundred metres away, was the line of trees he had been hoping to reach the night before.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” he yelled to the woods.

Within 15 more minutes, Bill emerged from the thicket and began a slow ascent to the ridgeline. He knew the trackers couldn’t be too far away. He began pushing himself harder. He’d better make it to the Jeep before they made it to him.

Now that the deputies had the drone up, they could see the forest as clear as a crow. But they saw little except white rock and scattered trees, and after about 20 minutes in the air, the battery slipped below 25 per cent. They’d have to land the device and switch batteries if they didn’t get a bead on the lost man pretty soon.

The drone flew up and over a ridgeline capped by tall oak and pine trees, only about a kilometre away. A neon-orange dot moved below. Zooming the camera in, the image became clear: The orange dot was a hunter’s cap. “I think we have him!” Devaney shouted.

Down below, Bill began walking more briskly—the terrain was finally familiar, and he was sure he was less than a kilometre from the Jeep. He saw a large black animal bounding towards him out of the corner of his eye—a bear, maybe? He had seen some scat. But before he could reach for his gun, he realized it was a dog.

“Bill!” a voice called. “William! Bill McDonnell!”

“I’m up here,” he yelled back.

Damn trackers had beaten him after all.


image-59_041421071350.jpg“Half hour more daylight and I would have been fine,” Bill told the rescuers when he emerged from the woods.; Courtesy Shenandoah county Sheriff’s Office


It’s not that he wasn’t thankful for the “neat little contraption” that had helped rescue him, or for the young people who’d traipsed through the cold forest in search of an old-timer. It was more that he was embarrassed, and frustrated with all the fuss. Even the local news channels had shown up. “Half hour more daylight and I would have been fine,” he told the rescuers.

The next day, Bill Jr. was tasked with sitting his dad down and having ‘the talk’. “I said, ‘The whole family was extremely scared, especially Mom,’” Bill Jr. recalls. “‘You can’t go out alone anymore.’” Bill agreed to swear he wouldn’t go out hunting or hiking alone again. But a week later, during a short hike—with company—he waffled a bit. “I need to keep that promise,” he said. “But the idea of it drives me crazy. I love walking around in these woods alone.”

Washingtonian (July 2018), Copyright © 2018 by Robert Nelson,

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