‘This doesn’t make sense’: Questions remain in story of rescued Zion hiker

ST. GEORGE — Questions remain in the story of a hiker who went missing for almost two weeks in Zion National Park after Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Sgt. Darrell Cashin expressed concerns that things were not adding up.

On Monday, Zion National Park spokesperson Amanda Rowland released a statement regarding the rescue of Holly Suzanne Courtier, a 38-year-old from Los Angeles who was found alive Sunday after nearly two weeks of search and rescue efforts.

The statement said the following:

The National Park Service is delighted in being able to reunite Ms. Courtier with her family following a successful search in Zion National Park, which concluded on Oct. 18 after she was reporting missing 10 days previously.
Based upon a credible tip, Law Enforcement Officers found her in a thickly vegetated area along the Virgin River. She was able to leave of her own capability with minimal assistance.

As a search and rescue liaison for Washington County, Cashin said he and his team were made aware of the missing female hiker from the beginning and offered whatever support was needed to the Zion search and rescue team and rangers.

That said, Cashin said his team’s involvement was minimal in the actual rescue efforts.

Where they did play a bigger role, he said, was in providing an outside set of eyes to look over the data of the ongoing rescue operations to see if they could make suggestions to the park’s team on what else could be done.

A missing poster for Holly Courtier is posted on the bathroom at the Zion National Park Visitor Center, Zion National Park, Utah, Oct. 16, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

“We were asked if we would be willing to come up and review their search information,” Cashin said, adding that they acted kind of like an independent contractor.

Cashin and a few of his most seasoned team members reviewed the information Zion rescuers had compiled throughout their search efforts, which they found to be very thorough, he said.

The Zion search team had searched the high elevations, the valley and every trail possible, Cashin said, and had even compiled detailed information as to Courtier’s clothes, backpack, hammock and last known locations.

Before going missing, Courtier was last seen Oct. 6 exiting a shuttle at The Grotto shuttle stop and picnic area, which is the starting point for several trails including Angel’s Landing and the West Rim trail. An area that sees thousands of hikers a day.

Flyers containing that information had been placed throughout the park and the gateway town of Springdale.

Additionally, the team had used drone and GPS tracking to compile and download data of where they had searched.

K-9 officer Zoey from Utah Search Dogs joins in the search for missing woman Holly Suzanne Courtier in Zion National Park, Utah, on Oct. 16, 2020. | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

“They had done a really good job,” Cashin said of the Zion team, adding that all he and his team did was review the information and make a few minor suggestions of where to search.

From that point, Zion rescuers planned to continue searching, Cashin said.

After a credible tip to law enforcement officers from park visitors, Courtier was found Sunday morning in some thick vegetation near the Virgin River not far from The Grotto Picnic area where she was last seen, Cashin said.

Rescuers were able to get her to safety with minimal assistance and she was released to her family.

This, Cashin said, is where the story starts to get convoluted as Courtier’s daughter, Kailey Chambers, told CNN that her mother had hit her head at the beginning of her hike and became severely disoriented and dehydrated.

A flyer being distributed for missing woman Holly Suzanne Courtier in Zion National Park, Utah, on Oct. 17, 2020. | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“She was very disoriented as a result and thankfully ended up near a water source — a river bed. She thought her best chance of survival was to stay next to a water source,” Chambers told CNN in a text exchange.

“She was unable to take more than a step or two without collapsing. This prevented her from being able to seek out help. She told me she was so dehydrated she couldn’t open her mouth,” Chambers said in the CNN report.

But, Cashin said, the daughter’s report that her mother was that severely dehydrated and the information from Zion National Park that Courtier was able to be safely reunited with her family with minimal assistance does not add up.

“Was she that bad or was she not?” Cashin said.

Cashin has been going out on search and rescue calls since 1995 and has been the Washington County Search and Rescue liaison for nine years now.

“This doesn’t make sense,” he said, adding that if she were in as bad of shape as the family reports, the Zion rescuers would have seen it and called an ambulance.

“They (the Zion team) apparently talked to her and felt she was OK to be released to the family.”

Cashin also raised questions about how she survived so long without a potable water source since the Virgin River still has active cyanobacteria bloom as well as how she had the awareness to find water if she had hit her head that hard.

Undated image of Holly Suzanne Courtier in Zion National Park, Utah, who had been missing from Oct. 6 to 17, 2020. | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

“Had she been drinking that water, she would be extremely ill or passed on by now. If she did have a good water source, what was it?” Cashin said.

Throughout his years, Cashin has rescued multiple dehydrated patients and, he said, if Courtier had been so bad that she couldn’t open her mouth, especially after nearly two weeks, it is likely that she would not have survived. Nearly 20% of severely dehydrated patients don’t survive, he added.

Cashin did not speculate on why the stories between the park and the family do not match up, but he remained uncertain of the family’s motivation.

I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t know the motivation behind that. That’s a question that only the family can answer and only the victim can answer,” he said. “I have questions, and I think some people in the public have questions.”

What he does know, he said, is that the park did a good job in their search and rescue operations.

I know the park did an excellent search. I know they did an excellent background on her,” he said. 

In Monday’s statement, Rowland said the following:

The National Park Service conducts numerous search and rescue operations around the country with its own professional staff and those of local partner agencies. These services are usually provided at no cost as a service to the visiting public. The health and safety of all visitors is a primary interest of the service. Visitors are always encouraged to leave an itinerary with friends or relatives and prepare for the activities anticipated.

Rowland said Zion National Park is currently working on the final investigative report, and when it is fully complete, it should be made available to the public.

St. George News attempted to reach Chambers via Facebook Messenger as well as through Rowland at Zion National Park, but there has been no response at the time of the report.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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