Searching the Ventana Wilderness is a tough job

Arvin Nelson, a well-known and well-loved Big Sur local, hasn’t been seen since August 8 and is presumed to be somewhere in the Ventana Wilderness. Over a week of intensive ground and air searching by SAR teams from around the state, certainly the most thorough search effort the Ventana has ever seen, has failed to turn up any sign of him.

As best we can piece together from various reports, these are the essential facts:

He set out on the Pine Ridge Trail from China Camp, on Chews Ridge, on August 6.

He was well prepared, well equipped and carrying enough food to keep him alive far longer than the eight days he planned to be gone.

He intended to visit Pine Valley, Pine Falls and Sykes.

He also had some interest in the Black Cone Trail.

He intended to emerge from the other end of the Pine Ridge Trail, at Big Sur Station, on August 14.

He was wearing size 14 hiking boots and a knit cap adorned with red llamas.

He was carrying a dark blue backpack with neon orange piping around the zipper.

He spent time with Dennis and Jack English in Pine Valley, and was there when they departed on August 8.

He told them he intended to hike from Pine Valley to Sykes on August 10.

No one has reported seeing him since.

So how do you search for someone missing in a Wilderness like the Ventana? A landscape of loose, rocky slopes, interspersed with dense chaparral and thick forests is not an easy place to find something as small as a human being. The foliage hides much of the ground from the air and, no matter how many search teams you have, you simply cannot look under every tree and bush.

This is why searchers start with the most likely places and work backwards from there until pretty much everything left unsearched seems equally likely (or unlikely). The first priority is usually to search the trails and camps. If that doesn’t turn anything up, they look for areas where hikers might lose the trail and search the off-trail areas they’d be most likely to wander into trying to find the trail or trying to find water. They search any cross-country routes the traveler might have been tempted to take. They search at the bottom of any steep slopes or cliffs a hiker might fall from. Since survival for more than a few days requires access to water, they follow, from the air at least, any and all streams.

The SAR teams did all this and more. And found nothing. Which is frustrating for them and frustrating for the community. Maybe he will reappear and it will all turn out to have been some kind of misunderstanding; maybe a random hiker will find him in the coming days, weeks, months, or years; or maybe he will never be found.

The only thing for certain is that his name will now be forever associated with the Ventana Wilderness he so much enjoyed exploring.

Our hearts go out to his friends and family, who have endured the agony of not knowing where he is or what has happened to him for nearly two weeks now. Hopefully, there will be answers soon.


Arvin Nelson – Photo by Patrice Ward

If you or anyone you know was on any part of the Pine Ridge Trail, in Pine Valley, on the Black Cone Trail, or on the Big Sur Trail between August 8 and 17, please contact the Monterey County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team. Even the fact that you did NOT see Arvin on a particular date and in a particular place could potentially be helpful.


3 Responses to Vanished

  1. Lois says:

    Thank you Xasauan, you set out all the facts so neatly, including Arvin’s clothing and gear. It is very strange that he has appeared to vanish, and left no trace. We are in a state of befuddlement as to what happened, and can only hope that one day we’ll know. In the meantime, we’ll all hang in there.

  2. sam says:


  3. Lois says:

    He will be sorely missed

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