Just before he left for a three-day horse pack trip into the heart of the rugged Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Kaden Laga made his wife a promise.
Kaden and Arden Laga of Orem, Utah, are expecting their first child in November. She felt nervous about him being gone.
“She was in Colorado staying with her parents,” Laga said Sunday at his parents' home in Florence. “She said, 'You better promise me you’re going to come home safe.' I said, ‘Of course. Of course. We do this trip all the time. Don’t worry.’”
That promise — coupled with what he’s certain was God’s help — kept the 25-year-old man alive through a five-day ordeal last week after Laga found himself lost in the 1.3 million-acre wilderness area.
Laga had been on a three-day family pack trip that started at the Twin Lake Trailhead at the head of Lost Horse southwest of Hamilton. They had traveled to the Moose Creek Ranger Station in Idaho when one of their horses began to struggle.
When the horse couldn’t go any farther, the family found a place with good grass and water. They let the horse go with the idea they would come back and get him later.
Short a horse at this point, the family decided they would take turns hiking back to the trailhead.
“I’m a pretty strong hiker,” Laga said Sunday while sitting on his parents’ couch with his wife at his side. “I was a bit wet already. I volunteered to hike out first.”
While the others finished their lunch and repacked gear, he set out at about 3 p.m. on what he imagined would be about an hour’s head start. Everyone expected that those on horseback would catch up with him later that afternoon.
He left with a slicker, his cowboy hat, a sweater, a clear zip lock bag and a water bottle.
“I figured we were about 20 miles in,” Laga said. “My goal was to cover as much country as possible. I was moving just as quickly as I could. I wasn’t really looking around. I thought we were going to get off the trail tonight because I was flying.”
Somewhere along the way, he noticed that trail turned worse. There seemed to be more deadfall than what he remembered on the ride in, but he didn’t realize that he’d made a wrong turn until about 7 p.m.
By then, he’d been walking for about four hours and his family hadn’t shown up.
“I knew I wasn’t going that fast, that they would have caught up with me by now,” Laga said. “And I had run out of trail.”
He turned around and starting walking back in the direction from which he thought he had just come, yelling in hopes of catching his family’s attention.
“I had gone back about a mile when I realized I was lost,” he said. “Instantly, my brain went to, ‘I think your number might be up. People die in the mountains. … Someone has to die every year. It’s your turn to be a statistic.'”
He clearly remembers that he wasn’t afraid of dying.
“Of all the places, I can’t think of a prettier place,” he said. “I thought, 'It’s going to be OK,' but then I remembered my sweet wife.”
And the promise he had made.
“I remembered Arden,” Laga said. “I remembered that I have a little guy on the way. I told myself that I’m not going to let him grow up without a dad. That would be awful for my wife. From then on, the conversation wasn’t about death. No matter what, I was going to get off that mountain. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. You’re not going to die here.”
He thought if he could just get back to the Moose Creek Ranger Station he would be fine.
Laga began to hurry back along what he thought was the trail, but it soon disappeared into a tangle of downfall and thick timber.
Then came the panic.
“I suddenly went mental,” he said. “My brain was talking to itself: ‘All you have to do is keep moving forward. Kaden, are you moving forward?' Yes, I’m moving forward. 'Then you’re doing a great job.’”
Laga found himself on the side of a mountain with no idea of where he was. He took a deep breath and told himself he needed to find the trail.
When he finally did so, Laga started seeing familiar landmarks. He couldn’t be sure which direction he was headed.
It began to rain and it was getting dark. His pants, socks and boots were soaked. He was on top of the mountain with not much cover and no way to build a fire. He built a makeshift shelter out of logs, took off his pants, socks and shoes, wrapped his shirt around his feet and pulled the slicker over this head.
As the night’s cold settled in, he began to shiver. Laga wasn’t sure that he would survive the night.
He pulled out his cellphone and wrote a text to his wife — “just in case they found my body cold.”
It read: “In case I don’t make it out of here, I love you. I loved my life with you and I’m sorry I left you a single mom."
"Then I hit send and put it in my pocket," Laga said. " … I figured if I died overnight, at least she would have something.”
Monday morning found him sitting up on a ridge, low on both food and water. He knew his father, Kelly, would be slow to leave the mountains without him. He figured he would be looking for him again that day.
Laga decided that meant the soonest he would see a search helicopter would be Tuesday.
Looking back, Laga thinks he was still a “little bit mountain crazy” when he made his decision not to stay put. He could see a ridge in the distance that he thought they had been on during their ride. He decided it was his best chance to find to the main trail.
It was a mistake.
Coming down off the ridge, Laga had to negotiate thick bushes that sometimes towered over his head. By the time he got to the bottom, he was dead tired. He still thought the ridge looked familiar as he began to climb.
Sometime Monday, he realized this ridge wasn’t the right one. By Tuesday, his plan had changed to get as high as possible in hopes of getting a cell signal. By early morning, he had found a nice clear spot, but there was no signal.
That same morning he heard the first helicopter.
He could see that it was searching the ridge where he had been the day before. When the helicopter left that ridge and began to fly in his direction, Laga took off his sweater, climbed up on a log and began yelling and waving.
At one point, the helicopter flew right over his head close enough that he could see the red cross on its underbelly.
“Search and Rescue did an amazing job,” Laga said. “They did everything they were supposed to do, but they had a lot working against them. … I was not a good rescue candidate because I went off trail, and the trail I was on was really rough. I was wearing all rock and dirt colors anyway. We always just happened to be a day apart.”
After his close encounter with the helicopter, Laga said he developed a new plan.
“I had tried to get cell coverage. I had tried to find a ridge where I could be seen,” he said. “I needed a new plan and needed to stick to it from there on.”
He knew the Bitterroot Valley and the highway were east.
“I decided I was going to keep going east no matter what,” Laga said. “My new goal was to get out of there in a month and a half. In my mind, I thought I needed to give Arden a month to forgive me before the baby comes.”
Most important, he decided that he needed to quit thinking he was going to get out immediately.
“I decided I had to be calm and take my time,” he said.
Laga was living on about three to four hours of sleep a day. He would try to go to sleep about 8 p.m. and the cold would wake him a few hours later. He lived on huckleberries and thimbleberries and the grasshoppers he managed to catch.
He also spent upwards of 15 hours trying to start a fire. He tried to get a spark from striking rocks together or rubbing sticks. After his cellphone battery died, he broke it apart in hopes he could either use the camera glass as a magnifier to start a flame or get a spark from the battery.
Laga's closest encounter to a predator came while taking a nap on a ridge. A loud sniffing sound wakened him. He thought it was a bear, one way too close for comfort.
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“I got up and just calmly walked away,” he said.
By this time, Laga’s legs felt like lead and his feet were battered. His hiking boots had split out on the sides.
“I was in so much pain,” he said. “When I was walking uphill, I would pick a tree and tell myself I will get there in 10 seconds and then rest in the shade for 10 seconds. At least four times, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to stand back up after I sat down.”
On Thursday, he spotted a creek that was running east to west. He decided the waterway could be a guide to his way home. In the back of his mind, he wondered if there might be a trail nearby.
He found a little a game trail that led to something much better.
'Pristine, perfect trail'
“I followed it and then there was this pristine, perfect trail,” Laga said. “I fell to my knees and just thanked God.”
He spotted boot tracks in the dust and fairly fresh horse manure.
“I knew then that someone had been here on foot,” he said. “I knew that I was getting out of there sooner than a month and a half. My feet were basically stumps, but I’m just excited. I’m throwing my feet forward. … After bushwhacking for so long, being on a trail felt incredible.”
He remembers being in such a good mood that when he went down to the creek and spotted a duckling, he let out an audible, “aaahhhh.”
“My spirits were through the roof,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t eating as much as I should so I caught a grasshopper and treated myself.”
About that time, a storm rolled in.
“I couldn’t even get angry at that,” he said. “Of course, of course, there’s a storm. Why wouldn’t there be a storm?”
The storm Thursday was fierce. Laga heard trees falling over on the mountain. Some crashed across the trail.
“I took off my cowboy hat,” he said. “I’m just looking at the trees as I’m hobbling down the trail. If I saw one waving too much, I’d take off. It was not running. It was something else. I was skedaddling down the trail.”
That night was pitch black. He moved slowly, using his feet as a guide. Laga had to keep moving to stay warm.
A light in the trees
At about 1 a.m., he thought he could see a light through the trees.
He crossed Bear Creek in the dark. Once on the other side, Laga could see the outline of tents and hear the jingling of a bell from pack animal.
“I didn’t know who they were,” he said. “I thought they might not know who I am. I didn’t want to spook them.”
“Standing quite a ways away, I yell, 'Hello. Hello. Hello.'”
“All of a sudden, I see this lantern pop up and I hear: ‘Hello?’”
“I need some help. I’m lost.”
“I hear them go, ‘Are you Kaden?’”
“Yes. I am Kaden!”
“This lady comes tearing out of the tent,” Laga said. “No shoes on. She just about tackles me to the ground. She was so amped.”
His rescuers were Brett and Robin Pederson of Florence, part of the search team his family had put together.
“She is so amped. We didn’t go to bed for an hour,” he said. “She was like ‘whoa’ and ‘you were wow’ and ‘we didn’t know if we would find you’ and ‘Yeah, I left the headlamp on’ and ‘I don’t know why I left the headlamp on.’”
Laga said he’s not certain he would have spotted them if the headlamp hadn’t been on.
“Who sleeps with a headlamp on?” he said. “That, once again, was one of those tender mercies from God.”
The Pedersons were able to send a text message letting the family know Kaden had been found.
His wife, Arden, will never forget that moment.
She had learned Kaden was missing while at her parent’s home. When she arrived at Laga home outside of Florence on Tuesday, the first person she saw was Kaden’s younger sister, Zoey, who had also been on the trip.
“I just hugged her and started sobbing,” Arden said. “She pulled away and looks at me and says: ‘Kaden is going to be OK. Kaden is alive. He’s OK. We’re going to get him.’”
From that point one, Arden said she felt reassured.
“His family members and God had told me so clearly that Kaden is alive and we will find him,” she said. “It’s just not his time. God had a totally different purpose for him. … I know this experience has changed my family, my extended family, some of my friends and complete strangers. God is real for them and prayer is a thing and it works.”
On the night he was found, Arden said she had a brief conversation with God. She told him she needed her husband now.
Five minutes after she went to bed, she heard screaming from downstairs. They were yelling “'They found him. They found him. He’s alive.’”
When her mother burst into her room with the news, Arden remembers falling to knees sobbing.
“We did it,” she said. “He’s alive. We’re OK. It’s finally over.”
On Sunday, Laga said he was feeling better with each passing day.
“I lost at least three pant sizes,” he said. “I walked out of the mountains holding both belt loops. When I first looked at myself in the mirror, I was a little freaked out. I was a little bony, but not so emaciated that I was scared.”
The couple had planned a trip to Hawaii before this all happened. They still plan to go, albeit there won’t be as much hiking as they had initially thought.
They have also chosen a middle name for their son, Liam, who is due in November.
His middle name will be Brett. If they have a little girl someday, her middle name will be Robin.
“They are the reason these kiddos are going to have a dad,” Kaden said with a smile.
And when it comes time for the next family pack trip?
“I had a lot of time to think about that,” he said. “I absolutely will go again. The mountain is not going to win. I’m going to come back and do this same exact ride and do it right to make sure that my victory is definitive over the mountain. I am in no way going to let this rule my life. If so, it won and it didn’t.”
But when he returns, Laga will be packing a survival kit that probably includes the lighter that Robin Pederson gave him at the party celebrating his return.
Now that it’s done, Laga said it was an experience that he wouldn’t trade.
“I was very gifted, blessed and protected,” he said. “As much as a lot of things went wrong, there were a lot of key things that went right — if I had not gone that way, if I had met an animal, if it would have been rainy at night, there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong that didn’t.
“One of the most important things was keeping your head,” Laga said. “I had my episode in the beginning, but it was the quiet whispering of the Spirit and God that was able to keep me calm, keep me hopeful, keep me moving and keep me thinking of ways to get off that mountain.”