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The Lost Runner

How a runner's obsession left him missing in the wilderness.

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There was trouble in paradise on July 25, the day Josh Jacobs and eight fellow hikers set out for Angel Springs, a remote camping site in Lake County's Snow Mountain Wilderness. Once a backpacker destination tucked off a well-kept trail, Angel Springs vanished from maps of the area about ten years ago. It is now accessible via an overgrown path that meanders about two miles off the main trail, and seasoned backpackers such as Jacobs and his father are the only people who ever go there. For Jacobs, a 22-year-old raised in Berkeley, the place has sentimental value as somewhere he has camped every summer since childhood. Jacobs said his father, Ben, knows the area so well that "You could place him anywhere and he'd find his way back." But anyone else would hike there at his own peril.

The Summit Springs trailhead lies at the southern edge of Snow Mountain Wilderness, at the end of a steep dirt road that ascends about a mile from the main thoroughfare. The road branches off of a four-way intersection, where hikers sometimes park their cars if they can't make it up the final portion. On the day that Josh arrived with Ben and their companions, a silver Ford Focus sat at that intersection. Apparently, it had been neglected for seven days. Josh said they were idling at a stop sign when a police officer walked up to the car. "He was like, 'Hey, did you guys see a runner on the road?' We're like, 'No.'... Their idea was that maybe he had run out of gas and then walked back along the road to find gas."

The second ominous sign came one mile ahead at the trailhead, where Josh saw notes stuck on the windshields of all the cars. "Man Missing," one note said. "John Mintz. 5' 5", 115 lbs. Runner's build. Call Colusa County sheriff w/ info."

Snow Mountain Wilderness Area straddles three counties — Colusa, Glenn, and Lake — and includes 37,000 acres within the larger Mendocino National Forest. There are 37 miles of maintained trails and 18.5 miles of neglected trails with switchbacks and treacherous glades. John Mintz had been missing for a week. He could have been anywhere. Ben Jacobs assumed he was dead.

Unruffled, the campers hiked four miles to their secret spot, pitched their tents, camped for the night, and set out the next day to hike the peak of Snow Mountain, a round-trip journey of roughly eight miles. They took a shortcut down the mountain that wound up being a lot longer than anticipated, and briefly got lost — "but not really lost," Jacobs said. Around mid-afternoon they saw a helicopter circling the mountain in search of Mintz. By the end of the day, Jacobs and his companions were beat. They got back to camp, made dinner, and started eating at about 6:30 p.m. At dinner everyone started singing Broadway show tunes. "We're being kinda loud," Jacobs said, "and then one of the people from our group is like, 'Whoa, we heard someone shouting from the woods.'"

Everyone stood up and listened. Somewhere, just beyond their secret campsite, a man's voice was calling for help. The campers dashed toward the sound. There, coming out of the brush, was a small, thin, tanned man in running shorts, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes with no socks. John Mintz had a seven-day beard, and his legs were scratched and bloody from bushwhacking. He had lost his way the previous Saturday on his way down from the summit. Mintz had spent a week in the wilderness eating grass and bugs, trying to withstand 90-degree days and 50-degree nights in just his running shorts and T-shirt. The 43-year-old runner looked embattled.

"I'm really convinced that if we hadn't been there — I don't know how he would have been found," Jacobs said. "We found him two miles off the road. No one goes there."

Jacobs was puzzled by the story of Mintz' disappearance. Even more puzzling was the fact that he'd done it before.


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