Lost in the Wilderness: One Man's Five-Day Fight for Survival

Good Morning America

California Father Survives 5 Days in Wilderness

Now watching

Next video starts in : 7 Play

California Father Survives 5 Days in Wilderness

For one California man, what began as a day fishing trip quickly turned into a five-day fight for survival.

Mike Vilhauer, 58, went fishing Aug. 6 at Lower Sunset Lake in Alpine County when he noticed he wasn’t catching any fish. Deciding he needed more bait, Vilhauer, butterfly net in hand, left on what he thought would be a short trip to find some grasshoppers.

“I was just zigzagging up and down the mountain,” Vilhauer told ABC News. “I didn’t see anyone for quite a while.”

After a few hours, Vilhauer said it began to get late, and he decided he should probably head back to the fishing site. “That’s when the fun began,” he said.

Vilhauer began to make his way towards what he thought was the fishing site. But with darkness upon him at about 8 p.m., he decided to make shelter under a pine tree, covering himself with pine needles and willow branches in an attempt to stay warm. Vilhauer attempted to call 911, but a weak signal thwarted his efforts.

View gallery

Credit: KXTV

Credit: KXTV

Vilhauer continued his search for the help on Thursday. Weak from his lack of food and water, he adapted what he called his “survivor man routine,” drinking water out of puddles, regardless of what else was in the puddle.

“I thought ‘I’m going to keep walking, I’m going to get back to my wife,’” said Vilhauer, who lives in West Sacramento.

After trying to find a way back the whole day, Vilhauer came across a stream and began to follow it before the sun began to set. Setting up a camp of tree bark and needles, he slept for another night in the open wilderness.

He was crushed to find on Friday morning that the stream came to a dead end. “At this point I’m thinking ‘Man, this is looking bad,’” Vilhauer said.

Vilhauer continued to wander in circles on Friday, unsure of where he was or where to go next. Exhausted and hungry, he set up camp under a large rock.

“I hadn’t slept at all,” said Villhauer, “It was cold and I just tried to keep moving around. It rained every night.”

Saturday morning brought no relief.

“I hadn’t eaten since Wednesday morning,” said Villhauer, “I was so weak, I could only do so much before getting too exhausted and having to lie down.”

Grounding himself underneath the rock, Villhauer tried to build up his strength. He decided he would try to climb up the side of the ridge, only to find out that every time he thought he had reached the top, there ended up just being another peak ahead.

Suddenly, Villhauer could hear helicopters in the distance. One flew overhead, but kept going, leaving Villhauer “disheartened.”

“It was a rollercoaster of emotions,” said Villhauer, “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m done. This is it.’”

“I was thinking about my family and my wife and all of the stupid things I’d done to get myself into that position,” said Villhauer.

“And then, after 10 to 15 minutes I decided ‘No. Hell no. I’m not going to give up, I’m going to get down to that stream and I’m going to sit there and wait until somebody finds me,’” he added.

Villhauer made his way back down the stream, drinking out of puddles along the way, and made his way back to the rock.

He picked up a piece of driftwood and began writing his last words to his wife.

“I put all of these thoughts down, I had to continue on another piece of drift wood,” Villhauer said.

View gallery



He then used cypress needles to spell out “HELP”, saying “I figured if I don’t make it, at least I gave it my best shot.”

Sunday morning, Villhauer had just had his first meal in five days – a dandelion – when he heard the helicopters again.

“I got excited, I started waving around my blue shirt on a stick,” said Villhauer as the helicopter kept repeatedly flying over and then leaving.

“It was a big rush, and then the letdown. A big rush, and the letdown,” described Villhauer, who assumed that the choppers were operating on a grid system, so once they deemed the area clear they would not be returning.

“I figured, if they hadn’t seen me yet, I was in here for the long haul.”

The choppers returned and began circling Villhauer, when he suddenly heard a bark from behind him. It was a search dog leading one of the rescue teams that had been looking for Villhauer since Friday.

After five days in the wilderness, he had been saved.

Villhauer was given a tiny meal, then transported in a chopper to a base where he met some of rescue teams.

“I was shocked at how many people were yelling and screaming and crying and hugging,” Villhauer said, who soon came to realize that his disappearance had culminated in the largest rescue search of the year.

Villhauer was reunited with his wife and family on Sunday night, staying in a hotel for the night and heading back home on Monday morning, when he was able to see a doctor. He suffered no serious injuries during his ordeal, just a few scrapes and bruises, though he did lose his wedding band somewhere along the way.

Villhauer happy to be back at home, and has nothing but gratitude for those the search teams, many volunteers, who helped him to get home.

“I appreciate all of those efforts,” said Villhauer, “I couldn’t say enough about those folks.”

Despite getting lost for five days, Villhauer is more than ready to plan another fishing trip, though he’ll likely bring a friend next time.

“I plan to go back,” Villhauer said, “I’m going to go up there and buy a whole lot of rounds of beer.”

View Comments (435)

Recommended for You

  • FEMA: 1,000 Applications Received for W. VA Flooding Assistance So Far

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has received over 1,000 applications for assistance so far, following the devastating flooding that slammed West Virginia. Those numbers reflect applications from only three counties FEMA has designated eligible for federal funding -- Greenbrier,…

    Good Morning America9 mins ago
  • Ikea Recalls 29 Million Dressers and Chests After 6 Children Crushed to Death

    At least six children have been crushed to death by toppling Ikea chests, prompting the voluntary recall of about 29 million chests and dressers sold by the popular retailer, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says. Ikea and the CPSC tell ABC that at least 36 children have been injured by Ikea…

    Good Morning America14 mins ago
  • Wildfire Spreads Over 45,000 Acres in California as Search Through Destruction Continues

    Many residents in Kern County, California, have lost their homes in a deadly fire burning through the area, while others have been denied access to their houses amid the catastrophic destruction left behind. Chief Brian Marshall of the Kern County Fire Department described the fire as mother…

    Good Morning America41 mins ago
  • US Markets Extend Slide as Brexit Fallout Continues

    U.S. stocks continued their slide today as investors reacted to more potential fallout from Britain's vote to withdraw from the European Union last week. The Dow Jones dropped 200 points shortly after the opening bell and was down 260 points by the end of trading. "This is clearly a global…

    Good Morning America
  • Introducing SkySlide: The Glass Slide 1,000 Feet in the Air

    Thrill seekers rejoice.This Saturday was the opening of SkySlide, a glass slide suspended 1,000 feet above downtown Los Angeles. The slide begins on the 70th floor of the U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building in the United States west of the Mississippi River, and extends 45 feet down to the 69th…

    Good Morning America
  • Tim Tebow Leads Passengers in Prayer After In-Flight Emergency, Witness Says

    A midair medical emergency took a plane full of passengers by surprise when one man collapsed of an apparent heart attack. When passengers and crew rushed to help, a familiar face was among them: NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. Tebow moved toward the unconscious man and his…

    Good Morning America
  • David Cameron on Brexit Vote: 'We Must Not Turn Our Backs on Europe or the World'

    His speech followed what has been a tumultuous series of days for Britain and was intended in part to reassure investors in the economic stability of the U.K. as markets continued to tumble around the globe in reaction to the vote on a Brexit, or Britain's withdrawal from the E.U. "Today I want to…

    Good Morning America
  • Chelsea Handler Opens Up About Abortions at Age 16

    In the brutally honest way fans have come to expect and admire, Chelsea Handler admitted in an essay for Playboy's "Freedom Issue" that she had two abortions at the age of 16. Handler began the essay by explaining her 16-year-old self, an angsty teen that “wasn’t really playing with a full deck of…

    Good Morning America
  • 5 Things to Know About Jesse Williams

    Jesse Williams lit up the BET audience and Twittersphere when he delivered an impassioned speech on civil rights, police brutality and white appropriation of black culture while receiving the Humanitarian Award during Sunday night's telecast of the BET Awards.

    Good Morning America
  • San Francisco Resident Fights Sudden Rent Hike of More Than 400 Percent

    A San Francisco man faces eviction after his rent suddenly skyrocketed from $1,800 to $8,000 a month, allegedly without warning from his landlord.Neil Hutchinson has lived in his North Beach home since 2010, his attorney, Mary Catherine Wiederhold, told ABC News."This is the largest rent increase I…

    Good Morning America
  • 'Dance Moms' Star Abby Lee Miller Appreciates Support During a 'Challenging Time'

    "Dance Moms" star Abby Lee Miller is grateful for her fans' supports in the wake of her legal woes. "Throughout this case, Ms. Miller has taken both the allegations and the proceedings very seriously," her attorney Robert Ridge told ABC News in a statement, adding that her guilty plea shows that…

    Good Morning America
  • Politicians React to SCOTUS Ruling on Texas Abortion Law

    Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is praising the Supreme Court’s ruling on a 2013 Texas law that would have greatly reduced the number of abortion clinics in the state. “SCOTUS's decision is a victory for women in Texas and across America. Safe abortion should be a right—not just on…

    Good Morning America
  • Demi Lovato Talks Mental Health, Addiction and Recovery

    “As a pop star, I can say, ‘Hey, I’ve got bipolar disorder — it’s nothing that anyone can be ashamed of,’” she said in the interview. Though she never expected to be an inspiration, Lovato has become a role model for many young women facing the same difficulties she once did.

    Good Morning America
  • Stop in the Name of Love! Police Officer Proposes to Partner During London Pride Parade

    Love is love is love.That sentiment couldn’t have been truer at London’s Pride Parade on June 25 when a Metropolitan Police officer broke formation to surprise his partner in the audience by popping the question.The touching moment was caught on camera as the officer makes his way over to the metal…

    Good Morning America
  • Mom of Teen Charged in 'Slender Man' Stabbing Claims Daughter Has Mental Illness

    The mother of one of the two Wisconsin girls charged with stabbing their friend in the woods, allegedly to please the fictional Slender Man, said her daughter battles mental illness and should be tried in court as a juvenile, not an adult. "You can't hold somebody responsible for the rest of their…

    Good Morning America
  • Justin Timberlake Sparks Backlash After Tweeting About Jesse Williams' BET Speech

    Justin Timberlake inadvertently sparked a Twitter firestorm after tweeting about actor Jesse Williams’ BET Awards speech last night. The singer initially posted a simple tweet that said he was “inspired” by Williams after the actor accepted the Humanitarian Award for his efforts to raise awareness…

    Good Morning America
  • ANALYSIS: Poll Shows Deep Hole for Donald Trump, With Room for More Digging

    The poll suggests that Trump’s divisive campaign could easily further alienate voters. But there are glimmers of opportunity for Trump, as reflected in concerns about Clinton’s candidacy and broader societal forces at play this year. First, the downside: The way voters viewed Trump makes it look…

    Good Morning America
  • 'Finding Dory' Tops 'Independence Day: Resurgence' at the Box Office

    In the battle of fish vs. aliens at the box office this weekend, fish won."Finding Dory" topped "Independence Day: Resurgence," taking in $73.2 million in its second weekend.The website Box Office Mojo estimates that the film has raked in $286,552,649 domestically to date.The "Independence Day"…

    Good Morning America
  • Diane Kruger on How Partner Joshua Jackson Changed Her Life

    By the time she was 30, Diane Kruger was already going through an identity crisis. Soon after divorcing French actor Guillaume Canet in 2006, Kruger began dating American actor Joshua Jackson, 38, and her life changed. Now 39, Kruger recently made the move to New York to live with "The Affair"…

    Good Morning America
  • 'Game of Thrones' Star on Her Crazy Death

    So many characters died in last night's "Game of Thrones" season six finale, but the biggie came early on, when Cersei blew up the Great Sept of Baelor, killing not only the High Sparrow but also her daughter-in-law, Margaery Tyrell. Natalie Dormer, the actress who played Margaery, spoke to…

    Good Morning America