The photograph didn’t provide much detail: just a snapshot of René Compean’s feet hanging on a bed of rocks while hiking.
It was enough, however, for a complete stranger to help pinpoint his possible location and help authorities rescue the hiker after he went missing this week near Mount Waterman, a ski destination in the mountains of San Gabriel, approximately 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
On a hike on Monday, Mr Compean sent a photo to a friend and said he was lost and his cell phone battery was losing its charge, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He was reported missing around 6 p.m. and the photo Mr Compean took earlier today was handed over to authorities as search teams were deployed to begin searching for him, authorities said.
Unable to locate Mr Compean using photo metadata – he had disabled location settings on his cell phone – authorities released it on social media, where it ultimately landed on the radar of Twitter user @ ai6yrham, according to Sgt. John Gilbert, Sheriff’s Department spokesperson.
The user, whose Twitter biography identifies him as an amateur radio operator named Ben, answered the call for help from the sheriff’s department. Tuesday morning with a thread that included satellite imagery and predicted the coordinates of the missing hiker. He wrote in a post that he made sure to relay his predictions to the authorities.
Later that afternoon, Mr. Compean was located by rescuers, safe and without known injury, in the Angeles National Forest.
“I think, at least for our team, we haven’t had any of that,” Sgt Gilbert said of the user’s help.
In an interview with KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, the Twitter user, whom the station identified as Benjamin Kuo, said he looked at the landscape captured in Mr. Compean’s photo for the help infer the location of the hiker.
“I have a very strange hobby, which is that I love looking at photos and knowing where they are taken,” Mr. Kuo told the station.
In the interview, Mr Compean expressed his thanks to Mr Kuo and promised to make sure that he would now enable location data for the photos.
On Facebook, Mr. Compean said he was lucky to be back home.
“I want to thank God first of all for allowing me to return home safe and sound,” he wrote on Wednesday. “Thanks also to everyone who played a role in finding and locating me. Thank you all for your prayers and working with each other. “
Mr Compean was not immediately available for an interview on Thursday. Mr. Kuo could not be reached for comment.
Sergeant Gilbert said it was a good thing rescuers were able to find Mr Compean quickly as he had strayed from a main path in Angeles National Forest. Authorities estimate he walked about five miles from where his car was, near Buckhorn Campground.
“It’s steep, it’s hilly, it’s remote,” Sergeant Gilbert said of the area. “But once you get to the top of Twin Peaks and start going down the ridge line towards Triplet Rock, it’s really not a path, it’s an area where only experienced climbers with certain types equipment should enter.
Sergeant Gilbert said that in recent months, many novice hikers have attempted to traverse the backcountry areas of Los Angeles County, straining volunteer search and rescue teams. The same pattern has also been observed in other parts of the country; Search and rescue teams have faced an influx of new hikers as more people explore the outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.
“When we find these people, they make very basic mistakes,” said Sergeant Gilbert.
He recommended that inexperienced hikers warn others of their location and provide their friends with a detailed schedule of their day. He also said new hikers should consider purchasing satellite tracking or messaging devices that don’t rely on cell towers.