ARCO - Searchers are shifting their focus to the hundreds of caves that dot the Craters of the Moon National Monument as the hunt for a missing Boise woman enters its fifth day.
Amy Linkert, 70, has been missing since Sept 19 after she and her companion, 63-year-old Jo Elliott-Blakeslee, went for a day hike on the park's Tree Molds trail.
Elliott-Blakeslee's body was found Wednesday in a lava field about a mile from the trail. So far, there has been no sign of Linkert.
But spokeswoman Traci Weaver said that the woman may have gone into one of the monument's caverns for shelter.
"That's the most likely place for Amy to be if she's sheltered up, is in a cave somewhere," she said.
As temperatures dropped, Linkert may have drawn deeper and deeper into one of the caverns, seeking warmth, she said.
About forty-five people are currently combing the park for the missing woman. Two experienced cavers have joined the search, along with seven search and rescue dogs, Weaver said. Although rescue teams have looked through some of the caves already, having people with experience join the hunt for Linkert is helpful.
"It's a lot of ground to cover, so it's great to have those experienced resources," she said. "We're able to go a little more in-depth and search more caves now that we've got people focused solely on that."
But it won't be easy. There are about 300 known caves in the park, and Weaver estimated that there may actually be as many as 3,000.
The rescue crews are looking first in the caverns Linkert would have been most likely to seek shelter in. Once those caves are cleared, the teams move on to the next one, Weaver said.
Searchers were also trying to determine the path Elliott-Blakeslee took before she died, Weaver said. Retracing the woman's steps could lead searchers right to Linkert.
Park officials say they still may spot Linkert out in the open. Thursday, overcast skies and fog grounded the search's three helicopters. But the weather cleared up Friday, and the helicopters were again patrolling a grid, scanning for any sign of the hiker.
It was an Army National Guard helicopter that first sighted Elliott-Blakeslee's body, and Weaver was confident that if Linkert was visible from the air, they would find her too.
"It's gorgeous today," she said. "It's cold, but it's clear and there's no wind. It's a good day for searching."
Authorities identify Boise woman found dead at Craters of the Moon
Perhaps in an effort to find help for her injured companion, Boise resident Jodean "Jo" Elliott-Blakeslee set off across the rocky lava fields of Craters of the Moon National Monument. Authorities speculate she may have seen or heard cars on a nearby highway, and headed toward them.
She never made it.
Elliott-Blakeslee's body was found Wednesday evening during an aerial search of the monument. Her hiking companion, fellow Boise resident Amy Linkert, remains missing and is the subject of ongoing search efforts.
"What a sad ending," friend and former colleague Deanna Salazer-Brown of Boise said. "I hope she didn't suffer much. To die alone would be a horrible thing."
Officials said Thursday that Elliott-Blakeslee's body was found in a rocky lava field about a mile from the Tree Molds Trail at the southern end of the national monument.
A search for the two women was launched Monday after Elliott-Blakeslee, 63, did not show up for her shift as a physician at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Ore.
After the discovery of Elliott-Blakeslee's body, the search parameters have been narrowed to a three-mile area near the Tree Molds Trail. Searchers are using helicopters, rescue dogs and teams of people to search for Linkert.
Monument Superintendent Dan Buckley said Thursday that Linkert might have been hurt during the pair's hike, prompting Elliott-Blakeslee to leave her and go for help. Searchers fear that Linkert was immobile or unconscious.
“She may have been injured and sheltered up somewhere,” he said. “(Elliott-Blakeslee) was probably headed to the highway to look for help when she was overcome by the elements.”
Susie Hart of Federal Way, Wash., a nurse who served with Elliott-Blakeslee in the Navy, said this morning it's hard to believe her friend is dead. She spent much of Wednesday evening talking by phone with other mutual friends. There were a lot of tears shed, she said.
"It's still very surreal," Hart said.
Highway 26 runs near the monument. The women may have been able to hear cars or see headlights, prompting Elliott-Blakeslee to set out across the rough rock alone.
Elliott-Blakeslee likely froze to death as she trekked across the rocky terrain, he said.
“She was in a short-sleeve shirt, and we did have temperatures that dipped below freezing last week,” he said.
While Linkert has been lost in the monument for almost an entire week, Buckley said he holds out hope searchers will find her alive.
Because Elliott-Blakeslee was found without a pack, the search parties figure that any supplies the pair had were left with Linkert.
“That may be enough to keep Amy sustained if she’s injured somewhere,” Buckley said.
It's not clear why the women left the Tree Molds Trail. Buckley said they may have gone off trail to explore and then could not find their way back. Although there is no tree cover in Craters of the Moon National Monument, it's easy to get lost if you don’t stick to the path, Buckley said.
“It’s deceptively broken terrain,” he said. “You look across and it looks flat, but once you get out on the lava flows, there’s a lot of dips and valleys and it’s pretty easy to get disoriented.”
The women’s pickup was discovered at the Tree Molds Trailhead in the national monument. Their purses, cellphones and two dogs were still inside the truck. A trailer belonging to the women was parked 22 miles away at a KOA campground in Arco.
Family members of the missing women told Butte County Sheriff Wes Collins they were experienced outdoorswomen who would not have left their Labradoodles in the truck if they were planning to be gone for long.
“They say they’re not backpacker hikers,” Collins said. “They wouldn’t stay out there overnight, and they wouldn’t leave their dogs for more than an hour.”
Officials called off the search overnight as wet and cold conditions set it. Walking over wet, slippery lava rocks in the dark could put searchers in danger as well, he said.
“We don’t want to get anyone else hurt or injured,” he said.
Overcast skies also have made it challenging for aerial searchers.
Two Army National Guard helicopters and one from the Teton Interagency Fire Center will join the search for Linkert on Thursday morning, Buckley said.
Thursday's forecast calls for intermittent snow and rain showers with a high temperature of 43 degrees. The overnight low Wednesday hovered around 32 degrees. Over the past few days, daytime highs in the monument have typically been in the 50s, with overnight lows in the 40s.
Despite the inclement weather Wednesday and Thursday, Buckley said searchers are determined to keep looking for Linkert.
“We’ll keep searching as long as we have good daylight hours and folks are not overcome by the weather themselves,” he said.