The 23 hours or so Max Burleigh was missing in the woods near Mount McLoughlin started with orange trail-guide dots.

The 23 hours or so Max Burleigh was missing in the woods near Mount McLoughlin started with orange trail-guide dots.

He remembers following them, thinking they would lead him home. He had run ahead of his church group. His stomach hurt. He wanted to get to the bottom before everyone else.

He kept to the orange dots. Then they stopped. Miles of unfamiliar forest and blue sky remained.

Max, a 17-year-old Medford resident, found himself lost Tuesday in the deep forest just off McLoughlin's north slope near Fourmile Lake. His miscalculation prompted a search that drew law enforcement and search and rescue officials from five counties. Their search ended Wednesday afternoon just west of Fourmile and Squaw lakes when search officials returned him safe and sound, thirsty and tired.

He is humbled, he said Thursday, and grateful he made it out alive.

"I know very well I probably could have died," Max said. "I just wanted to get back to (my family.) That's all I was thinking."

After realizing he'd gone off trail too far, Max continued his descent. He figured he'd come across signs or people eventually.

He drank a few sips of water from a small standing pool, he said, then decided to try and backtrack to where he'd originally gone off trail. He made his way back up to a rocky area, pulled out his iPhone and called 9-1-1.

"I talked to them for awhile, must have been 20 minutes," Max said.

They told him to stay put.

Max's phone battery charge was at 3 percent. He called his mother, Christine Burleigh, anyway, to let her know his predicament; then his friend Alex from the youth group.

Then Max did something that was key in helping search and rescue crews track him down. He sent a photo text message of McLoughlin's north slope to his mother. He later discovered that Jackson County Search and Rescue had not been able to lock onto his phone, and that the picture was one of the only clues to his location.

But at the time, he wasn't thinking about any of that.

Water was still on his mind. He kept climbing over uneven terrain littered with boulders and rocks to the snowier areas. He scooped up some of the snow and gulped it down.

Then the first search helicopter arrived. Max said he watched it fly over and tried desperately to get its attention.

"I waved. I screamed, waved the jacket around. They just never saw me," Max said.

Night fell. Max found a discarded ax and tried to start a fire by striking the blade against rocks to make sparks. Nothing.

He crawled into a hole — almost a small cave — in the boulder field and tried to sleep, pulling his sweatshirt over his face. He couldn't stop shivering and his teeth chattered. He put his hands in his armpits and under his legs. Nothing worked. Mosquitoes came and went in the dark, biting. Max thinks he got an hour of sleep, if that.

When dawn broke, Max came out of his makeshift bed and ate more snow.

When he saw a helicopter a second time, he yelled and screamed for it again. It flew right by.

"I just lost faith in it," Max said.

He spotted a lake nearby and started moving toward it, thinking he saw movement on the surface. Maybe it was a boat. He needed to see. He kept walking, tearing his shorts on a tree snag.

"I was completely off-trail. I cut myself everywhere," Max said.

Exhaustion overtook him. He slid downhill where he could to conserve energy. His thought process was the same: food and water, food and water. He yelled for help again, and voices, finally, responded. Someone asked his name, and he told them. He met up with two search and rescue officials on horseback.

"I had never been fonder of horses in my life," Max said.

His rescuers drove Max back to the home base at the Great Meadow trailhead, where he fell into a sea of hugs from family. Some held onto him, reluctant to let go. His mother wept. She was starting to think she'd never see him again.

After a debriefing session and getting checked out at Rogue Valley Medical Center, he and his family went to Burger King. He ate.

On Thursday, Max was still exhausted. His chest hurt and mosquito bites covered his skin, but he's thankful — to the search and rescue workers who combed the wilderness looking for him and to his family for hoping and praying.

He said he's not afraid to go back up Mount McLoughlin. When and if he does, however, he'll be prepared and stay with the group.

"It's humbled me," Max said. "I've learned from it."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or email him at