Donald Hutchings’ friends and colleagues believe he is tough enough to survive a year or more as a hostage.
It’s more than physical stamina, although Hutchings is a man who climbed mountains and frozen waterfalls, a cross-country skier, canoeist and bicyclist.
More often, they talk about his mental toughness.
“He’s a solid, straightforward guy,” said George Neal, who climbed mountains in North and South America with Hutchings.
On those trips, Hutchings was always a leader and dependable team member, Neal said.
“If anybody would do well in this situation, Don Hutchings would,” psychologist Jim Roubos said of his colleague’s months in captivity. “He’d figure out a way to get through this.”
Roubos agreed to take referrals and talk with Hutchings’ patients when the Spokane neuropsychologist and his wife, Jane Schelly, left last summer on what was supposed to be a monthlong trip.
A few weeks into the trip, they and other Western tourists were seized by a shadowy rebel group in Kashmir. Schelly and four other travelers were released but Hutchings, Britons Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, and German Dirk Hasert remain captives.
Thousands of miles away in Spokane, friends and colleagues have spent the year searching for news about Hutchings. They refuse to believe the worst of the rumors - that the hostages were killed and buried months ago outside a Kashmiri village.
Although Westerners had been urged to stay out of strife-torn Kashmir, friends don’t believe Hutchings and Schelly were taking unnecessary risks in their visit.
“Every place I’ve ever climbed, there’s been some kind of danger. International travel is like that,” said Neal, who climbed in Bolivia with Hutchings in 1993.
Hutchings, friends say, always spent months studying the areas the couple visited on their yearly treks. He planned meticulously, and didn’t take unnecessary risks.
It was Hutchings’ caution and attention to detail that made him such a good climber, say members of the Spokane Mountaineers, an outdoors group.
“He got serious when he was concerned about safety,” said club member Emily Gordon.
Hutchings, 43, and Schelly, 41, met during an outing by the Mountaineers Club in 1984. He was a Spokane native who grew up with a love of the outdoors instilled by his father, a former cowboy in Idaho. Hutchings taught the club’s mountain climbing classes.
Schelly, who had moved to the city from Pennsylvania that year, would later become the group’s president. In 1991, they were married.
They backpacked in the summer, skied into the back country of Yellowstone National Park in the winter, friends said.
Both had a competitive side.
Joseph McManus recalled a canoeing trip on Lake Pend Oreille when several couples were struggling to get their boats across the lake in a stiff wind. Schelly reached into her pack, pulled out a tent and stood up in the bow, turning the canoe into a sailboat.
Hutchings steadied the canoe and used his paddle as a rudder in the back. “They made it a race because they got across the lake faster than anyone else,” McManus said.
Hutchings has “the strongest backbone of anybody I’ve ever known,” McManus said. He is so honest that he doesn’t even exceed speed limits.
He is so fair-minded that he would probably be distressed to learn that his captivity is resulting in “Muslim bashing,” Neal added.
“He’d probably be the first to emphasize that the average person in Kashmir does not approve of this kind of action,” Neal said.
He uses humor to calm tense situations, said Deb Pierce, a friend and club member.
“He tells jokes on the long climbs,” she said. “The higher he gets, the worse the jokes get.”
Hutchings is an innovator in his field, say colleagues. His specialty of neuropsychology deals with victims of severe stroke and traumatic brain injuries. He taught them to overcome their impairments by circumventing the injured parts of their brains and reteaching them basic skills.
“He was always able to relate to patients extremely well,” said psychologist Duane Greene.
Several years ago, Greene, Hutchings and several other psychologists formed Northwest Integrated Services for victims of brain injuries. It allowed such patients to receive physical and occupational therapy outside a hospital setting.
“He was trying to champion change in the area,” said Jack Geringer, president of the Washington State Head Injury Foundation. “He always went beyond what was necessary to collect his fees.”
Friends remain confident Hutchings will survive his captivity, and will come home - some day.
“He means so much to so many people, that whether it’s six months, six years or 60 years, there would still be energy here for him,” McManus said.
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