You’ve been a good camper and packed all of your 10+ essentials, checked the seals on your water bladder and made sure you have enough chocolate Goo packets to feed a small nation. While test-hefting the final weight of your pack your mind can’t help but wrap itself around the memory of those steep switchbacks halfway up the trail, recalling the sweat rolling down your brow and the burning of your quads accompanied by constant mental curses.
Not even 10 seconds later you start pulling things out of your pack to lighten the load. What can go? …What about that medical kit? You haven’t used that at all the last few trips. Hastily, glancing around the room as if you were on the lookout for the backpacking police, you grab a couple bandaids out of the kit, then stuff it quickly back into the gear closet.
We’re all guilty of it. Gambling on gear. Lightening your load of important gear in order to make it up the trail with less sweat. Its the old trade off of hassle vs. safety.
Here’s some tips on how to make a trip safe without literally breaking your back.
Traveling in a group? Split up some of the burden. Everyone should have some of their own key items, but if you will be staying together its not necessary that all members of your group come loaded to the gills with gear. For Search and Rescue, each team typically divvies up our gear so that one of us carries the tent, stove and cooking gear, another the heavy call out rope and technical gear. Caveat: Make sure you still keep enough gear with each backpacker to keep them safe and warm if they do get separated from the group.
Invest in lighter weight solutions, especially on key items. That titanium cookset, lightweight down jacket, and the ultralight sleeping pad may initially cost more than their heavier counterparts, but you’ll be more likely to bring them than the bulkier version and the weight they free up in your pack can be used for other critical gear- like your first aid kit.
Knowledge weighs nothing. Depending on what you want to do and where you want to go, its a very good bet to stock up on related training. Your best gear in the backcountry are your skills.
Wilderness First Aid Courses teach you the basics of how bodies work and break. You’ll learn when you need to evac asap, and when you can still stay and play. You’ll learn how to improv with your gear and backcountry materials. You get lots of critical hands-on experience to help you stay calm when things hit the fan. For an excellent local resource, look into the Wilderness Outings course taught in Idyllwild.
Backpacking skills courses. You can take anything from a basic day clinic like those offered by REI to a multi-day backpacking and snow travel course like NOLS or Sierra Club’s Wilderness Travel Course (WTC) and beyond. Whatever you want to do, the training is out there to help you do it safely.
Improvise wisely. Think critically about what you can and can’t Macgyver in the backcountry. Try to stop severe bleeding with pressure from your dirty clothes (that you need for warmth) while shivering in a snowstorm? All of the sudden you might be pining for that pile of sterile compresses nestled back home in your gear closet. Bottom line: think it through before you discard a piece of gear from your pack.
Bring multipurpose items: Multipurpose gear means more functionality for less weight. I like to keep a stock of multi-purpose gear like bungees, plastic bags and duct tape, just to name a few. Example: 2 durable contractor garbage bags can form a pack liner in rain, an improvised rain jacket or even be joined end to end around my sleeping bag as a makeshift waterproof bivy for weather emergencies.
Still feel like grumbling about the time and expense of investing in good gear and training for the off chance of an emergency? Just remember, it is a gamble every time you go out unprepared. Sooner or later, if you spend enough time in the Wilderness, something happens to everyone. The only question will be if you win or lose your bet.
“Ding!” I look down at the text, sigh and kick off the high heels I had just slipped on. Dinner down in the desert can wait; we have a call out.
15 minutes later my heels and dress have been exchanged for an orange shirt and hiking boots. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Lee’s truck as we bounce up the rutted dirt road leading to South Ridge Trailhead.
It’s a search. Out from the coast for a relaxing time camping in the mountains, the subject (Herb) had wandered off to the South to meditate, became disoriented and used his cell to call his friend back at camp. As Herb became increasingly lost, his friend made the call to contact 911.
We see the red and blue flashers ahead and pull up parallel to the Sheriff’s car. Mark Young is the RSO deputy on scene. He’s in contact with the subject by cell and already has a good handle on the situation.
Deputy Young uses his previous military experience to help pinpoint Herb’s location. “Point your chest to the setting sun and describe what you can see in front of you.” Having the subject turn in a circle and relate what he sees at each 90 degree angle gives Young a good idea of Herb’s location. This helps him guide the Sheriff’s helicopter rapidly to the spot. Star 9 hovers above Herb for several minutes, allowing us to get a bead on the direction and distance we’ll need to go.
We get the news that several members of the team from off the hill are on their way. Gwenda is bringing our RMRU Rescue Truck, Dana is heading up the mountain and Paul is already on the way out from Orange County. Good to know- if anything goes wrong we may need additional people.
Since we still have daylight, Lee and I make the call to head out as a hasty team and see if we can locate the subject before nightfall complicates the matter. After a quick cross-check of our gear, we swing on our packs and head out cross country through the heavy brush. Thick stands of Manzanita, Chinquapin and various other thorny and spiky obstacles have us swerving off course more than once. We note landmarks along the way to keep us on track for our way back.
Once the helicopter peels away and the forest becomes quiet again, we yell ahead to establish voice contact. “1…2…3… Hello!” Herb responds loudly and boisterously “Hey, Hey, Hey! I’m over here! I’m here!” His voice is coming from a few hundred yards directly ahead. “Stay put! We’ll come to you!” We start out again, picking our way through the brush and calling out once in a while to make sure we stay on course.
Within a matter of minutes we crest a hill and come across a thankful Herb. He’s dressed in tattered blue sweatshorts, his arms and legs covered with scratches from forcing his way through the sharp foliage. After shaking our hands, he gratefully guzzles the Nalgene of water Lee passes his way. “Man, I’m soooo glad to see you! I was waving at the helicopter, but then he flew away. If the deputy wouldn’t have kept telling me to stay put, I would have definitely moved!”
After giving Herb a few minutes to drink and eat, we make the call to head back quickly. We might still be able to beat the sunset. Herb certainly isn’t dressed for nighttime in the mountains and the temperature will be dropping quickly.
Lee is familiar with the area, and after a few minutes of hiking he locates an unofficial mountain bike trail. Having a nice, smooth, brush-free trail makes the going much easier for our exhausted subject. We reach the truck and load Herb into the back seat. We pull up next to Deputy Young as the last fading rays of the sun disappeared in the west. Mission accomplished.
Coffee is the best thing to douse the sunrise with. ~Terri Guillemets
With crisp fall days on the way in the high country, cooking up a mug of some steaming hot coffee on my little MSR stove is pure backpacking heaven. However, a camp stove can also be very dangerous if used carelessly. Here are a few strategies to keep you safe and your tummy satisfied.
Check local regulations in the area you plan to camp. Due to the extreme fire risk in our local wilderness, a permit is required to use a camp stove for both day hikes as well as overnights, and campfires are totally prohibited in the high country. Fire regulations may change throughout the year, so make sure and contact the Ranger station for the latest info.
Get to know your stove. Each camp stove has specific guidelines in it’s manual to keep you from burning your eyebrows off. TIP: In order to avoid any nasty surprises, make sure you set your stove up at home and take it for a quick spin before you take it out on the trail.
Think before you fire up. Before you light your camp stove, make sure that you have placed stably it on a level area clear of dry fuel like pine needles and duff. This will prevent little inconveniences like starting a raging forest fire or having boiling water spill all over you.
Careful lighting- During lighting, keep your face, hair and expensive (and flammable) hiking clothes away from the stove. Using a fuel like isobutene? Be careful how much gas you let out before you light your stove since too much can cause a big flame-up. A friend who shall remain unnamed recently lost his facial hair this year in a freak camping stove incident.
Keep it outside: When the weather turns bad it’s tempting to try and cook inside your tent. Don’t. Backpacking tents tend to be exceedingly flammable and cooking inside them is a generally a bad idea. A moment of inattention and you could lose your shelter. TIP: For periods of heavy wind, rain or snow bring along some foods that don’t require cooking.
Deceptively hot: Be very careful if you are cooking while it is still bright out. The flames generated by some fuels can be difficult to see in bright light and it’s easy enough to burn yourself on a flame you didn’t think was lit. Hands off! I’ve learned first hand not to touch a camp stove too soon after extinguishing the flame. Angry red blisters covering your fingers are a great reminder that patience is a virtue. Let your stove cool before you put it away.
Stow it safely. Before you put away your stove, allow it to sit outside in a well-ventilated location so that any remaining fuel inside can disperse. Check your fuel container to make sure it is properly sealed. Store stove and fuel containers away from any sources of high heat.
Fall. The days are still deceptively warm, but the night air carries a crispness that speaks of snow and ice to come. It’s the perfect season for hiking- that is if you follow a few tips that will enhance your enjoyment and safety.
A mild Autumn day hike can turn uncomfortably cold with the addition of a surprise storm. Air temperature drops about 3° to 4°F for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Heading for Tahquitz Peak? With around 3,300 feet in gain, the temperature may drop as much as 13 degrees from downtown Idyllwild (not accounting for wind chill.) That means a simple drizzle in downtown Idyllwild could turn to biting cold rain or even icy flurries as you climb.
How to keep safe and warm despite the changing weather?
Hiking tips: heating up the trail
Stay dry: While you’re updating your pack for the colder weather ahead, make sure to pack your rain gear and additional dry insulating baselayers to change into. Clothing wet from sweat or rain conducts heat 25 times faster than air and can lead to a surprisingly quick loss of body heat.
Switch to higher-fat snacks: Calorie-dense foods like chocolate, nuts and nut-butters, and cheese burn slowly, keeping you warmer longer. I love those serving size packets of Justin’s maple almond butter and coconut butter. You can find a variety of single serving packets at our local Harvest Market.
Bring enough water and/or a water filter: Many of the water sources in the high country have dried up and sources that were fresh flowing may have become stagnant over the summer. Staying hydrated allows your body to regulate it’s heat stores much more efficiently.
Overnight tips: Keys to staying cozy in camp
Be picky about where you pitch your tent: Your camp-site choice is critical to spending a comfortable night. Pitch your tent well above lower-lying areas like gullies, meadows, and creeks where cold, damp air settles. Nighttime temps can be as much as 25°F warmer just 250 feet above the inversion layer!
Take the chill out of the wind chill: make use of natural windbreaks by pitching your tent behind thicker stands of trees, bigger boulders, and on leeward sides of slopes.
Downsize: Bring a smaller shelter. A lower-volume tent requires less of your body heat to warm it.
Snack yourself warm: Eat a snack and brew hot drinks while you set up your camp. Snack again just before bedtime; digestion will help raise your body temp.
Fat is your friend: Add oil and spices to your fall meal plans. Coconut oil is a quick burning fat,butter is just plain delicious (and has gotten a much undeserved bad rap) and olive oil can add great flavor to any meal. Eating spices like ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon can increase blood flow to the skin and make you feel warmer.
“People are meant to connect with natural places. It is good for the human soul for people to explore their relationship with the places where they live.”
There was a time not too long ago that I felt more connected to my iphone than to the wilderness. At work I spent my time on the phone providing tech support, or hunched over my computer keyboard designing logos for hours on end until my neck and back were on fire with pain. My obsession with my TV shows, tech gizmos, and structured “play” activities made it harder for me to truly allow for free time. Something was always demanding my attention, distracting me, offering the promise of cheap, quick and effortless entertainment.
I grew up in a different world. I was three when we moved back to the family ranch. We had no TV. I spent my days outside. I played as much with sticks and stones as plastic toys. I knew only knew about town life from short resupply trips.
We were always outdoors. My older brother and I built dams in the stream near the house; making our own swimming holes- then destroying them a few days later just to watch the swirling power of the water take everything away. We climbed the oaks for lookout posts, built forts in the trees and bunkers in the brush. It made me feel proud that we had made these things together. We had built them ourselves. They were somehow ours in a way that things simply given to us were not.
I was always in touch with and learning about the world around me. My father took me out and showed me the local snakes, animal tracks and scat. He told me how to tell them apart by what they ate, how they moved and how their lives (and ours) followed the seasons. I learned to look before I placed my foot, watching the ground and surrounding brush carefully for threats. I learned to respect my environment in its power and beauty. I felt connected.
In Girl Scouts we would stagger up the trail under the weight of old fashioned tents on multi-day camping trips. We were often short a tent and I discovered I loved sleeping outside under the stars. The cold wind would bite my cheeks as I stared at the night sky. I remember my first view of the stars from the mountains up near Idyllwild. The Milky Way was a brilliant white splash. I would lay awake for what seemed like hours making up my own constellations.
I felt like I was part of something bigger. Like I had a purpose.
As a child I had run free with a light heart and an inquisitive mind. My relationship with nature as a young adult became gradually more structured and constrained. Although I never completely stopped my outdoor activites, they took on a different tenor. With my new University and then job obligations I felt I had to make an effort to spend time in nature. Living in the city, it seemed all so far away and harder to get to – any outing had to be planned- and it seemed I never had the time.
I rarely approached my now brief journeys into the wilderness with the same completely open and accepting attitude I had as a child. I had learned the ways of modern distraction. I was often thinking of the other things I had to do. I filtered my experience through my camera, by listening to music, by looking for connectivity with my “smart” phone to check my email.
It took me a while to realize that most of the barriers that kept me from connecting with my wilderness were of my own making. I had made the choice to make these limitations and barriers part of my life- and I also could make the choice to let them go.
In the last couple of years I’ve looked back on my childhood relationship with the wilderness and resolved to restore our free and easy bond. Finding ways to connect despite my busy life have been key. Working with the Forest Service as a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger, with Search and Rescue and the Sierra Club as a WTC intstuctor have been critical to reconnecting me with my love of nature, with my love of life itself.
I believe that a life without a connection to nature becomes more sterile, somehow blander. It robs you of basic skills of self-reliance, creativity, spirituality, of a feeling of connectedness with the cycles of life.
Away from the easy distractions of technology you not only can, but are forced to hear the ebb and their flow of your own thoughts and become comfortable with them. Without this inner ear you are likely to become disconnected from your own sense of self and goals in life. You are more likely to float on the surface of life and less likely to truly live.
I noticed this obvious little fact last week as we were running litter races up and down North Circle Drive in all of our call out gear, carrying litters full of girl scouts throwing candy. After the parade we were dripping in well-earned sweat and very happy to enjoy a cold beverage of choice.
Whether you’re running litter races or hiking a trail, you can become dehydrated in any season. Heat can cause you problems quickly if you’re not prepared for it. You can lose up to 20% of your stamina with only 2% dehydration. That’s a big drop. Even worse, when your system is low on water, you tend to lose mental acuity as well- and that can lead to other, worse mistakes that can put you in real harm’s way.
As you get more and more dehydrated your body quickly loses it’s ability to regulate its own temperature. As you may have guessed, this is not really a good thing. Loss of temperature regulation on a hot day in the back country can lead to both heat exhaustion and heat stroke, neither of which you really want to experience.
Heat exhaustion happens when a person exercises in a hot environment and can’t get rid of enough of the heat generated in their body by sweating. Their systems start to become overwhelmed as they become more and more dehydrated and lose temperature regulation. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include profuse sweating, weakness, nausea, vomiting, headache, lightheadedness, and muscle cramps. This is a serious condition that can escalate into a life threatening emergency.
Heat stroke is one of the most severe forms of heat illness. It can kill you or damage your brain and other internal organs irreparably. It can occur as a slow build up from conditions like heat exhaustion, or happen suddenly. Symptoms range from headache, lack of sweating despite heat, rapid heartbeat and breathing, nausea and disorientation to the extremes of seizures and coma. The best treatment is to cool them as rapidly as possible and calling for advanced medical aid asap. Not really on my agenda for a fun day hiking.
Make sure you drink, but don’t just chug water. Your body needs electrolytes in order to keeps its systems balanced and running well. You can actually “overwater” your body to the point that things start going wrong. This condition is called “hyponatremia” and can be pretty serious, with similar symptoms to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.The only major difference? You’ll probably be peeing like a racehorse as your body attempts valiantly to rid itself of the excess fluids to restore electrolyte balance.
If you are eating as well as drinking, you’re likely to get enough of these electrolytes from your food. If not? Make sure to bring an electrolyte powder mix to add to some water or something like gatorade to fill the need.
Carry enough water and be sure to actually drink it. Yes, it’s heavy, but it’s worth it! It also doesn’t help if your water solidly wedged into the unreachable side pocket on your backpack. Either make a pact with your hiking partner to grab it for you whenever you stop, or invest in an easy access solution like a camelback or platypus water bladder and suction tube.
Know your resources: Most people don’t carry enough water, or know where it’s available if they need it in the high country. USFS Rangers have a good idea of the conditions of water sources in the high country- ask at the USFS front desk for an update before you head out.
Wear loosefitting, lightweight clothing. Wearing heavy clothing or those really hip tight leggings you just bought won’t allow your body to cool properly.
Wear light-colored clothing, especially if you’re in the sun. Keep that awesome black workout shirt for your indoor jazzercise class. Dark colored clothing absorbs heat. Light-colored clothing can help keep you cool by reflecting the sun’s rays. So, even if its not as fashionable that beige hiking shirt is the way to go.
Get conditioned to heat. Limit the amount you spend hiking in the heat until you’re used to it. It’s just the beginning of the summer season- you don’t have to scramble up to the highest peak during midday just yet, do you? People who are not used to hot weather are especially vulnerable to heat-related illness. Remember, it can take up to several weeks for your body to adjust to hot weather.
Consider this your yearly temperature regulation reminder!
When I started backpacking over two decades ago, I was convinced that packing fresh food was “verboten”. The colossal weight of several extra ounces of avocado on your back were just not worth the delight of savoring it’s creamy green goodness. The hiking gods would never allow such a sin to go unpunished. If you knew what was good for you, you’d stick with convenient and quick processed meals of dehydrated chicken and rice and count your bland, ultralight blessings.
While I still invest in lightweight gear, I’ve moved steadily away from gulping down the mummified remains of freeze-dried meals. I now know it’s possible to cook real, healthy food without wasting hours hunched over the stove or earning a hernia while carrying my dinner.
Here’s some helpful hints to turn your boring freeze-dried dinner into a (relatively) lightweight backcountry delight:
Remember: Water is water. Your body doesn’t know the difference between the water in your Nalgene and in that succulent heirloom tomato. You’ll be carrying that water weight anyway- wouldn’t you rather some of it be in the form of delicious, juicy fruits and veggies? Benefits abound: Tomatoes alone provide a great amount of vitamin C and an outstanding antioxidant content- shown to fight fatigue and support your immune system- generally a great idea while hiking.
Spices, spices, spices! Spices are worth their weight in gold. Salt and pepper are a must, but you can also bring anything from cumin to garlic powder. BONUS: include copious amounts of Curry for the anti-inflammatory powers of tumeric and you’ll be a lot less sore after your long days on trail. Skip the full containers and use Ziplock baggies for your kitchen on the go.
Include healthy fats. Fat carries the most flavor- and serves as a great source of energy and materials to help your body to repair itself. Butter, coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil are all great choices. Ounce for ounce, fats provide the most fuel and flavor you need to keep going. TIP: The medium chain Triglycerides in coconut oil are particularly useful for quick energy since the body can absorb them directly from the digestive tract without having to go through all the extra work of emulsification.
Freeze your first night’s protein. Stash a great steak in the freezer overnight before your trip. Just before you’re about to go, take it out, double ziplock bag it and pack it deep in the center of your pack. Your other gear will act as insulation keeping it cold and leaving you with a real treat at the end of the day. (NOTE: Unfortunately veggies and fruits generally do NOT freeze well- ice crystals break up their cell structure and they will turn into mush as they melt). Protein and fat are both necessary materials to help repair your muscles after long hours of hiking with a heavy pack. Make sure to give your body what it needs to rebuild.
Precook some of your ingredients for the first night’s meal. Food such as onions, mushrooms and other side dish veggies can be precooked and then added to your pan at the last minute. You’ll cut down on cooking time, the size of pans and amount of fuel you’ll need to carry. By incorporating foods such as onions and garlic, you’ll not only drive away bears (and other backpackers) but also give your body the sulfur it needs to help produce the glycosaminoglycans necessary (amongst other functions) for the smooth, pain free movements of your joints and tendons.
Choose dehydrated wisely. Instead of going for bland dehydrated meals, choose individual dry ingredients that will actually enhance the end flavor and health of your meal. Sundried tomatoes, herbs and dried mushroom medleys are all just waiting to be rehydrated and mixed in as ultra-flavorful components of your meals.
Utilize dry staples, such as quick cook rice and (Gluten Free) pasta, then add fresh ingredients to spice up the meal. NOTE: A helpful trick to speed up the cooking process is to add your pasta or rice to a Ziplock bag full of water for the last mile or so (perhaps more depending on estimated cook time) of your hike into camp.
Fresh food may add some weight, but with the right choices it can more than make up for that in flavor and health. Everything tastes better in the backcountry, but that’s no excuse for eating just plain bad food.
We’re down the mountain in Hemet to grab some goodies for the girl scouts to throw at the parade and pick up the RMRU team truck and litters. Our energized litter races are always a big hit with the hometown crowd. Lee grabs a big bag of brightly colored candies out of a deep bin and tosses it into the cart.
As we start walking down the aisle, both of our phones chime with a new text. It’s 7:43 pm. “We have a search. 2 lost hikers. Respond to the tram.”
Dang… We don’t have our gear with us.
I look at Lee. Should we drop everything and drive to Idyllwild? Grab our gear and beeline to the tram around the other side of the mountain?
There’ll be no way to make it in time before the tram closes. Also, they’ll need the team truck for the rescue. No chance for us to pick it up for the parade. Most of the people responding are those who would be in the parade. A high country search? They’ll be way too beat for anything tomorrow.
Lee tosses the giant bag of candy reluctantly back in the bin. There will be more parades, but we always look forward to the Fourth in Idyllwild.
Getting in on the Action
On our way out of the parking lot Lee calls the rescue line for more info. Gwenda the Call Captain says the subjects departed from the tram side of the mountain, but during the brief, garbled cell phone contact they described traversing Willow Creek trail. If they are correct (subjects often aren’t: since they are already lost it’s generally not wise to trust their sense of direction) that would put them on our side of the mountain.
That changes things. If they’re on our side of the mountain we may be able to make it in on the search after all!
We quickly finish off our last errands in Hemet and follow the winding road back up the mountain, pack our gear and jet towards Humber Park. Seconds before we go out of cell service a text with gps coordinates comes through. They place the couple far from their last known location. Now they appear to be somewhere along the PCT, a section we refer to as Angels Glide, heading up from Saddle Junction towards Wellman’s Divide and the State Park above.
This places them solidly on our side of the mountain, but we have to be careful with this information. Coordinates are sometimes just plain wrong. We’ve even experienced them placing a subject on the opposite side of the mountain miles away from their actual location.
On Trail: Get it in Gear
It’s been dark for a couple hours by the time we hit Humber. We act efficiently, but don’t just rush off down the trail. When you’re in a rush you often forget something critical that could bite you later. Lee and I cross check that we have the correct gear for the mission before heading out. Sleeping bags for a potential overnight, extra food for us and the subjects, extra water, extra clothing for us and the subjects, 3 headlamps each, first aid basics, plus all the other small and large essentials. Check.
10:40 pm. Time to go. I swing on my pack and turn towards the trailhead. Our headlamps create swinging shadows as we steam up the familiar trail. As locals, we hike this trail for fun and training enough to have every switchback engraved in our memory. The full moon above silhouettes Tahquitz rock towering behind us and illuminates the face of Suicide Rock in front. It’s relatively warm in the mid 50’s (if you’re hiking that is), with a slight breeze- a good night for a hike.
We make good time up the mountain. The solid crunch crunch of Lee’s footsteps in front of me is my only timekeeper. A short way after Middle Spring we swing off the trail to an outcropping of rocks to call up into the dark ravines. Deep breath… and “1….2…3… HELLO!”
I listen to the sound of our voices bouncing through the canyons. The mountains call back their echoes for a long time, but there’s no response from the subjects. We call another two times. With no response on the third call, it’s time to shoulder our packs again and head up the trail.
We come up on the 3/4 point at the “Soil is fragile, please stay on trail” sign and stop. We catch our breath and call out again. And again. On the third call I think I hear something, but I can’t be certain. Either way we’ll have to continue up to the Junction to get access to the high country.
Minutes pass as we silently push our way up the trail. Out of nowhere I get an odd feeling and stop midstep. Lee holds up right behind me. “I think I heard something”. We listen for a few seconds and I do hear something: a yell from far away, carried by the wind over the ridge line. “If that’s them, they are on Angel’s glide, they’ve gotta be!” We call out in sync: “1..2…3… HELLO!”
A faint, but clear response echoes back in between the rustles of pine needles in the wind. “Helloooo….”
I grin broadly at Lee and he smiles and nods in response. With renewed energy we start up the trail. We hit Saddle Junction in record time and call out again. The response is encouragingly a little louder, a little clearer this time.
“That’s them, it’s got to be.” I say again. “No one is that persistent in yelling back this late at night unless they have a real good reason”. We yell again, identifying ourselves “Search and Rescue!” and giving instructions: “Stay put!”. After dealing with a couple of belligerent yells from a camper we have woken, Lee contacts Base and lets them know that we have voice contact with the subjects.
Rob May at Base relays our find to the other teams and gives us an update on their progress and location. Carlos Carter, Lew Kingman and Ralph Hoetger barely missed the tram and are waiting at the base with the rescue truck. Pete Carlson and Mark Houston have cleared miles of the upper park trails from Long Valley to Wellman’s divide. Donny Goetz and Les Walker have been blazing along the trail and have already swept Hidden Divide to Willow Creek. They now are headed our way.
It’s agreed that we will proceed to the subjects, with Donny and Les following as back up. Pete and Mark will stay put at Wellman’s Divide until we’re certain we have a handle on the situation.
As we hike up the Glide we stop and call out every few minutes, partly to confirm their position, but mostly to encourage them as they hear our voices getting closer. Finally, near the top of the Glide a very happy shout of: ” We see your lights!” says we’ve arrived.
We introduce ourselves and shake hands. I confirm they have no injuries. Their main issue is being cold. We may be toasty from our hike, but they are wearing only shorts and tshirts at night in the mountains. That can be dangerous in any season. Lee and I quickly break open our packs and pass out armfuls of warm clothing like candy. We hand out our extra stores of food and water. They tear into the snack bars and nuts as if they were Manna sent from heaven.
Chris confirms what Lee predicted. The missed turnoff in the State Park shunted them down Hidden Lake Divide and into the Forest Service Wilderness above Idyllwild. Their quick day hike turned into an extended journey. Despite being smart and nice people, they weren’t prepared with the necessary essentials to keep them on track and safe for an unplanned marathon hike.
Our new friends are understandably eager to get on trail, so we get moving. We run into Donny and Les back near the Junction. After a warm greeting for our teammates, we make some quick introductions and head back down the trail to Humber Park. It’s a long, dusty hike that always seems longer on the way down.
Still aglow from the buzz of a successful rescue, the team reaches a consensus- the parade is still on! Rescue or not- we agree we wouldn’t miss the litter races up and down North Circle Drive for anything!
Finally, around 2:40 am, we see the lights of the sheriff’s car shining in the distance through the dust of the trail and silhouettes of trees. Beat, but happy, it’s time to head home. Donny and Les pile in with us for a drop off at their homes. They’ll pick up their cars at the tram tomorrow afternoon. My eyes droop a bit now that the adrenaline has worn off. If I hurry to bed, I might be able to snag a couple of hours sleep before the parade.
RMRU members present on mission: Lee Arnson, Pete Carlson, Carlos Carter, Donny Goetz, Rob May, Ralph Hoetger, Mark Houston, Lew Kingman, Helene Lohr and Les Walker.
“Great things are done when men & mountains meet.” William Blake
In between my work as a nutritionist and wilderness instructor I make time for my true love- being a member of RMRU- a highly respected Search and Rescue team that covers the rugged mountain areas of Riverside County surrounding Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California.
What follows is a write up of our latest mission. This kind of experience really helps put your everyday worries into perspective. Nothing like a confrontation with mortality to remind you of what is important in life.
Sunday April 1, 2012
5:47 pm. I had just gotten down from a 7 mile trail run when the call-out came. The text was brief: “We have a rescue. Snow and ice. Call the rescue line.” I jumped up off the couch, pressing the phone to my ear and bee-lining it towards my gear closet.
The message on the Rescue line from Gwenda says we have a 17 year old boy stuck up in the Chinquapin bowl area below Tahquitz peak. He’s uninjured, but not able to safely move from his position. He managed to get a call out to 911 despite the sketchy cell signal in that area. I get a shiver down my spine. The bowl is an extremely steep dropoff on the northeast face of the peak- this time of year it’ll be covered in a nasty sheet of ice. I state my availability after the beep: “This is Helene. I’ll be there in 30.”
I sift through my gear closet, adding items to my basic grab-n-go pack. Ice axe, cramp-ons, gaiters, heavy down jacket and my warmest sleeping bag in case we need to bivy overnight. It had been a warm day down in town- almost 60 degrees, but the sun is already setting- it’ll be a different story up in the high country. An extra jacket, 3 headlamps with extra batteries, another pair of micro-spikes, extra food and water just in case. You never know exactly what conditions you’ll be getting into, and it’s usually a safe bet that the subject won’t have been prepared for this sort of worse case scenario.
I swing on my winter pack and head out the door. Mission Base is at the Humber Park parking lot at the foot of Tahquitz Rock. Looking up far above, I can see the sheer slope that we’ll be traversing to reach the subject. This would be a lot faster and easier if we could be dropped in the high country, but the only copter currently available is CHP and they don’t fly at night. That means we’ll just have to hoof it. It’ll take us a few hours in these conditions to make it up there. Hopefully the subject doesn’t get brave in the meantime and try to move.
Lee Arnson, Les Walker and I are the first on scene. More rescuers are en route- we can always use the people. Paul Caraher is bringing the team truck up with all the gear that may be needed if this rescue escalates. We form our plan of attack. Les will stay on scene and run base until Paul gets here to take over. Lee and I will head up Devil’s Slide, while other rescuers will be shunted up the trail as needed behind us or towards the South Ridge Trail in case the subject manages to cross the ice field and head down.
Lee and I swing on the full weight of our winter packs and start up the trail. A few minutes later Will Carlson lopes up the trail behind us. After a warm welcome we’re off again at a quick clip.
The conditions don’t really get challenging until we reach the Saddle. As we come into the junction the wind kicks increasingly strong gusts our way. What has been patchy snow coverage turns into a continuous sheet of ice and hardened snow. If the subject is stuck long in this sort of wind on a fully exposed slope he runs a high risk of hypothermia. Getting him out will be difficult enough without this added complication. I glance at my thermometer- it’s already down to 18 degrees… and with the wind chill… We bear a sharp right up the PCT towards Chinquapin with a renewed fervor.
We cut cross-country across the slopes above the buried trail to save time. The snow is really just crunchy ice from continuous freeze/melt cycles. We walk on top of the sheet of ice, not sinking in at all. We’re essentially walking on a slanted skating rink, in the dark, on a windy night. I swing my ice axe off my pack and into my uphill hand where it can do some good. Our crampon spikes bite into the edge of the mountain and keep us from sliding. The slope here ranges from only 20 to 35 degrees but it’s already taking concentration to place each step correctly.
About 2 hours in we reach the first overlook into the bowl. The wind comes up howling over the lip and buffets us. We wait for our chance – when it dies down we yell out over the edge “Hello! ……Hello!” No answer. We shout again. And again. No answer. Will says: “He should have heard that if he’s there.” Lee gives me a raised eyebrow and I answer with my own worried look. “Maybe he made it out the South Ridge Side” I say with a doubtful tone.
We duck back to the other side of the ridge lip and continue our trek to the far side of the bowl. Reaching the flat area around the saddle above the bowl we stop and look for tracks. Bingo! Fresh snowshoe tracks heading off alone. “Base, Team one…” Lee gets radio confirmation from base that the subject had MSR snowshoes. We follow the tracks across an increasingly steep slope, alternately yelling the subject’s name.
After about 20 minutes Will gets voice contact and we carefully make our way towards the sound. Along the way we gather up a pair of trekking poles caught splayed out in the tips of some brush. “This must be where he slipped.”
The slope has increased to about 45 degrees, some particularly nasty sections even ranging towards 60 degrees. I take extreme care with every step, making sure to plant my axe securely before I move each foot forward. Even with the weight of the winter pack I don’t have enough mass to really bite into the ice, so I have to put extra downward punch in every step to make sure it’s secure. I’m definitely feeling my trail run earlier in the day. Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed it so hard…
Lee and Will pick their way over 100 feet downslope to the subject. He is lodged in the well of the tree that stopped his slide and saved his life. They check his status- amazingly he’s uninjured and is still awake and alert, but very cold. They outfit him with a down jacket, crampons, my extra headlamp, and one of our back-up harnesses, while I wait above securing the belay we’ve rigged. I notice that the tree I’m nestled against is encased in an inch thick sheet of ice. The thermometer reads 13 degrees, the wind chill bringing it down below 0. In a matter of minutes Lee and Will tie the subject in to the line and get him moving upslope as I take out slack.
We radio in to let base know we have the subject and that he’s in good condition. Due to the conditions the call is made to not crowd the slope with too many rescuers. We have enough people to set up and run belay and monitor the subject’s wellbeing. Pete Carlson, and Alan Lovegreen (Team two) have hiked up to the saddle behind us. Carlos Carter and Les Walker (Team Three) are approaching on South Ridge Trail. Base calls them back. Despite their cool heads and experience, on this steep windy slope more rescuers would not necessarily be better.
The wind is increasing, with sudden howling gusts interrupted by unpredictable bouts of silence making it even more difficult to keep our footing. One very strong and abrupt gust actually lifts me up and knocks me off my feet. I feel a rush of adrenaline as my training kicks in and I managed to arrest my fall before it even starts. I stare down the slope and imagine sliding uncontrollably down the several thousand feet to the bottom of the bowl.
Up and Out
The decision is made to head up towards the ridgeline instead of traversing an increasingly steep slope in dangerous wind conditions. If we can get up there it’s a straight, if rocky, shot to the Forest Service Fire Lookout Tower. The only problem will be finding a way in. This time of year the Lookout is still locked down tighter than San Quentin.
On the third try I manage to make a cell call out to my friend Lookout Coordinator Bob Romano and get the combo to the tower. He wishes us safety and luck. I tell him that we appreciate the help- getting the subject (and us) warm and out of the wind will likely be critical to keeping us all safe.
We slowly coax the subject up the incline along a series of belays. He’s understandably scared and nervous after his experience, but we can’t afford to move too slowly. In these conditions succumbing to the cold is a looming risk for the whole team if we don’t keep moving and get out of the wind soon. I’m already shivering off and on and I can see that the guys are working through the cold as well. In order to set up the belays quickly they have to take their gloves off, instantly leaching the heat from their hands and putting them at greater risk the longer we spend on the slope.
We crest the edge of the Tahquitz ridge and the wind abruptly dies. Now that I’m reasonably sure of my own safety I turn my attention to checking more thoroughly on the subject’s wellbeing. He’s still shivering, but that’s a relatively good sign. It means that although he’s cold, his body still has enough energy to try and produce much needed heat. I engage him in conversation to both encourage him and make sure he is still alert.
He relates that, expecting only a day hike, he only brought a small daypack with minimal food and water. This sets off alarm bells in my head. In extreme conditions the body needs both the calories from food and enough water to adequately maintain body temperature. If a person is low on energy and dehydrated they run a much higher risk of hypothermia. I break out my extra provisions and make sure he eats. Lee melts a Nalgene worth of snow and we watch him drink. After a few minutes he noticeably peps up.
Will has gone on ahead to explore our route along the ridgeline. He comes back with good news- only about a half an hour more to a flat section and then it’ll be the “simple” grind of making our way to the tower. The guys take over the subject and I head out to open up the tower and get it ready.
Safe and Sound
It’s about 4 in the morning when the whole group finally meets up at the tower. We give the subject the narrow bed and slide him into one of the extra sleeping bags. We all share a few snack bars and some water and settle down onto the floor for a couple hours rest. Being out of the wind and relatively warm is an amazing feeling after this long night.
After a wake-up serenade from the radio at 6am (thanks Paul!) we pack up our gear and hit the trail. The wind had blessedly died down around dawn. The South Ridge trail, with its’ southern exposure is refreshingly clear of snow and the going is easy. My legs are stiff from overuse and it takes a while to really get into a rhythm, but the siren song of scrambled eggs and bacon is calling us all and we make short work of it.
Pete Carlson and Les Walker are waiting on us at the trailhead- I can’t say I’ve ever been more happy to see them- especially since they were there to drive us out. We brought the boy back to his grateful mother up at base. Then headed out to a much deserved breakfast.
What Really Matters
Looking back over the night I remember the feeling of being in the moment; of not caring about all the worries that I often allow to consume my day. All that mattered was doing what was needed to preserve my life and that of my team. Although it can be challenging, an experience like this helps clarify a lot of things. When you strip everything away you come down to a basic appreciation of life and an understanding of what it means to truly cherish those you care for.
My RMRU team members are the best. From working with Will and Lee in the worst conditions on the mountain, to the support from the backup teams (Carlos, Alan, Les and Pete) ready to spring into action, to the guidance and information from Paul at base I wouldn’t want any other team of mountaineers, any other family, at my back.
RMRU members involved:
Lee Arnson, Will Carlson, Helene Lohr, Les Walker, Pete Carlson, Carlos Carter, Alan Lovegreen, and Paul Caraher