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.
You’re not quite sure where you got turned around, but if you just keep going, you’ll probably figure it out, right? Maybe if you follow this stream downhill… didn’t Bear Grylls say something about water leading to civilization?
The shadows start to grow around you and the trees that seemed so welcoming now hold hidden menace… Night is falling and you’re getting nervous. You’re starting to realize how unprepared you are: no headlamp to illuminate the growing dark, no jacket to hold off the chill. The cold is starting to bite at your shorts clad legs. You can see some lights in the distance; maybe if you just keep going it’ll work out alright…
It’s always there; the temptation to just keep going. It’s a natural tendency, to want to rely on yourself, to avoid the embarrassment of “getting lost”, but there’s a dark side to this self reliance. There comes a time to acknowledge that you are indeed lost, and to sacrifice your ego, call for help (if possible), stop moving and find a safe place to hunker down.
Here are some tips to help you stay safe and be found as quickly as possible.
Let em’ know before you go. Let someone reliable know where you are going and when to expect you back. It’s common sense, but too few people actually do it. We can’t send out a rescue team unless we know approximately when and where you disappeared.
Keep your lines of communication open. Bring your cell phone and conserve your battery until you need it by turning it off or using airplane mode. A sketchy cell connection may someday be enough to save your life. If you have a GPS enabled phone, the Sheriff may be able to get a ping on your rough location for the rescue team. This is useful to us only if you stay put!
Find a safe spot out of shelter of the wind and elements to spend the night. Getting cold? You can jog around your improvised campsite, do push-ups, exercise…. But above all, stay put!
Don’t be lured in by the lights. Our local Southern California mountian ranges are often surrounded by a network of roads and cities. The lights twinkling in the distance can seem so tantalizingly near, so achievable. But what you can’t see at night are the dangers that lie ahead of you in the dark, the rough terrain and impassable cliffs that are concealed under the cover of night. Many a lost hiker has been lured in by the siren song of the city lights, only to be trapped in the dangerous jungle of steep ravines with no safe route back up or down.
Stay put! You are far more likely to fall and injure yourself while moving in the dark or in unfamiliar territory. Moving will probably only make a bad situation worse. If you could depend on your sense of direction you wouldn’t be lost in the first place. Moving wears you out and wastes your resources.
DON’T lead us on a wild goose chase! (Did I mention you should stay put?) Moving puts not only you at risk, but also the rescue personnel that are trying to find you. If you’ve managed to put a call through about your location or believe that you have been reported missing from a specific trailhead or area it’s particularly important that you don’t go wandering off in another direction and widen the search area.
Be prepared to patiently wait. It can take a while for emergency services to activate the search team. We are all volunteers with our own jobs and lives. We must stop whatever we are doing, or climb out of our beds, gather our gear and drive to the trailhead. Also remember, the people looking for you won’t be moving as fast as you; we are carrying heavy packs with extra supplies (for you!) and must often stop to call out and check out side canyons and gullies for your tracks before moving on.
Help us out! Can you see or hear a helicopter looking for you? It’s amazingly hard for the air crew to see people on the ground, especially if you stand still. In a recent interview with aviation one of the guys remarked; “If you stand next to a rock, you look like a rock”. If you want to be found, go to a nearby clearing, ridge line or rock outcropping and make yourself visible: wave, move around to catch their attention. (NOTE: they can’t hear you over the rotor blades, so save your voice!). Don’t expect them to immediately land and pick you up. Often they will instead call in your location for our ground crew to reach you. If you’ve been sighted don’t move- even if the helicopter flies away, stay put!
So go out, have fun, try not to get lost…. But if you do happen to get in trouble, did I mention you should stay put?
“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.
“You never believe everything you hear.” ~ Haley Hightower
It was supposed to be a simple carryout. But if there’s one thing you learn in Search and Rescue, you should never believe everything you hear about a call-out.
The “heads-up” text comes in at 12:30 early Friday morning; a warning that a call-out might be on it’s way. I groan, roll back over and stuff my head under the pillow. The call-out may or may not happen, but I’ll catch as much sleep as I can in the meantime.
At 1:30 the sharp “ding” of a text announces that we do indeed have another mission.
Everyone but Craig Wills and I are off the hill tonight. With the team so short-handed, there’s no going back to sleep on this one. I roll out of bed and shuffle over to pull on my hiking pants and orange shirt. I load the 4Runner up with gear: my standard call out pack plus additional food, water, medical, warmth and overnighting gear. Even though it’s reported as a simple carryout, you never really know what’s coming when you hit the trailhead. I swing by Craig’s house for a quick pickup and we’re on the road with our traditional Rammstein blasting out the stereo.
The request is to assist Cal-Fire with a critical carryout. Intermittent cell service contact with the subject tells the highly dramatic story of a man with “two prosthetic legs, injured and covered in blood.” Cal-Fire is already on trail to his location. We are to provide backup manpower on the litter.
The flashing lights lead us directly to the fire engine at Cactus Spring trailhead. We arrive on scene, ready to spring into action. Not so fast. We’re informed that the fire crew is already on their way back out, but without the subject. They hiked in several miles with a heavy litter in their full call-out gear, but were not able to locate the subject at his self-reported location at the crossing with Horsethief Creek.
Apparently the elusive subject has moved and isn’t responding to attempted voice or cell contact. With failing headlamps and sagging energy the Cal-Fire guys are simply not set up for a major search. What was once assumed a simple assisted on-trail carryout has now become a full-blown search covering miles of wild canyons.
Oh man. I look over at Craig. This is big country out here. There’s a lot of ground for just two people to cover. I guess we’d better get to it! As Craig and I conduct a last cross-check of our gear and sort out our plan of attack, a paramedic brings the welcome news that DSSAR has been contacted to join in on the search with an additional 6 people. We decide to hold off heading into the field until we have the additional manpower.
In the meantime, the RSO deputy has established shaky cell contact with our subject once again. Parked at the Tewanet overlook, the deputy pointed his headlights out into the abyss of canyons south of the 74 and was able to roughly ballpark the subject’s location on the trail. The deputy repeats cardinal rule of Search and Rescue to the subject: “Stay put. We’re coming for you.”
The united RMRU/DSSAR Search team decides we will hike in together with CDF along the trail. Once we can see the police vehicle headlights, we should be directly in the subject’s vicinity. He’s been told to stay put, so we should be good to go. Great! Sounds simple enough.
As we head out, the final search party consists of RMRU and DSSAR joint squads joined by 2 CDF and 1 paramedic carrying around 60 lbs of gear. We take turns trundling the litter and the wheel over the dusty and rocky terrain towards the subject’s last reported location. Hiking with a litter can be strenuous, even without a subject strapped in. After several minutes on litter duty the cold night seems suddenly all too warm and we stop to strip down to our bright orange team shirts.
After a couple miles we reach the crossing with Horsethief Creek. Staring up in the moonlight we survey the challenge ahead of us. The ridge looms in front of us, a final extended vertical push of steep and rocky switchbacks up to where our subject supposedly awaits us. We stop to deliberate. Should we lug the litter up this extreme grade without confirmation of the subject’s whereabouts? He’s already moved on us once. “That could just burn us out- and if he’s not there, well…” notes Sharon from DSSAR.
We call out towards the ridgeline “1…2…3… Hello!”…and wait expectantly for an answer. None comes. Calling again produces the same result. The decision is made to leave the litter at the base of the climb until we’ve confirmed his location. He should be nearby. How far could a man with 2 prosthetic legs get in this sort of terrain?
We wind our way up the ridgeline, towards the slowly brightening horizon to the east. We call out once in a while, just in case our subject has gone to sleep or wandered off trail into a nearby ravine. Reaching the top of the climb, I look to the North. In the far in the distance the red and blue flashers of the deputy’s vehicle are visible, its headlights pointed directly towards us.
Radio contact with the deputy yields disturbing information: He recently saw the subject’s light 400 yards below our current location. Since there’s another ridgeline between us and the road, the only way the subject’s light could be seen below us is if he’s …(sigh) massively off trail! Oh dagnabit: He’s been moving again! I share a look of frustrated understanding with Craig. We both know we’re in for a much longer night.
Looking again to the North, I can understand why the subject would be tempted to make a go of it. The lights from Highway 74 are so tantalizing. They appear to be so close, almost within reach, especially when the rough terrain and impassable cliffs are concealed under the cover of night. But still- you have to marvel that a man with two prosthetic legs could make it that far off trail in this kind of rough terrain! Something just doesn’t seem quite right here.
After a brief conference, the decision is made to head back down to the crossing with Horsethief Creek. We’ll attempt to access the neighboring canyon by following the scar of the boulder-strewn creek downstream. We once again make the wise decision to leave the litter at the crossing. In brightening light of dawn, we pick our way through the rocks, debris and puddles that clutter the narrow base of the ravine.
Just over a mile in we receive encouraging radio contact: “He’s on the move! The deputy can see him!” The subject has made his way to a ravine far below the Tewanet lookout. Of course the canyon is far too steep for him to climb out of, but now we at least have a visual. The deputy establishes faint voice contact and finally gets the subject to stop moving.
A few minutes later, even better news crackles its way over the radio. A Cal-Fire Helicopter is available and will be here in a few minutes. “Alright!” The relieved team shares a quick celebration as we take a much-needed break from clambering through the ankle-twisting rocky debris. Snacks are passed round and drinks shared. As the thup-thup-thup of the helicopter approaches our mood starts to lift. Help from the air is always appreciated.
“The copter says we’re about 1500 feet from him as the crow flies, but there are some very steep drop-offs between us and him,” the Cal-Fire crewman on radio detail reports. Getting to the subject on foot would be very difficult and extricating him on foot even worse. Luckily, the weather is calm and clear and the canyon wide enough for the Cal-Fire air-crew to hoist. What a relief. We stand by as the Cal-Fire Helicopter extracts our elusive subject and returns him to trailhead parking lot.
Now all we have to worry about is ourselves. After hiking around all night carrying a full call-out pack and litter after a moving target, we’re not looking forward to the long hike out. Luckily, our generous friends at Cal Fire have a greatly appreciated solution: spend the extra time and effort to extract the search team as well! The helicopter crew drops a man in along the trail behind us to clear a landing zone. The copter extracts us in groups of three, cutting an exhausting hike of several hours down to a matter of minutes. Thank you Cal-Fire!
Back at staging area we get the scoop on our subject (who has refused medical care and already left). The man “covered in blood” with “prosthetic legs” was actually a guy with a couple of bad knees who had gotten a bit scratched up by the brush during his cross-country travels. Craig and I look at each other and can’t help but laugh. What a great punch line.
Sigh… like I said before… you should never believe everything you hear about a call-out.
“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!
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.
“Make sure to bring your rescue gear”. Lee says on the phone Friday night. I’ve called him to ask if I can borrow his ascenders for the team training tomorrow. “Really? You think I’ll need it?” Famous last words…
Saturday, 7:30 am. My wheels kick up gravel along the gritty dirt road deep in Joshua Tree’s Indian Cove campground. The sun rises behind me, painting the faces of the rock a golden red, promising a warm day ahead. Dust follows my 4Runner up the road towards our team campsites. The familiar RMRU Rescue Trucks and a scattering of orange shirts says I’ve arrived.
A few team members are already working on personal skills high up on the steep rock walls surrounding the campsites. More cars pull in. We exchange warm welcomes and start gathering our team technical rock gear for training.
Pete Carlson gives a brief training overview. “Today we’ll be working on secure anchor setting, setting up pulley systems, controlled litter raises and lowers. These skills will help you do your job and save the lives of our subjects and teammates. Stay on task, work hard with your team and enjoy yourself!”
Technical Rock Training: Anchors
We break off into groups. Donny peels off to the southwest with those who want to practice setting anchors. Pete collects the more advanced technical crew to dive immediately into setting up raises and lowers for our litter system off of a steep rock wall to the southeast.
Donny reviews the use of cams, hexes and nuts. How do you evaluate the rock for the most secure placement? He runs us through different scenarios, covering the possible pros and cons. Place the anchor in a crack that flares outwards towards the direction of pull and the piece will be at risk of walking and yanking free. A crack with parallel, or better yet, walls that come together along the direction of pull will yield a bomber hold.
We learn to check the quality of the rock, watching for potential crumbling or flaking. Rock crystals that break off or flaking sections can allow the anchor to shift and put you at serious risk of the piece failing. The strength and angle of placement are critical. Even though anchors have flexible stems, their angle to the fall line (the angle at which you are placing the most weight/force) is important. If you place the piece too far off angle the torque can cause the piece to rotate, ‘walk’, and potentially pop out of position. Just in case you were wondering, this is not good.
Donny shows us how to assess placement of multiple cams in order to maximize the strength of the system. Once again the angle is key. A wide angle running from the anchors to their point of attachment weakens the entire system. Donny explains how lengthening the runners along the fall line can create a tighter angle and also help equalize the load for a stronger system. When we are low on runners, placing the cams closer together can yield the same effect.
I listen intently. Not only our own lives, but those of my teammates and subjects will be at risk if I get this wrong later. The weight of several rescuers, their heavy team gear, full rescue backpacks, a sturdy stokes litter and a subject will all hang from our placement of these pieces.
We split up to practice, with Donny coming over to critique our anchor placements and test their strength.
Nearly a Rescue
The call comes in around 9:30 am. Team President Rob May comes over to let us know. “Collect your gear and clear out. We’ve got a rescue! Meet at the base of the tram. No other details yet”. Glenn and Gwenda head out first to see if they can get more info, while the rest of the team packs up the technical gear and sorts it into the truck.
Dang it, Lee was right! A call can come at any time. I start mentally berating myself for bringing everything but my winter gear. It may be warm down in the desert, but if this turns into a mission in the high country I very well may need the crampons and ice axe still nestled deep in my gear closet at home. Dang! One more lesson learned.
The team peels off one by one into an informal caravan heading towards Mt. San Jacinto. I fall into line behind Paul Caraher and Matt Jordan on the highway. Traffic that was tolerable this morning now seems to creep as we cruise along behind cars forming a slow moving roadblock. Midway through the drive a cell phone chain carries the news to the team- the mission base has changed to Whitewater.
Aviation to the Rescue!
Just a few minutes after we pull into base we get the news. Aviation has scooped up the “disoriented PCT hiker” from high on Fuller Ridge and is already en route to our location. Bewildered grins are passed around: 20+ rescuers and no rescue!
We hear the “thup thup” of the copter within minutes. Star 9 sets down a few hundred feet away. As Tony and Juvien from Aviation escort the subject to the waiting rescue crew, I can’t help but notice that the he doesn’t seem well prepared. He is wearing a dusty cotton Tshirt and cotton pants. His backpack is old and from a distance doesn’t appear to have a sturdy waist strap to properly distribute the load. An old Walmart style sleeping bag and mattress are rolled up together on top to form a bedroll.
I don’t get a chance to talk to the subject, but it’s pretty likely he didn’t have the necessary gear for the mountain. Mt San Jacinto is the first serious non-desert challenge along the route of the PCT. A lot of thru-hikers gravely underestimate the conditions. We’ve already had a rash of heads-ups and rescues due to ill prepared PCTers this season.
Pic- caption- personal Rock Skills- Donny Goetz and Alan Lovegreen form a 2 man anchor to belay Les Walker down a 100 ft rock face.
Back to Business
The “nearly a rescue” has eaten hours of our time. When we get back to JTree our prime location for training has been taken by eager rock climbers. After some time for lunch and personal skills Pete and Donny scout out a new location for litter raises and lowers. The rock at the new location is more complicated, but we take on the challenge and start setting up our anchors to get into litter raises and lowers.
The DG (decomposing granite) rock makes setting anchors challenging. Obvious cracks end up being too unstable to rely on. Despite the crumbling cracks we manage to securely place a selection of cams and hexes. We tie in our red and blue runners and equalize them, distributing the weight leading toward the fall line where we will tie in the litter.
I volunteer as the first Litter Attendant. With experienced guidance from the senior members I clip into the litter in the middle and guide it down the face of the rock, using the weight of my body and leg strength to guide it over the uneven rocks. The litter must be held as level as possible in order to not endanger the subject.
The Litter Attendant not only guides the litter, but must keep constant tabs on the condition of the subject. If they are in shock it’s important to keep the head tilted slightly down to increase blood flow to the brain. If we suspect a traumatic brain injury we tilt the litter slightly up to reduce swelling and hopefully buy them some more time before brain damage results from the pressure.
I call out the orders loudly, “down slow…” Holding the litter with both arms I lean back with my full weight and let the strength of my legs, the tension of the rope and the team above do most of the heavy lifting. We hit a tricky spot along the route that threatens to throw the litter off kilter. “Stop!” I look back over my shoulder, decide to head for the rocks to my left and readjust my grip. Chad relays the orders to the rope team at the top. Good communication is key. Down we go.
Guiding the litter back up is challenging and great practice for a real fife scenario. With Kelly securely strapped in I use the Prussik knots to adjust the angle of the litter and keep her level as we ascend the uneven rock faces. I reach up and pull my line to the litter, lengthening it in order to give my legs more purchase as we head back up. “Up, slow!”
At the top I unhook and climb into the recently vacated litter as Matt Jordan takes the lead as Litter Attendant. Mike George and Frank Snider follow us up, while the rest of the team take turns running the rope system and trying out some of our expensive new team gear.
Job Well Done
By the end of the day we are all hot, dusty and in need of a comfy camp chair and a cold beverage. The moon rises to the east as we eat, relax and stare into the campfire. It’s time for stories, laughter and pranks on those who go to bed early. Definitely a day well spent, despite the snag of the “nearly a rescue” incident of the morning.
Planning a roadtrip? Want to hit some wilderness areas for hiking and backpacking? As a Backcountry Skills Instructor, Search and Rescue Team Member, volunteer USFS Ranger and general Know-it-all I’ve had quite a bit of experience planning for safe trips into the wilderness. Here’s my own personal Adventurer’s list of 13 essentials for Wilderness Safety.
Common Sense. Truly essential number ONE. Having the right gear is one thing, but knowing how and when to use it is another. Most often, it’s not a person’s gear that saves their bacon. It’s experience, know-how, and good judgment.
Extra clothing. I always bring a down jacket, extra socks, rain gear and an emergency shelter. The weather can change its’ mind minute by minute. If you or your friend is injured, you may be required to stay in one place for an extended period through weather extremes. Contrary to what the media presents, rescues often take many hours to coordinate, even when you are lucky enough to have a helicopter available. Extra clothing can make the difference between a merely unpleasant night and a life threatening one.
A hiking partner. Consider hiking with a partner. Hiking alone, especially in winter, can be dangerous. A critical point to remember: a cell phone is useful, but does not replace a partner. Batteries can go out, certain areas do not receive reception, and you may drop, damage or lose your phone.
Headlamp and backup batteries. You never know how long you will have to stay out in emergency situations. Light to illuminate your surroundings and the trail home can be the difference between a safe trip home and a broken leg.
Extra water and/or filter, especially in the summer- remember you never know what’s up the drainage… dead horse water anyone? Remember that your water bladder line can freeze in the winter and leak in the summer- it’s wise to bring a back-up Nalgene. Even 2% dehydration takes your physical and metal efficiency down 20% and makes you much more vulnerable to hypothermia or heat exhaustion. Most people we rescue are dehydrated in addition to being lost or injured.
Extra Food. Getting stuck in the back country without extra food can be pretty uncomfortable. Keeping your energy up can help you stay in good health and keep you more mentally alert to make good decisions.
Gear for Seasonal conditions: Microspikes, gloves, extra dark sunglasses and snow gaiters are always in my bag in the winter. Crampons, ice axe and snowshoes are always out in my gear room to be brought on an as needed basis. Hiking partners are on speed dial. A hat with a visor, sunglasses, insect gear and repellant, sunscreen and a head/neck buff are summer standards.
Sun Protection. Dark sunglasses, hat and suncreen are more important to your safety than you know. A little sunburn may not kill you, but unprotected exposure to bright light (reflected off of snow or light graveled trails) for as little as an hour at high altitudes can (initially) painlessly burn your cornea and then lead to supremely painful snowblindess within a few hours. If you’ve experienced it full blown you will never forget it. Remember, if you are out on your own it is difficult and dangerous find your way down the trail without the use of your eyes.
First Aid Gear– Carry the basics, know what you have and make sureyou know how to use everything you carry. It won’t do you any good to carry something if you have no clue how to use it. It’s very a good idea to enroll yourself in a Wilderness First Aid course like one of those offered by Wildernessoutings.com (some of the best instructors I know).
Map & Compass: Always bring a topo map of the region. Make sure you know how to read it and use your compass to orient the map. Knowing UTM coordinates is also really useful. You never know when you may have to call out the coordinates of the nearest meadow for a helicopter landing zone for Search and Rescue.
Fire: a reliable source of fire can be critical to keeping you warm in emergency situations. Even though most Wilderness areas are fire free, there are situations where survival can trump all.
Knife/repair tools. Having a knife can help you out in a lot of critical survival situations- not necessarily so dramatic as cutting off your own arm (a la 127 Hours), but important nonetheless.
Vision aids. Have a prescription? Wear contacts? Make sure and bring both extra contacts and a set of glasses. I’ve had contacts tear, glasses break or my eyes become too irritated for contacts. On one particular high angle snow and ice rescue I was very glad I had brought an alternative. Take it from me, it’s not fun trying to make your way down the mountain while only seeing a vague blur of the trail ahead of you.
So get out there and have fun! But make sure you take the time ahead of time to prepare with the right gear, the right training, and most especially copious amounts of common sense. There are certainly other things that you can bring that will help you safely navigate the back country, but nothing trumps going into the wilderness with a good head on your shoulders!