If you spend time in the outdoors, eventually something will go wrong. It’s a law of nature. But if you survive, those epic failures become the best stories! We’ve all read about amazing accomplishments in the wild, but now it’s time to tell us about the not-so-great times and what you learned from them. Share your best #EpicTrailFail stories on your own page, include this paragraph as a header, and then provide a link in the comments here or here. We’ll curate and circulate the best stories in future posts. We can’t wait to read about what you’ve survived!
A week ago I thought I’d just mosey on up to the Sierras for a couple of days of adventure. I had an adventure, it just wasn’t the one I was counting on.
Early Tuesday morning I hopped into the car and headed up El Camino Sierra (CA 14/US 395) with my faithful hound Oliver. I wanted to get up to Lone Pine before it got hot and this old junker I’m driving doesn’t have A/C.
Lone Pine is a tourist community on the Eastern Sierra famous for movies and easy access to the Sierra mountains. Speed limit is 25 in town and you had best pay attention.
The Alabama Hills just west of town were the set for many movies. Perhaps you’ve seen Tremors? Well, maybe not. That was a while ago. How about Django Unchained ? Or maybe a few scenes from Iron Man? Here’s a quick listing of all the movies shot in the area, from 1919 to 2014.
Just south of Lone Pine is the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center. Inyo National Forest, Death Valley, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks, Manzanar Historic Site, the Bureau of Land Management for the Alabama hills and the LA Dept. of Water and Power-Owens Lake office all have their information and visitor centers here. This is my initial destination where I will pick up my wilderness permit. I’ll be backpacking thru the Golden Trout Wilderness and the John Muir Wilderness. From there it will be up the hill to the Cottonwood Lakes and maybe new Army Pass. I’m so excited my stomach is full of butterflies.
It is a short drive up Whitney Portal Road to the trailhead to Mount Whitney, the highest
peak in the US outside Alaska. Head north up main street, hang a left on Whitney Portal Road and climb 5,000 ft. and you’re there. I’m going to a different campground. Once I’m on Whitney Portal, I hung another left onto Tuttle Creek Road, wandered though the weird rock formations of the Alabama Hills for a bit and then another left onto Horseshoe Meadows Road. From here it is only 19 miles and 6000 ft up an insane set of switchbacks to Cottonwood Campground in the Inyo National Forest.
I’m driving up that?????
Actually, insane doesn’t adequately describe this road. From a distance one wonders how the hell they managed to cut this road – and why? (It was because Disney wanted to develop a ski resort up there.) But it was 1965 and the country was rolling in dough and auto travel and camping as recreation were still in their glory days. It still must have been ghastly expensive.
Horseshoe Meadows Road is considered one of the more dangerous roads in the US and the second most difficult climb in California. It is a 6.5% grade. A sign warns that rocks are only removed 8 am to 4 pm. It requires a healthy engine and a healthy radiator or you might not make it – at least not in a reasonable time. Air conditioning would be a very bad choice to run here. On the way down I highly recommend using a lower gear and very little gas, otherwise you risk burning out your brakes.
I passed a couple of trucks hauling horses both up and down. (There’s an equestrian campground up there.) They were moving at a slow walking pace and made wide turns on the switchbacks. You would have been faster to have ridden the horses.
My little black Suzuki may look like junk but it has the heart of a lion and the power of a mule. It laughs at roads like this. Onward and upward!
Along the way the views are stunning. There is a famous hang gliding spot along the way, Walt’s Point, where a number of old world records were set. The road peaks at 10,700 ft and then drops into a valley and then climbs again.
I am packed and ready to go. A gallon of water plus a filter and Chloramine tabs. Three days food in a bear canister. 20°F bag for predicted 40°F weather. Two walled mountain tent. There’s lots of water en route (I am going to a set of lakes after all.) Heavily used trail, map and compass, first aid kit and SPoT communicator. I am comfortable with the elevation. Oliver is there to help me. What could possibly go wrong? (Heh… heh… heh…)
Cottonwood Campground is not very impressive. The campsites are single day use only. As you can see from the photo, the parking lot was a zoo.
First we passed from the National Forest into the Golden Trout wilderness. (10119 ft.)
Initially, the trail is a bit of up and down with slightly more down than up. It dropped down to 10,000 ft. and then began a long, slow climb up to the lakes. After a couple miles I noticed that the butterflies weren’t butterflies any more. They’d become bats. Bats in the belly isn’t a happy feeling and they kept arguing with the belt cinched tightly around my waist. But that is all they were doing and I’d had similar experiences before from simply eating too much fruit. Took some Loperimide and hiked on.
Oliver was in overdrive. The altitude hadn’t affected him in the slightest. For every foot I traveled he traveled three. Just watching him looking everywhere, running everywhere, sniffing everywhere was a source of joy and energy.
I keep him on a 26 ft. retractable lead. Without exception, everyone we saw on the trail commented on how pretty and how well behaved he was. He’s shaping up to be as good a trail dog as Avery – who was sidelined with a limp from playing too hard with him.
Oliver carries his own load and some of mine. Three days worth of crunchies plus the fuel can for the stove and the some other misc. items. The dog is familiar with his doggie pack and views it favorably since it always means an impending adventure. He’s a 55 lb. dog so he should be able to carry 10 lbs in his pack. I keep it below that.
A mulepacker with two mules passed us. Oliver behaved perfectly.
There had been a creek crossing 1.4 miles in, the south branch of the Cottonwood Creek. (1030 ft. on the map) Oliver found his true joy, splashing and swimming. It was easy for him because the contents of his saddlebags were in ziploc bags and they acted like flotation devices. We went cross country to another creek and then followed it for a while. This creek opened out into a large marshy meadow further up. The trail I was on intersected with a short trail to the hike-or-horsepack-in Golden Trout Wilderness School. (10188 ft.)
I didn’t get a photo but that short trail actually had an arch over it with the name of the camp. Not being a weekend, there may not have been a class going.
The sign for the entry to the John Muir Wilderness wasn’t where I was expecting it. It was actually a quarter mile past the boundary. I know this because the sign was right next to the Cottonwood Creek stream crossing (10282 ft.) but the map shows the boundary back by Golden Trout Camp. I realize this would not bother a rational human but to me it just feels sloppy. I am not a rational human being about signage. It is my Asperger’s leaking out.
It was right about here that things started to go south. The bats in my belly had evolved into mild diarrhea. Maybe it was the altitude? I resolved to go more slowly, drink more, and rest more often.
Soon I came to an intersection (10546 ft.). Left went to New Army Pass (and Cottonwood Lakes). Right went to Cottonwood Lakes (and plain old Army Pass). The map I’d left my wife indicated that I might go either way in a loop. I went right.
You might ask why I continued on despite a GI tract issue. GI tract issues and I are close friends. Queasiness and rumbly tummy are frequent companions of mine. If I let it control my life, I’d never do anything.
You might ask why I was hiking alone. I wasn’t. There were dozens of other hikers on this trail with me. I have my SPoT satcom device with me. I have Oliver with me. And if I didn’t go on solo hikes, I’d go on very few hikes..
You might ask why I didn’t take a night to acclimate. The recommended acclimation was to spend a day at the campground, go on dayhikes, sleep there, and then head out the next day for even higher High Sierra. Since I was only going one way that day and I tend to hike very slowly it wasn’t anything exceptional. I’ve backpacked the Sierras before. I’ve hiked above 14,000 ft. on Mauna Kea. I often visit Mt. Piños locally, doing 10% grades at 8 to almost 9,000 ft. Three miles of flat at 10,000 ft. plus a couple more miles of gentle incline was well within my capabilities.
I set up camp because I felt unusually tired. (10690 ft.) I was one mile and 350 feet in elevation away from my goal, Cottonwood Lake Number One. I’d climb to 11040 ft. the next day and drop down ten ft. to the lake. Or that was my plan.
Not all all hungry. I sipped on some water while I fed Oliver kibble one piece at a time. He was still full of energy. I ate a couple of cheese balls and reluctantly nibbled on a brown sugar & cinnamon Pop-Tart. Figured I needed some internal fuel and firing up the stove to cook just sounded like work I didn’t want to do.
Oops! More discontent in my bowels. More Loperimide. Signaled home I was OK with the SPoT and went to bed.
Next thing I know, I wake up and I’m shivering violently. Took some Aspirin for the fever. I was inside a double walled tent and a 20 degree bag with a thermal generator dog in 40 degree weather. (Oliver’s metabolism is such that he radiates heat.) I ought to have been hot. Instead my teeth were chattering. I snuggled up to him and covered both of us with the bag for warmth. And still shivered but not nearly so violently.
Despite this, I had to pee several times that night. Altitude messes with your ability to sleep soundly. If you do not sleep soundly, your body does not send out the command to your kidneys to take a break for the night. I’m losing fluids like crazy. Each time I have to stand up to go out, I am dizzy and nauseous. My heart pounds every time I move. My teeth are chattering by the time I get back into the bag.
But you know, just crawling out of the sack to see the stars was worth it. I live close to LA in a small “exurban” city. The Milky Way isn’t generally visible. here. The stars here were even more brilliant than those atop Mt. Piños. And the birds were singing to me. Calls I wasn’t familiar with from my hikes in the transverse ranges. Just because you feel like dying is no reason not to appreciate beauty when you find it.
That “bounding pulse” can be caused by a lot of things. Exertion, high altitude, fever, dehydration and a few other issues that don’t apply here.
Morning comes and I am soaked in sweat and too weak to walk. This concerns me. I am losing fluid through every orifice as well as sweating. If I can’t walk to the stream (just a couple hundred yards!) to get water and then back again, I’d have to crawl. Or beg from passers-by. That would be embarrassing. At least the fever broke. Fetch me some water Oliver! Fetch!
I punched the SOS button on the SPoT.
I don’t believe I was in a life-threatening situation. It is a popular trail and I’m sure any passing hiker would help me out. I did get water from one pair and I shared it with Oliver. They said they’d call for help when they got in cell range. (Three hours? Four?)
Between diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, and weakness, I was in an extremely uncomfortable situation and unable to travel. I did take some Dramamine for the nausea but I don’t know how useful it was. Drinking water and oral meds are of limited use when you can’t keep things down. OTOH, I did sleep much of the next day and wasn’t as nauseous. It might have helped.
My first aid kit has a small pharmacy. Every OTC med I have ever found useful and every med I have a prescription for are there in 3 day quantities. There’s a bit a bit of Hydrocodone, a bit of Ibuprofen and a bit of Tylenol for pain. Aspirin for fever and in case of possible heart attack. There’s Allegra for allergies and Benedryl for more severe allergic reactions and as a sleep aid. Pseudoephedrine decongestant. Dramamine for nausea and Loperamide for the runs. Amoxicillin to stave off infection from a major injury until I can get to a doctor. Tums for antacid. Plus my regular dose of Simvistatin for cholesterol. Each drug is labeled in its own tiny ziploc I got from a craft store.
I suppose it is possible I was so sick that the meds I took had no noticeable effect. But I tried and was as prepared as I could be. It might be that things could have been far worse.
It was daylight when I pressed the SOS button. My tent is olive green. My backpack is green. My clothing is green and khaki. But my backpack’s rain cover is bright red.
I spread it out over a large rock in the opening I was camped in, laid down on some shady dirt and waited. I had the shiny surface of my cookset to signal with if I needed it and flashing lights for night. A smokey fire would have brought down Forest Service Armageddon on me. They weren’t needed. Even if the GPS signal was off, the rain cover was more than enough to locate me.
Oliver waited with me.
Dogs know when you aren’t well. Oliver, the bundle of living energy and perpetual motion, laid right next to me and kept me warm as I drifted in and out of sleep. I could see the occasional hiker passing by but it didn’t seem worth the effort to bother them. I’d already flagged down a couple of them, bummed a little water off them and asked them to call for help when they got into cell phone range. I suspect they met the rescue team hiking up the hill.
Six to eight hours (I wasn’t tracking the time) after I pressed the button, the helicopter flew overhead, circling my location. Because of the GPS coordinates from my SPoT, they knew exactly where I was. I managed to stagger to my feet and waved my hat around. The chopper honked at me a couple times and flew away. I plopped back down and waited. Soon it came back and landed southwest of me. Was only a few minutes after that the four man Search and Rescue (SAR) team came tromping up the trail to the north of me while the helicopter crew came up from the LZ in the south. Perfect coordination.
The SAR team was great. I’d say they ranged from the early 20s to the late 40s. Small town and rural SAR folks are a special breed. They are outdoor enthusiasts and mountaineering experts themselves with additional special training and keep themselves in great shape. They love their work and going on a successful rescue makes their day.
Inyo County’s budget is only $13.5 million and couldn’t dream of hiring full time professionals. There are 18 deputies for 10,000 square miles (one for every thousand residents) and even this small effort would have occupied every available on-duty deputy for the day. They work under the county sheriff as unpaid volunteers because that is the only way it could happen.
Inyo County does not have a helicopter. When they need one for SAR work, they have to call up the California Highway Patrol (CHP). The nearest one is in Apple Valley, a hundred and fifty miles south. That isn’t unreasonable, given how fast they fly.
They took my blood pressure and gave me oxygen and water. Packed up my belongings and even took care of Oliver for me. They walked us to the chopper. One guy held me up from the rear by my belt, another had his arm around me and a third carried the oxygen. The oxygen was a BIG help. I still stumbled and gagged a couple of times.
We cross the creek and the helicopter is on the other side in a open marsh. Mosquitoes swarm everyone but me. Even poor Oliver. I see hundreds maybe thousands, clouds of them. Most hover over me and then fly away to attack someone else. A few land but none bite. I am peculiar and lucky that way and I am sure that being extremely dehydrated made me even less palatable. Oliver and I load up in the back of the chopper and we lift off.
And then we settle back down. The chopper is at the extreme limit of its performance envelope. At the time it landed it had more than enough lift for the job but in the time it took to retrieve me, the air temperature had increased. Warmer air is thinner air. Thinner air offers less lift. Gotta leave Oliver behind. The SAR team will walk him down the hill. I was very sad about this but surrendered to the physics of the situation. It was okay because he was being very well behaved and by now they were all in love with the dog. So we take off again.
Still not going anywhere. Pilot landed and this time we offloaded the 260 lb. copilot and reloaded Oliver. I was sure Oliver would be frightened by the helicopter but he scrambled up and in without any assistance. He wanted to be near me. The pilot ran his engine for a bit to burn off more fuel and make it lighter still. Third time was a charm.
The flight to Southern Inyo Hospital took only a few minutes. I was so puked out and dessicated that my normal air sickness didn’t kick in. Or maybe it was the tail end of the Dramamine I’d taken several hours earlier. The view was stunning! Cresting the ridge of the Eastern Sierra one could see the Owens Valley for miles in all directions including the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine and Owens Dry Lake.
I asked the pilot if there’d be any kind of charge for the flight. He said I paid for it when I paid for my automotive registration.
I can’t take Oliver into the hospital but I met a very cheerful deputy there who offered to house him in the local police dog kennel. Inyo County has one K9 unit and the dog is off training its handler. We both agreed that Animal Control would be a very bad place for him so Oliver was taken into police custody.
The (one) doctor and the aids there were very nice people. I suspect the Doc has had huge amounts of experience with people pulled off the mountains, many of them in far worse shape than I. My BP was still 144 over something. He did some blood work and hooked me up to a liter of normal saline with Zofran and some oral Lomotil and a prescription for Flagyl antibiotic. He also bought me a couple of sodas.
The ER was very small and while I was waiting another guy came in with some kind of “itis” in his ear and the Doc gave him a workup, some prescriptions and suggested an eye, ears and throat specialist. The nearest one would be a hundred miles south in Lancaster. The nurse was dubious that the man would actually go, suggesting that having got a script for Norco he would now be happy.
This is small town medicine. They are lucky to even have a doctor and even a tiny hospital. The patients are either tourists from far away or locals you probably know personally. The rural folk often don’t show up until the pain is agonizing but, OTOH, opioid addiction is a problem. Judgement calls get made.
Bloodwork showed elevated neutrophils (a kind of white blood cell) indicating infection and an elevated CPK (creatine phosphokinase) level indicating exercise, skeletal muscle injury, or heart disease. (Or maybe brain damage but that wasn’t a real choice here.) So he ran off an EKG. It came out normal. The conclusion was that exercise was the cause and nothing to worry about. He also x- rayed my chest for fluid accumulation and my abdomen for… something? Everything was okay.
His diagnosis was severe gastroenteritis compounded by altitude and exertion. It wasn’t food poisoning, though I’ve had that ruin my day before. It wasn’t mountain sickness (AMS) (that doesn’t cause fever or diarrhea) and it wasn’t Giardia. Giardia takes a week to more to develop and I hadn’t drunk the local water anyhow.
I was stuck on the exam table until the liter was inside me. He really wanted to do a fecal culture but I was as cleaned out as I could be. After several hours my gear showed up with one of the SAR folks who’d hiked it down the hill.
These guys are just amazing! Natural men, not the carefully manscaped, coiffed and ripped dudes who are the masculine ideal in the city. I thanked everyone profusely. And now I could show the hospital my ID and Kaiser insurance card. My wallet was in my dog’s backpack. (My cell was still at the trailhead in my car.)
Next a different deputy showed up with Oliver. We were overjoyed to be reunited. He said he’d taken a photo of Oliver and sent it home to his daughter. She’d texted back that she wanted him. I said she couldn’t have him.
The deputy drove us back up to my car at the trailhead. We talked about a lot of things. The sheriff’s department of Inyo county is tasked with three things: Running the jail, running the courthouse and performing search and rescue. Patrol is when manpower is available. Traffic control is optional. Law enforcement and investigation is “as needed”.
He used to be a cop in Redland, a small city near San Bernardino. The crime in Inyo is exactly the same, just less of it because of the lower population density (1.8 per square mile). People use the extreme remoteness to get up to things they ought not to. Along with the Eastern Sierra there is the Owens Valley, the Inyo Mountains and Death Valley NP.
Just a week earlier they’d had to go on a search and rescue mission that hadn’t been so upbeat. Cody Tuttle, a film maker, died hang gliding off Walt’s Point. You drive right by it near the crest of Horseshoe Meadows Road. (I’ve posted photos above.) Somehow his glider crashed at 12.600 ft., well north of there near the village of Independence. Forest Service helicopters found the body (his InReach satcom had sent an SOS) but the CHP helicopter had to retrieve it.
I bet they did it at the crack of dawn, there was no copilot and all extraneous equipment was left back at the helipad.
We talked about Saline Valley Road. He won’t go out there without the 4WD Ford Explorer the department has. I mentioned the German couple in the rental vehicle I saw take off down a road I’d warned them not to go down. He said, “Something like a white Ford Mustang convertible?
Ka-ching! Where have I seen that before? What a small world!
Miller’s Towing in Lone Pine charges $3-5,000 to tow a vehicle out. The rental company always pays and passes it on to the renter.
I spent the night in Lone Pine. The Best Western there is the only pet friendly motel in town I shall sing their praises on every review site I can.
I visited a Kaiser doctor the next day. My doctor was busy, so they assigned me to an osteopath. (!!!!) She poked around my belly and pronounced that I had diverticulitis. I don’t. My symptoms don’t match and my recent colonoscopy proves I don’t. But she prescribed the same things the Lone Pine doctor did, so I ran with it.
Three days after my illness, I am still fatigued and have bowel issues. The gastroenteritis that struck was likely viral and the antibiotics won’t touch it. Still have to finish the course. Oliver scraped his elbow while in police custody but is otherwise fine. My wife wants me to upgrade to the expensive satcom device that has a keyboard and can send and receive messages. If sh’e okay with it, I’ll spend the cash.
This is not the last that Cottonwood trail has seen of me!