I want to tell you a story. I have wanted to tell this story many times. I have half written this post several times only to delete it and move past it. There are reasons I have gone back and forth on this. One is that I didn’t want to embarrass the person in the story. Another reason is I have struggled with the idea of accepting undue praise because in my mind, this is what anybody should do in this situation. The miracle of this story isn’t what I did, it’s that I was in exactly the right place at the right time to be able to do it.
It was July 5th earlier this year. I was in Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. I was a half a day north from Mt. Whitney as I was standing on top of Forester Pass (the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail at roughly 13,200 feet above sea level) and looking out into the new mountains and valleys on the other side. I had a formidable snow field in front of me to traverse. The trail, completely hidden beneath the snow, switchbacked down away from the pass. It was probably a couple hundred feet of elevation before the snow field gave way to the trail again. So instead of attempting to follow the invisible trail, or walking through the snow (aka post-holing through it), I decided to sit my happy ass right down in the snow and go for a ride. This is called glissading. Basically I’m sled riding down the mountain sans the sled. Now, this is more ideally done with pants on. But as most of you know, unless it’s the dead of winter, I don’t wear pants. In fact, I barely wear shorts. To get to the point, I was about to receive quite the ice wedgie. As I was about halfway down the snow field, I looked over and saw a woman hiking up the snow field towards Forester Pass. I hollered over to her, “IT”S COLD!!” She laughed and said something in return but I couldn’t hear her over the sound the snow was making as it was building underneath me the further I slid. Finally I reached the bottom and stood up and looked back at where I had just come from while simultaneously shaking out the snow that had made it’s way inside the liner of my short shorts. My ass was completely numb. But the sun was shining and it was a warm day, so I got to stepping.
It was a beautiful day and I was feeling great. This section is one of my favorites of the PCT in the Sierra. But then again, I’m not sure there is a section that I DON’T love in the Sierra. The trail continues down out of the alpine and down along Bubb’s Creek. It is roughly 8 miles from the pass down to the junction at Lower Vidette Meadows where the PCT takes an abrupt right hand turn due north to Bull Frog Lake. All of those 8 miles are a descent down to 9,554 feet. Quick math tells us that’s 3,646 feet. Just imagine how that feels on your muscles and joints for a minute. I had been hiking for a couple hours since leaving the pass, taking my time, enjoying the scenery, and taking LOTS of pictures. I was actually a couple of hours behind my initial schedule that I had made the day before. You see, I was running low on food and I was planning on cutting out at Kearsarge Pass (this side trail is roughly 7 miles one way) to try and hitch a ride from Onion Valley Trailhead to head into town and pick up supplies for what I was about to do next, which was take on the Sierra High Route. I had planned on getting up at 4am that morning to get a jump on the heat and sun and to get as close to Kearsarge Pass as possible. Maybe even making it all the way to the trailhead and head out that night if I was lucky. But being that I had just hiked up the highest mountain in the lower 48 the day prior (Mt Whitney at 14,505 feet), my body told my alarm to piss off when it went off at 4am. Not uncommon for me to hit the snooze for an hour or so, but on this particular morning I didn’t get going until 9am. A significant delay in my plans. No matter, I would adjust on the fly. So when I had made it down to Bubb’s Creek, I was roughly 2.5 miles from the junction at Lower Vidette Meadows and it was about 5pm. I decided it was time for a break and to restock on some energy. Time to make a tuna wrap and shove a couple handfuls of potato chips and honey buns into my hair shrouded face. After about a half hour break I began to stand to get ready to shove off again. I heard someone’s footsteps behind me and looked back half startled. It was the woman who I had seen climbing the snow field many miles and hours ago. I said hello as I was shocked to see her. You see, I hike rather fast and its rare that I have hiker’s catch up to me. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, just that its a rare enough thing that it truly shocks me when it happens. Even though I had just taken a 30 minute break, it was particularly shocking to me that this woman caught up to me as she was noticeably a bit older than myself.
She said hello back, but something seemed off. She was clearly on a mission. That would explain how she was able to catch back up to me. I asked her how she was doing and she said, “I’m LOST!” Immediately my wheels began turning as I began to walk the trail at a pretty fast clip, she followed close behind. In fact she was so close that I let her pass me. While she was in front of me, I began to size her up. Her pack, her clothes, her stride, her overall demeanor, everything. I started with her at the beginning. “Lost, what do you mean lost?” I had her start at the beginning. Where are you from, are you alone, who are you here with, where did you start the morning, where were you going, pretty much every question I could think of. I am just going to call her Julia for the sake of the story.
So Julia goes on to tell me that she flew in from Washington with her husband and two sons to do a multi-day loop hike in King’s Canyon National Park. They started the day before down at Road’s End where there is a permit station at the Copper Creek Trailhead. The spent the night camping at Lower Vidette Meadows and all woke up together and had breakfast. She told me that she broke camp first because she is a slower hiker because she has bad knees. It wasn’t until she reached the top of Forester Pass when she saw the sign that she realized the horror of her mistakes since she broke camp with her family that morning. You see, her plan was to leave camp before her sons and husband and hike up to the top of GLEN Pass to have lunch with them and then hike on to Rae Lakes and set up camp. Her mistake happened immediately when she left camp, she took a right on the Pacific Crest Trail when she should have taken a left. She hiked all day and wasn’t even back to where she started the day. And every minute since she left the top of Forrester Pass has been spent in panic mode. As I hiked behind her I knew it was up to me to keep her spirits high and to keep her calm. She was so worried about what her family was thinking and rightfully so. Can you imagine how far your thoughts would travel in this situation? We still had a couple miles until we reached her campsite. She was somehow hopeful that maybe her family was there, or that maybe they left a note once they never found her at Glen Pass. Glen Pass, mind you, is a 4 mile hike from her campsite once we get there. But the issue isn’t the distance at this point, it’s the elevation difference and the time. We’re talking 2,500 feet of elevation gain. And then you have to factor in the sun, we we’re losing daylight. But really, those were secondary concerns to the overwhelming issue, her survival.
I began to wonder if she was able to self-sustain for the night. See, I was still thinking about my mission as well, getting as close to Kearsarge Pass as I could. But this situation obviously was changing things for me, and rapidly. I started asking her questions like what she had in her pack, I had her give me as complete of an inventory of her gear as she could for me on the fly. As we continued down the trail, still at a fast clip, I learned that she did not have a tent, a sleeping bag, or enough food to sustain her, among a few other items that are important but not as crucial to surviving the cold nights in the Sierra. Her husband was carrying the majority of her gear to help alleviate the strain on her body. And speaking of the strain on her body, I had become increasingly worried about her body reaching the threshold where the pain from the day that she had been putting in on the trail would override the adrenaline that she had been functioning and relying on. As soon as we stopped for any extended period of time, her body was likely to start tightening up. But stopping was unavoidable. She told me that she hadn’t eaten anything on the day and hadn’t had much to drink either. There was no way around it, we had to stop once we reached Lower Vidette Meadows.
The closer we got to Lower Vidette, the slower her pace got. Her body was beginning to feel it. We had been talking and working through all the possible scenarios. Where her family could be, had they found a ranger, did they leave a note, did they go off looking for her, were they okay, did they think she was dead, every possible scenario was playing through her head and it was everything I could do to keep her from thinking the absolute worst. I helped assure her that everything was going to be okay, that she was with me and I was going to make sure that nothing bad happened to her. She shifted her focus to me, started asking questions about who I was, where I’m from, what I do. It was very relieving to her once I told her that I am a Marine and all the hiking that I had done in my life. She said,”Well I guess the perfect person came along at the right time.” And it got me thinking. Yes, I WAS the perfect person to come along. I like to always think that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and never has it wrung more true than in this moment. What if I had gotten up when my alarm went off? What if I was several hours ahead of where I was currently? We would have surely crossed paths either way, but it would have been LONG before she ever knew that she was lost. No, I was meant to hit the snooze button that morning. I was meant to be where I was.
We finally arrived at Lower Vidette, we scoured the area for her family, scoured the area for any note. No such luck. Her spirits took a hit. It was now time to make a plan. But first we had to get her some water and food. The sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains, and the mosquitos were in attack mode down in this section. Julia was exhausted but we had to stay vigilant. We had precious time to figure out a viable plan. While she was eating some of the food I had given her out of my pack, I began scouring my maps and trying to come up with the best possible course of action. She had no tent and no sleeping bag. I merely had a tarp, a 3/4 length airpad (she at least had her own airpad), and an ultra-lightweight Z-Pack’s 30 degree down quilt. This was not sufficient for two people. Frost is still possible at these altitudes. I decided that we were going to make our way to Charlotte Lake Ranger Station. Which was still a 2.5 mile walk from where we were, which doesn’t seem like its that far. But you have to put yourself in Julia’s shoes at the moment. She is emotionally and physically worn down. It’s going to take everything she’s got just to make the 2,500 foot climb up to the junction on the PCT that leads down to Charlotte Lake. And even when we get there, there is no assurances that a Ranger will be there. They sometimes are out on “patrol” for days before returning to their designated Ranger Station. And the next closest Ranger Station is at Rae Lakes and that’s another 4 miles from the Charlotte Lake Junction, this is out of the question for tonight.
After she took a break, ate, and drank, I gave her a couple ibuprofen to help ease the pain in her body so she could begin the next task. I informed Julia that we are going to hike up to the Charlotte Lake Junction where I am going to give her enough food for the evening and the next morning as well as my sleeping bag. Then she would make her way down to the Ranger Station where she will camp for the night and hopefully a Ranger would be there. You see this junction is the same junction that has a trail that leads up and over Kearsarge Pass, the trails are in opposite directions of each other. Right to Kearsarge, left to Charlotte Lake. I was to give her the food and sleeping bag and then begin hiking the 7ish miles up and over the pass and down to Onion Valley Trailhead. Having done this the year before I knew that there was cell phone reception once I make my way over the pass and I could call the Ranger HQ and alert them of the situation. But I would need to continue on and hike out because I will have given my sleeping bag up and would need to hitch to town and to a motel to sleep warm for the night. It was definitely not a fool proof plan all around but it was the best solution that I could think of to make sure Julia could sleep warm for the night and get word to the rangers about the separated hiker situation. Julia definitely didn’t like the idea of taking my sleeping bag but I didn’t budge on it. I was overly insistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was still reluctant but understood that it was the best solution under the circumstances.
But now we actually had to get her up there. We both put our packs on and began to walk. It was obvious that she was in pain. Her pace had slowed to a hobble. She didn’t have much left in the tank. It was obvious that her pack wasn’t helping her. I was feeling perfectly fine so it was nothing but logical that I take her pack off her back and put it on my front. I removed my camera chest pack from my shoulder harness and packed it away in my own pack and took her pack for the duration of our hike up to Charlotte Lake Junction. Slow. Very slow. I helped keep her spirits up with stories of my own hikes and adventures. Finally we made it to the Junction. The sun was almost down. The timing was right for her to branch off and hike the mile down to the Ranger Station without needing a headlamp. We talked about how someday she would look back on this and laugh. That she would be with her family soon enough. That everything was going to be okay. We hugged and smiled as I gave her the food and sleeping bag. She was exceptionally grateful. We would part ways here, surely to never see one another again. But not before I snapped a quick photo.
One last hug before I had to turn and begin the long steady climb up to Kearsarge Pass. With sun leaving and the chance for snagging a ride this late being very low, I knew that I had to get to Onion Valley Trailhead as soon as possible. I decided I was going to run the 7 miles. My pack is fairly light as it is, and now it was without water, most of my food, and a sleeping bag. It was feeling pretty empty. And I was still feeling pretty good physically. So I began to run. As I ran I began to think about the entire day, all of the events that led me to being where I was, I was so thankful that I was in the right place at the right time. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have become of Julia had I not been. The worst case scenario was surely a possibility. And as I was thinking this, another hiker startled me on the trail! Low and behold, A RANGER!! I practically leapt for joy! “Man, am I glad to see you!” I gasped. I sat down and tried to collect myself while catching my breath from running. I explained the entire situation to him and as I was explaining that she was going to Charlotte Lake Ranger Station, he said that that was where he was going to! What luck. I decided that there was no need for me to continue on once he told me that he would have a warm bed for her in the Ranger Station and that I would escort him back to Julia where I could acquire my sleeping bag for the night. He also had a radio on him and we would make use of it once we linked back up with her. Once we passed the junction we began the descent, switchbacking down to the lake. I knew she couldn’t have been too far ahead at her pace and after a little ways I gave a holler, “JULIA!!” I heard a feint voice reply, “Yes!?” I replied,”STOP WHERE YOU ARE, I HAVE A SURPRISE FOR YOU!!” We caught up to her and she was so incredibly elated when I revealed that the surprise was a ranger. We hugged again and celebrated this newfound break that her day from hell has been presented. We got on the hook with the Ranger’s HQ immediately.
This is where it gets crazier. Apparently her family had hiked on to Rae Lakes and there was no Ranger there. That’s because the Ranger assigned to that Station was the one sitting in front of us. This is not out of normal procedure, the cycles of these Rangers often works this way. Having discovered that there was no ranger there, the family had managed to find other hikers in the Rae Lakes region that had a satellite communication device, like a Delorme. ANd they had communicated with their friends in Fresno via text about their current situation. And wouldn’t you know it, when we radioed in to HQ, that family friend was literally on the phone with HQ at the same exact time!! We were able to relay in REAL TIME that Julia was OKAY and that she would meet them in Rae Lakes tomorrow and that they should stay put and wait for her!! Can you even freaking believe that?? Everybody gets to breathe a massive sigh of relief and all parties get to go to bed without any major worries or concerns. What a blessing. You couldn’t have asked for a better outcome considering all the circumstances. It blows my mind still to this day.
So instead of turning around and continuing to hike, I decided to join the two of them for the evening. The ranger said he actually had three beds and that we could all sleep inside. We were all in such good spirits. I had actually been carrying a bit of whiskey that I had been saving for a special occasion. The ranger said that he had cookie batter and eggs and that we could have cookies too. So this basically turned into a celebration! The mood was right. We all went down and cooked dinner and drank whiskey ( I didn’t have much but it was enough to warm the spirit) and ate cookies. Getting to know each other and laughing and having a wonderful evening. What a day!! We all slept like babies and got up early in the morning and parted ways. One last hug with Julia, this time without all the uncertainty. But not before another picture of all of us together.
I don’t share this story to seek a single bit of praise. I don’t share it to tear down someone’s backcountry gear and planning practices, I am telling you this story for a much more important reason. We as humans have an obligation to help others in need. It certainly wasn’t in my plan that day to have Julia come along. When considering what my original plan for the day was, it was absolutely an inconvenience. But helping others in need is not an inconvenience. In fact, it is rewarding! You’re damn right I felt good about myself for helping a complete stranger. And she felt good that I was there to help her! Be on the lookout for someone who is in need, be open to it. I had to poke and prod a bit to discover more about Julia’s circumstances that day. People in need aren’t always just holding up a sign. Remember that as we go about our lives. Remember that as we go about this holiday season. You can be someone’s miracle. Or maybe somebody can be yours.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you.