Day 22: Wrightwood to Little Jimmy Trail Camp
Trail miles 369-384
May 24, 2019
I apologize in advance for such a long post. This day was extremely eventful and emotionally draining, and I want to keep a fairly complete record of my thoughts and feelings from that time.
After getting a hitch with a mother and her two young kids (apparently, she’d asked her first and third graders whether they wanted to pick up some hikers before school, and they had both assented), Foot Juice, Carjack and I began the climb toward Mt. Baden-Powell.
As we climbed, day hikers and a few thru hikers who had turned around stopped on the way down to warn us about icy conditions near the summit.
Just as I had on Mt. San Jacinto, I had decided to forgo microspikes on Baden-Powell after discussing the snow conditions with people who had climbed the peak recently. My trail runners have stiff soles and work well in snow that is soft enough to allow me to kick steps, but they are insufficient for truly icy conditions. As more and more hikers stopped to tell us about the dangerous ice up above, I began to feel concerned that I had made the wrong choice. I comforted myself (and my hiking partners, both of whom carried microspikes), saying, “I’ll go up and check the conditions out, and if it feels unsafe, I can always turn around.” I’ve found that on this hike, it is often easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that values only northbound miles and sees southbound miles as a waste of time and energy. I sometimes have to actively remind myself that turning around and hiking south on the PCT is always an option if conditions to the north are unfriendly.
Luckily, as we made our way upward into the cloud layer, the snow remained soft, and kicking foot holds was perfectly manageable in my running shoes. We reached the top just after 1pm, signed the summit register, and took a group photo in front of the dull gray mist that hung thick around us.
The descent route runs west of the summit, following a long ridge before losing any significant elevation. As a result, the trail from the summit remains snow-covered until late in the season. I knew from the outset that route-finding and avoiding dangerous falls on the extended descent would be the real challenge of the day, but I never guessed how difficult the next few hours would be.
Shortly after leaving the summit, Carjack, Foot Juice and I came across a hiker named Doctor. We heard him first, as he cursed his way through the snow, slipping often in the slush and shouting profanities as he scraped clumsily at the slope with an ice axe he clearly didn’t understand how to use.
When we reached him, he was puffing on a vape pen, blowing thick clouds into the cool air. He offered us a hit, and I recognized him from the parking lot below Baden-Powell, where just a few hours ago he’d offered us edibles before the climb.
We stopped for a moment as we passed him and he started asking us about when we’d started our hikes. He volunteered that he’d been hiking since February, and when I asked him why he’d started more than two months before most people, he practically shouted, “Because I’m chill as fuck!”
We asked Doctor if he had earned his name because he’d been to medical school. “No, but I took a wilderness first responder course.”
He later told Foot Juice that he had failed the course, “On a technicality.”
Shortly after we met Doctor, Carjack, Foot Juice and I encountered a steep snow bank. A trail of footprints was visible along the ridge below the snow bank, but to get there, we had to navigate down the steep, slick snow slope.
While we were looking over the edge and mulling our options, Foot Juice suddenly cried out in surprise as he slid down the snow on his back.
“Did you do that on purpose?” Carjack called down to him.
“No! I slipped.” Foot Juice replied from the bottom of the slope.
“Well it looks like the easiest way down,” Carjack said, as she sat on the snow and prepared to slide down herself.
I watched Carjack go and heard her shout about the rocks that bruised her as she came to a stop. “That hurt!”
Dissatisfied by the rocks and trees at the base of the snowbank (which I figured I would surely hit on my way down), I began kicking steps and walking slowly down a less steep section.
Just then, a hiker named T (I want to protect her privacy) arrived at the snow bank and asked how Carjack and Foot Juice had gotten down.
As I continued kicking steps, I heard T ask, “Will you guys catch me at the bottom when I slide?” Carjack and Foot Juice replied, rather annoyed at T’s ignorance, that they actually would not stand below her while she made an uncontrolled slide toward them, metal-spiked-feet-first.
My back was turned and I was kicking my last few steps down the slope when I heard T begin to slide. Then I heard her shout in pain and shock as the other ones gasped.
I hurried over to the group and saw that T had lost control of her glissade and had ridden over a patch shallow snow, which was studded with protruding rocks, before slamming leg-first into a tree. Carjack, who is a physical therapist in her normal life and who also has significant first aid training, immediately opened her first aid kit, donned latex gloves, and went to work dressing the deep cut on T’s hand and assessing her leg, which had borne the brunt of the collision with the tree. T was crying and squeezed Foot Juice’s hand while Carjack cleaned and dressed her wound.
Doctor slipped his way across the slope we were sitting on. “You should really irrigate that,” he said of T’s cut.
Carjack ignored him and continued dressing T’s wound while he babbled about how he sure was happy to have his ice axe (which he was holding incorrectly) and his boots (which were sliding with every step).
We stayed silent as Doctor continued to rattle off suggestions about how best to treat T’a cut. After a few minutes of enduring our stern silence, he finally decided to walk on. We were happy to see him go, and we helped T to her feet and began to contour around the snowy hillside. The walking was treacherous, and with every passing minute the snow was softening further into a dangerously unconsolidated slurry.
T was terrified of each step, and was in tears as we guided her along the slope. We walked her slowly through the trees, advising her about each pole plant and footstep, but it was slow going.
I looked behind me to check on K, who was making a large step from a protruding rock to a snowy footprint. When he transferred his weight to the snow, it gave way, and suddenly he was sliding down the slope, just as T had only a few minutes prior.
Had the flat trail not stopped K’s fall, he would have hit a tree or rock another 5 or 10 yards downslope. When he did come to a stop, he lay on his stomach, his head downhill. His arm was twisted behind him and he groaned from under his pack.
I stepped carefully over to him and began to ask him where he was hurt. He complained of back pain and his hand was bleeding badly, leaving bright red stains in the snow.
Carjack made her way to us and I helped K take his pack off and retrieve a jacket from inside. Then I handed Carjack gauze and tape as she cleaned and dressed K’s hand.
“I can’t feel my pinky,” K moaned.
“You probably banged your ulnar nerve,” Carjack explained. “The feeling should come back, but right now we need to stop the bleeding.” She applied pressure to his hand and asked him about feeling in his legs and arms, assessing whether his back injury was serious enough to prevent him from walking. Because his fall had not involved any twisting motion and because he had full function in his limbs, we were satisfied that he could at least try to walk.
After about 10 minutes, K’s hand had stopped bleeding and Carjack had bandaged it well enough to get to camp, six miles up the trail. K groaned and struggled, but eventually managed to shoulder his pack, despite his back pain.
While we were addressing K’s injuries, Foot Juice was talking with T, who had removed her pack and was sitting and crying under a tree on a bit of flat ground. She had regained none of her composure since her fall, which suggested to me that she was experiencing minor shock. I mentioned this to the Carjack and Foot Juice after we’d persuaded her to continue walking with us (she’d told us to go on without her and K, who had been hiking together before we encountered them), and they agreed that she was likely still shaken up from her fall.
A number of hikers passed us as we continued our way up the snow-covered trail. A few stopped to ask us if we were all right, but none offered to help us guide these two shaken hikers to camp.
By 4pm, we were still about 5 miles from camp (that’s considerably slower than 1mph, for those keeping track at home). T had had at least three or four more minor falls, and although the consequences had been negligible, she was so frustrated that she sat down in the snow in tears.
By this point, Carjack had taken on the role of speaking with T to motivate her and calm her down whenever T suggested that Carjack, Foot Juice and I move on and let her stop to camp on the ridge with K (without access to water except by the fuel-intensive method of melting snow). Carjack was clearly struggling under the enormous emotional burden of persuading a fellow adult to recognize that she (T) was incompetent to make decisions for herself.
While Carjack was talking with T, I called the sheriff’s non-emergency number to learn about our options for getting T and K off the mountain that evening. But no one at the sheriff’s office or at the fire department knew anything about the trails in the area. Our only options, they told me, were to hike T and K to a road and then call 911 so they could trace the call (this was not feasible, given our hiking pace), or to press the SOS button on one of our satellite communication devices to mobilize a search and rescue (SAR) team.
This was not the first time we’d considered calling SAR. Until this point, it had felt unnecessary because the weather was good, T and K could both walk (albeit very slowly), we had still had many hours of daylight, and camp (just two miles before a major highway crossing) was not far away. But now it was 4:30pm, T seemed immobilized by frustration and the fear of falling, daylight was waning, and the temperature was dropping.
I might have advocated pushing the SOS button had T-Pain not bounded down the snow slope toward me, shouting “Muscle! No way! You guys must be going sooo slowly!“
I quickly described the situation to him and he assured me that the rest of the group was just behind him. Fire Socks arrived just in time to see Carjack nearly break into tears of frustration and exhaustion after giving up trying to persuade T to keep moving.
Fire Socks went to work, coaxing T up the slope she’d slipped down most recently.
Hot Hands, Bright Side and Danish arrived and immediately picked up on the gravity of the situation. Together with T-Pain, we brought up the rear as Fire Socks led the way up the snowy trail with T and K in tow.
Over the next four hours, my trail family members each stepped up in different ways. Danish hiked ahead at a blazing pace to secure campsites for us all. T-Pain and Foot Juice carried T’s pack (which we essentially had to pry off her back, because she kept threatening to set up camp alone in unsafe locations). Fire Socks participated in a sing along to cheer Carjack (Fire Socks hates sing alongs) and kept up a continuous stream of lighthearted banter to take T’s mind off the pain in her leg and the nausea that seemed to get stronger as dusk arrived. Carjack led K to camp because he was able to hike at a faster pace than T. Hot Hands carried our tents ahead to camp, where Casper and Danish set them up in anticipation of our late arrival. Brightside hung back with Fire Socks and me, and the three of us walked and talked with T all the way to camp, stopping every 200 yards or so when nausea and pain threatened to overcome T.
We arrived at 8pm, 12 hours after leaving the trailhead that morning, and 6 hours after encountering T and K.
Fire Socks walked T the final quarter mile into camp while Bright Side and I stopped at a spring to filter water for the group. In camp, Danish had set up T’s tent and sleeping bag, so she was able to sleep immediately. A nurse carrying a well-stocked first aid kit cleaned and dressed K’s hand more thoroughly.
All my trail family members hugged me when I came into camp, and Carjack, Foot Juice and I looked at one another and shook our heads.
Before leaving camp the following day, Fire Socks, Foot Juice and I checked on T and K, who slept late in their tents. They had cell reception at the campsite and agreed to self-evacuate later that day.
We later learned that someone (not T or K) triggered an SOS beacon on their behalf, which resulted in an evacuation for T by SAR. T was diagnosed with a concussion. K regained full function in his pinky.
Both T and K are taking time off the trail to recover from their injuries. They are unsure of whether they will return to the trail this season.
Lessons learned (or reinforced):
Concussion symptoms are easily confused with the symptoms of shock. Concussions can be triggered without a direct bump to the head. In this case, a sudden stop caused by glissading into a tree led to the head injury.
Don’t be afraid to press the SOS button. Even if self-rescue is possible, it may not be wise. Had our friends not shown up, I believe Carjack, Foot Juice and I would have pressed the button around 5pm simply because we could not have evacuated T and K safely before nightfall and we were becoming exhausted and chilled attempting to help them.
Traveling in a group of trusted partners is wise, especially in objectively hazardous conditions where a false move can have serious consequences.
No matter how well prepared you are, you cannot account for the ill-preparedness of others. What should have been a 6 or 7 hour hiking day turned into a 12 hour epic because we ran into a party of people who were in over their heads. This had physical and emotional ramifications that persisted for days and weeks, respectively.
A fully-stocked first aid kit is worth every ounce, and the knowledge necessary to use that kit is essential.
Ascending into the clouds
Foot Juice and Carjack taking a break before the summit.
Walking the snow ridge on the descent
Had the weather not been perfect, a call to Search and Rescue would have been necessary for the safety of everyone in the group.