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Desert survival guide, a good trip gone bad

Updated on October 9, 2008

The desert is a special kind of place. It sets the stage for the some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, and it is also just happens to be a place that can kill you quite quickly, the latter I found out the hard way. Again going back to my first point, the desert can be a great place to see the natural wonders of Mother Nature, so recently my girlfriend, her friend and I decided to go find some obscure back country waterfall. That did not go so well. Here is story of how I made it out of the desert alive.

We left San Diego in the early morning for the falls, the forecast called for temperatures to be in the high 80's to low 90's, not too hot, but warm for sure. When we had to drive about 13 miles off the paved road to get to the trail head, and from there it was another five miles to the falls. I knew this hike was not popular and not many people knew about it that should have been the first sign of trouble. The directions for the hike its self were vague at best, and omitted many important details as well. So now even before I made my way out, there were two big warnings about this hike, and how wrong it could go. I will spare you most of the details, but I can tell you that this was no hike, it was more of a trail blazing expedition, and I am the kind of guy who thrives on crazy stuff like that, but the two girls aren't the type to be so enthusiastic about the kind of adventure they were about take.

The five miles to the falls consisted of climbing over boulders, using climbing ropes to repel down a series of rocks slopes and finally sliding about five hundred feet down the last portion of the mountain. Needless to say this was an intense undertaking, and I knew it would be but didn't really grasp how over the top it really was. It didn't quite sink in that is, till we tried to make our way back.

I was the only with a back pack, of course the guy is always the obligatory pack mule. I carried in four large bottles of Gatorade, two of which the girls drank with in the first half of the trail getting to the falls. I mentioned that we had to make it back and they might want to conserve what we had left. Along with the Gatorade, I had some snacks, an extra shirt, a cell phone, camera, folding knife and 75' of rope.

After getting to the falls (which were dry, and lack luster) and resting there, about 3 hours had passed. I could tell that the exposure to the sun and the intensity of the trek there was starting to take a toll on the girls. So I decided we should make our way back, at this point the sun was blazing and the day was at its hottest with the sun high in the sky beating down. Right away I could tell that the trip was going downhill, the girls walked for about ten minutes before they wanted to drink Gatorade and rest. Remember this comes right after resting for about 45 minutes and eating and drinking, so I knew something was wrong. I thought I would put my militant asshole personality away for a change and actually oblige and let them rest, and have a sip of their drink. By now we have less hydration than we used to get to the falls, and the way out was going to be much worse. I knew they weren't dehydrated, but I could tell they thought they were by what they were telling me and how they said they felt.

My mind was starting to worry, and we had barely started to make our way back and it seemed as though trouble found us. It took forever to make our way up the 500 ft. slope which earlier we simply slid down, and by the time we did make it the girls were exhausted. One looked as though she was going to pass out; the other was starting to look spacey and not completely coherent. I really just wanted to get back to the car at this point, but I knew if I pushed them they could really take a turn for the worse. I was quite confused as to why they were manifesting such serious ill effects, my girlfriend is in great shape, she runs and works out every day, I never questioned her physical ability and the same for the other girl. Now they lay on the ground on the side of a mountain in the middle of the day with the sun beating down. I sat there feeling just fine, wondering what could be going wrong with these girls, and if it was going to get better or worse. Then it hit me, we were at about 6,800 ft elevation, and they were feeling it bad. The heat, and intensity of the hike, combined with the thinning air was coming together to make this a disaster. I knew I had to keep them moving because I could see the heat exhaustion and the altitude starting to really take effect, and I did not want to get stuck out there in a remote area of the desert, in almost inaccessible terrain with two dying girls.

I started to push for them to keep moving, they simply wanted to stop and rest. I was getting very worried about this point, I knew we had a long way to go and the hardest part of making our way back was right in front of us. We made it to the first of the series of rock ledges where earlier we repelled down. Now it was harder, we going to have to climb up using the rope. I climbed half way up by hand, and then lassoed the rope around a higher rock. I climbed back down and made a make shift harness out of the excess slack and tied my girlfriend in. From there I climbed back up the rope and had her make her way up while I did my best to pull as much as I could. Once she was up I went back down and repeated the same thing for the other girl. My adrenaline was pumping and I felt like I it was a breeze to pull them up. I had to repeat that process two more times for the other rock ledges, and by the last rock ledge my arms were starting to feel the extra work.

From there I felt as though the worst was behind us and maybe we had a shot to still make it out of there on our feet. Boy was I wrong, things got really bad. I was in front trying to set a pace and keep them going, as I look back to see where they were one was stopped and the other had collapsed. I knew we were in serious trouble. I ran back down to my girlfriend who had collapsed, she looked bad. She was starting to lose color in her skin and she had stopped sweating all together. I felt the back of her neck and she was burning up, I knew this was heat stroke setting in and it could be fatal. The other girl was starting to show similar symptoms, and even worse was beginning to all out panic. I knew I had to get them out of the sun but there was not a single bit of shad anywhere.

At this point I knew that there was going to be only one way out, and that was in a helicopter. The only problem was letting them know we needed to be rescued. We had gone so far out into the far reaches of the desert that to get any service on our cell phones that we would have to drive for a bit to the. Now I was faced with the dilemma of leaving them, and hoping that the situation does not worsen in my stead.

I had to find shade, and I had to keep them cool. This was the most important issue at hand at this point. I knew there was some brush up ahead about 500 yards, and I wanted to get them there. I also knew that there was no way they were going to get there on their own. I ended up carrying both of them one at a time. I slung them over my shoulder and made my way up the path. Once I had them there I found a boulder that was flaking off big pieces of rock, I grabbed my knife and managed to pry away a piece of granite, about the size and shape of a dinner plate. I used that rock like a shovel and dug what looked like two shallow graves, just deep enough to sink most of their bodies in. From them I had the girls strip down into their underwear (best part of the trip) and lay down into holes/ditches. I buried the dirt over them, and used their shirts to cover their faces. Then I cut down as much brush as I could, and used that to cover their bodies as much as I could to really try to provide some insulation from the heat. I had noticed a semi dry creek running parallel with the trail at one point on the way to the falls, and I knew it wasn't far. I knew if I could wet down the shrubs that I laid over the girls that it would help cool them off and keep them cool. So I ran as fast I could to where I saw some water, I dumped out two bags of snacks we bought and filled them and along with the empty Gatorade bottles with creek water. I also soaked the clothes and extra shirt with water. I brought it back to the girls and soaked the make shift shelter. I knew that would help keep them cool while I was gone.

If you're wondering what the girls thought about all this, they were freaking out. As much as they were freaking out and crying, they also knew that I knew what I was doing, and they invested their confidence in me. They really did not want me to leave them, but I had no other option at this point. So I made them promise me and each other that they would not move, and that I would be back in less than hour. I took my rope that happens to be bright red and made a big loop around them a few times over. I knew that it was going to make it easier to find if there was a large red ring around them. I was ready to go, I took a sip of what Gatorade we had left, and then I ran my ass off with cell phone and keys in hand. I knew I had to cover about three miles to get back to the car, and most of it was up hill, and when I say uphill I mean going up the damn mountain.

As I made my way back to the car I could feel my mouth was dry, and I started to wonder how long it would be till the heat started to get to me. Up to that point I only had a sip of Gatorade, and I had planned to drink some on the way back, but at the time I figured it was more important to keep the girls hydrated and drinking. Fortunately enough the rest of the way back to the car was the easiest part of the trail, so I made it back in about thirty minutes. I was thinking that I was going to see someone there waiting for me by the car, I don't know why, I guess I was just hoping. I grabbed my cell phone to check for service, I even tried to put it into analog mode to see if I could get something, but to no avail. I did the same with the girls' phone as well, and the same result. So I jumped into the driver's seat with all three cell phones sitting next to me, I drove like a bat out of hell waiting to hear the little tone your phone makes when it comes into service. I felt bad sitting there in the air conditioned car drinking water while my girlfriend and her friend were lying in the desert buried like victims of a violent crime. I was tingling all over, wasn't sure if was the adrenaline rushing through me, or the heat, probably a combination of the both. My mind was fixated on the cell phones next to me, I was barely looking at the road ahead of me when I caught the reflection of the sun bounce off the bumper of a truck. I was shocked to see it pulled over on the side of the road. The first thing that ran through my mind was that this was some other guy out there in trouble. Actually that wasn't the case at all, the driver of the truck was a county surveyor, and he was out there working on updating property lines. I came to a stop right in the middle of the road, and jumped out. I was about shaking, for some reason I was more nervous at the point than I had been the entire time. Maybe it was because I finally felt some element of relief and my concentration lifted for a moment, I guess it's also possible that it also made room for panic and worry to finally set in as well.

He stared confounded, but also knowing that something was very wrong. Before I could even really start to tell him what the situation was he was grabbing his radio and talking to dispatch. I was overcome with an intense sense of relief to see that this guy was on it. He wasn't trying to ask me a million pointless questions; he was getting help right off the bat. From there it all happened so fast, I heard a woman's voice come over the radio and ask where they were stranded, I told him every detail they needed to know and he relayed it word for word. Before leaving the girls I had made a point to stop right above where I left them so I could take a mental picture of the area and detail where they were on the mountain. Within ten minutes I could hear a chopper echoing through the canyons and mountains. I had no idea where it was coming from, but it didn't matter to me because I could tell it was getting closer and closer. The California Department of Forestry chopper was in the air already when the call came in; the chopper was out on an exercise routine of some sorts. By that time I was in the guys truck and we drove back to the trail head, we could see where were the girls were, the rope was more visible than I thought it would be. The chopper lowered down a crew member, and a basket followed behind him. My girlfriend was the first to go up, her friend followed a few minutes later.

About an hour and half later I rolled into the hospital where they were at. The E.R. receptionist must have known who I was by the filth all over me; she left me into the room where they were so I could see them. The girls were laughing but, you could tell that a lot of crying had been going on before that. I was just glad to see them awake. Two CDF personnel were outside of the room doing some writing, I assumed it was a report, I walked back out for a moment to thank them, and of course they were more than happy to help. I stayed with the girls for about ten minutes before one of the CDF crew members came and asked me to talk to him.

The first question he asked me was how I felt; I guess that's pretty standard. I told him that I was fine, and that I am was just happy to be out of the desert. Then he proceeded to ask me all about the details of the day. After all of the formal questions, I could see his demeanor changer. He began to inquire as to how the hell I knew to cover them that way and how to use the rope as a marker, he was quite impressed. I told him that you can learn a lot from the discovery channel, we both laughed. In some weird way, I enjoyed out little adventure, maybe I shouldn't feel like that, but I do. I guess I am just crazy


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    • KT pdx profile image

      KT pdx 

      9 years ago from Vancouver, WA, USA

      All I can say is WOW, you all were lucky, and that's great you were able to save them and yourself!


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