I recently started a course on wilderness travel — basically, How to Not Be a Moron in the Outdoors. Tonight’s the second class session, so there’s a whole lot of material yet to be covered.
In preparation for a day-long (~15-mile, ~4000ft elevation gain) group hike that’s coming up in two weeks as part of the class (as well as the outings that will follow), I have been gearing up per the course instruction thus far, and set out yesterday morning to climb Mt. Wilson for conditioning.
I had my new daypack on, full of the basic essential hiking items listed by the course instructors. I even went out at the last minute on Sunday night to pick up a light waterproof rain jacket at REI, and rolled it up and stuffed it in the pack with my other gear, since yesterday was going to be “overcast with a light chance of drizzle in the afternoon” in Sierra Madre.
I left my home at 8:00am to walk to the trailhead and start the hike. Before I left the trailhead, I texted my sisters to let them know where I was going, which trail (just this one up and back), and when they could expect to hear from me again. I told them that I wasn’t sure how far I‘d make it up the trail, but that Iexpected to be back off the mountain around 4:00pm at the latest.
I enabled GPS on my phone and started up a hiking app, recording my hike time on the trail.
At ~11:30am, with much of the 4700ft elevation gain behind me, I was very winded, but otherwise okay — no muscular issues, etc. But I didn’t factor in how much colder it gets as you get higher… I‘m quite new at hiking, and quite devoid of common sense.
I reached the summit at 12:00pm. The fog was so thick that when I stepped onto the summit, I couldn’t see more than about 20 yards in front of me. And it was cold. Very, very cold for a naive sunny-foothill-dweller like me, wearing thin synthetic hiking pants and a UV-rated longsleeved t-shirt.
About this cold:
Oh nothing, just some glaciers in the parking lot at Mt. Wilson Observatory.
And then, it started to rain.
I found cover in a picnic area on the summit, and sat down to eat, drink more water, and lace my boots tighter for the descent to avoid smashing my toes (three of my toenails are still on the way out from smashing them into the Mt. Wilson Trail in December…I only went halfway up at that time).
I dried off with a small towel in my pack, and put my rain jacket on over my tee — luckily, it’s the “cheaper” kind of waterproof that doesn’t breathe, so that started to warm me a bit.
Feeling miserable at the prospect of NOT being able to magically teleport myself back to my warm home, and instead having 7 miles of cold, probably wet trail ahead of me, I started back down from whence I came, hoping to get down and away from the summit and into warmer temperatures ASAP.
(It did cross my mind to call for a taxi to drive me back down from the summit…. but alas, no signal.)
My phone’s battery had been drained to less than half due to the hike tracking on the ascent, so I powered it off to conserve power in case I needed it later.
I got a decent way down from the summit, where it began to get warmer. However, I started to feel like something was up when I didn’t re-encounter a section of the trail where I had to scramble sideways for a few steps across rock face with a steep dropoff on the way up the mountain (quite memorable for someone afraid of heights like me, though oddly, it didn’t scare me).
I powered my phone back on and logged back into the hiking app to locate myself on the trail. I wasn’t on my original trail. I had made a wrong turn, and was now far east in the middle of nowhere in the satellite map view.
I looked back up the trail from where I‘d come. It had been a series of very steep descending switchbacks…. I doubted that I‘d have the energy to go back up and find my way back to up the original trail, given that the 7-mile ascent up the mountain in the morning was relentless. My legs were very tired.
I checked the hiking map and found that Chantry Flat to the east looked like it was the destination for this trail that I was on. I was vaguely familiar with Chantry, having been there when I was…six years old. Okay. I continued down the trail, descending.
My phone’s battery was at 14%. I powered it off to conserve power.
Forging along in a determined yet clueless manner, I was soon overjoyed to hear human voices coming from ahead. I passed the hikers on their way up the trail, and asked them if I was headed in the right direction to hit Chantry. They confirmed that I was. So I continued…
Some time later, I hit a junction with a sign that pointed me in the direction of Chantry Flat… that way… three miles. I looked at my watch. It was 3:15pm. Ihad told my sisters that I would text them around 4:00pm. I had no signal here in the mountains…
I took off, powerhiking as fast as I safely could down the trail.
I hadn’t ever hiked this trail before. It was beautiful. The sun even broke through the clouds a bit. I even passed someone sitting near the trail, playing a Native American flute. It was haunting, and beautiful… the notes alighting upon my ears, but not quite absorbing, as I tried not to panic, speeding along.
I reached the trailhead at 4:00pm. Turns out I was on the Upper Winter Creek Trail.
I could see the Chantry parking lot nearby, and started to head over, half-jogging as quickly as I could on exhausted legs threatening to cramp. I powered my phone back on: 12% battery life remaining. Absolutely no signal.
I reached the parking lot at 4:10pm. Still no signal. 7% battery life.
I wasn’t going to be able to text my sisters to let them know that I was okay. I wasn’t going to be able to call a taxi. I wasn’t going to be able to use the Uber app to get a ride the rest of the way home.
I figured in a worst-case scenario, I could walk down Little Santa Anita Canyon Road from the parking lot to Sierra Madre proper, and walk home. I wasn’t familiar with how long the road was into town, but at least I knew where it would go, since I drive past the big US Forest Service sign at Grand View and Santa Anita all the time…and I had a headlamp to get around in the dark…and my rain jacket was still keeping me pretty warm, albeit sweaty.
I had also made a conscious decision to go for a visible (light grey, almost white) color of rain jacket, figuring visibility is good in the wilderness…
Then, I turned and saw a family piling into a van parked in the lot, ready to head home. Desperate, I started to approach the mom getting into the driver’s side, but stayed back a bit (because I feel like everyone is paranoid about people soliciting help…or at least, I can be), and yelled to ask if she had a phone with signal. She turned to check her phone and her daughter’s, and said no… and then she got out of the car and ran up to me, and asked if I needed help. I must have been pale as a sheet, having just realized that I was in real trouble.
“Do you need a ride out?”
I hesitated for a split second, due to my own complex about weirding people out and taking advantage of others. But then, I just nodded, my pair of trekking poles shaking in my hands. “I don’t need to go far, just down to where this road meets the neighborhood proper, where I‘ll have signal to let my family know I‘m okay.”
She rearranged her kids, husband and dog in the car to make room for me, and we set off down the road. It took 20 minutes of driving to get out of the mountains and back into my neighborhood. That would have been a long, incredibly dangerous walk down a narrow, winding mountain road… in the dark.
I looked it up in Google Maps today. It would have been about 1.5 hours walking.
I asked her to let me off once we reached the first intersection at the mountain’s edge, when I got signal on my phone. “No–” she looked at her husband. “No, we will take you home. It’ll only be few minutes out of our way.” Overwhelmed, I wanted to cry, but was just numb. I just kept thanking her, and them, and my hands were shaking so hard that I nearly jabbed her daughter’s foot in the backseat with my trekking pole. They dropped me off right in front of my apartment.
I didn’t ask for their names. I wish I had. I wish I had done something other than act oddly cool (but profusely thankful) considering what they had saved me from. I just felt weird asking about them, when I was some hitchhiker. The first time I‘ve ever hitched a ride.
I got very, very lucky yesterday. I didn’t freeze at the summit, or slide off the wet, rocky, narrow trail. I managed to get across a wholly different trail at a fast clip despite my exhaustion. And by the grace of timing and someone or something looking out for me, or just sheer dumb (and I mean…very dumb) luck, I did not end up dragging myself down a winding mountain road in the dark after a 17-mile hike.
It could have gone so very badly at so many points.
I was so very grateful to return to my warm bed last night. I have some aches and pains, but they will serve as important reminders.
My class session tonight will focus on navigation using a compass and topographical map. And not a moment too soon….