A Narrow Escape
3 May 2014
It was my birthday weekend, and we were supposed to go to Oregon with our friend Hubert and my sister Dafna to ski some Cascade volcanoes. Of course, with our luck, the avalanche danger changed to "extreme" and we were forced to cancel. This was probably the fourth time we've cancled a trips to the Cascades due to weather. Thank goodness for Southwest!
Well, we weren't about to let this set us back. We already had the vacation approved, and there's always an adventure to be had in the Sierras. Given the extraordinarily dry conditions this year, the snow was melting rapidly and the high peaks were becoming accessible much earlier than usual. We decided to take a four-day trip out of Crescent Meadows in Kings Canyon and spend time in some of the more remote areas of the park.
Our plan was to hike to Bearpaw Meadow on day 1, where we would set up our basecamp. The hike involves about 11.5 relatively boring and flat miles on the High Sierra Trail. Since we would be carrying ice axes, snow shoes, crampons, and four days worth of food along with our usual backpacking gear, 11.5 miles would be plenty. On day 2 we would wake up super early and climb Triple Divide Peak, a mountain on the coveted Sierra Club Mountaineer's Peaks List. Day 3 we would attempt Eagle Scout Peak, and Day 4 we would hike out and drive home.
Triple Divide is an imposing 12,600 foot peak that lies on the Great Western Divide. According to Secor, its west ridge is purportedly a nice class 3 scramble. An ascent would require several miles of bushwhacking and boulder hopping to Lion Lake, then a traverse up to Lion Lake Pass where we would reach the start of the west ridge route. Eagle Scout would be a long but more straight-forward day, which is why we decided to do it second.
Approach to Bearpaw Meadow
We woke up early on Friday and started the long drive to Crescent Meadows. We stopped at a random town in the Central Valley and grabbed a cheap and delicious breakfast of eggs and hashbrowns. I love hashbrowns. Anyway, we started our approach around noon. There were tons of people hanging around the trailhead, but we didn't see a single person on the trail. It was hot, and the trail is mostly wooded with an occaisional side stream to hop over. At some point Castle Rock Spire came into view, which was probably the most redeeming part of the hike.
It was our first time carrying heavy packs in several months, so we were going at a slower pace than usual. About an hour before dark we were 1/4 mile from Bearpaw Meadow. Luca stopped in his tracks and was staring off into the woods. My heart started racing as I asked him what he was looking at. He pointed, and my eyes eventually focused on a mama bear and her two cubs. They were slowly traversing a steep slope above us. We watched them for a while, made a lot of noise, and then eventually decided that she could care less about us. In fact, she never even looked at us. As we walked by she started ripping apart a log, looking for food. Although we spend most of our free time in the Sierras, we hardly ever come across bears, so this was a treat.
For those who don't know, in the summertime Bearpaw Meadow is actually a lively, luxurious camp. There are cabins, a tap of running water, and chefs who cook meals for the guests. Since it was early season, we weren't expecting to see anyone there. However, the one thing we were expecting: water, was nowhere to be found. Bummer. Fortunately, we had enough to get us through the night, and there was a sign informing us we would come across water about a mile down the trail the next day. We met one other guy at the camp who was planning to hike out the next day. As the darkness was rapidly approaching, we found a site in the campground and set up camp. Fortunately there were bear boxes where we could stash our food, but they were surprisingly difficult to find.
Day 2: Attempt on Triple Divide
We set the alarm for 3:30 am, with the idea that we would be back by mid-afternoon and have time to rest for the next day's climb. When the alarm sounded there was a fleeting thought of how nice it would be to sleep in, but we quickly overcame it and managed to hit the trail by 3:50, ten minutes earlier than planned. There are two trails to reach Tamarack Lake (from which Lion Lake is accessed via cross country): a high trail and a low trail. For whatever reason we decided to take the low trail. What we didn't realize is that this would require us to cross Lone Pine Creek. I would say that "creek" is an understatement. It turned out to be a swift-flowing river without a clear crossing point. We searched up and down the river, at least half a mile in each direction. Eventually we settled on a point where the river divides into several sub-streams. The last stretch was deep and freezing cold. Not wanting to take our shoes off, we waisted at least 20 minutes trying to build a crossing with large rocks. This worked ok, but we still ended up having to take our shoes off in the end.
The trail ends at Tamarack Lake, where you have to find a way to navigate a fairly large cliff band and scramble up to Lion Lake. We read that there is a class 3 bypass on the right (if you can find the route), and that it's class 2 up and left. We decided to go left, and we promptly found ourselves on a steep, loose dirt/grass/rock slope, followed by some of the nastiest bushwhacking ever. Yay!
The slopes leading up to Lion Lake were a mix of snow fields, bushes, and rocks. We slowly made our way up. The snow was relatively firm, so we left our snowshoes strapped to our packs. At Lion Lake, we decided to stash a bunch of our stuff. It was clear we wouldn't need our snow gear, and it was quite hot out so we decided to leave our warm puffies too. The ridge looked beautiful and intimidating, but the summit didn't seem too far away. Boy were we wrong!
The traverse up to Lion Pass was straight forward. In summer it would be scree, but with solid snow it was a breeze to get there. From the pass, however, the route gets much more serious. The ridge is long and rugged, with lots of sharp pinnacles and steep drops on either side. We started picking our way along it. From the start, it was hard to keep it at class 3. We should have left cairns to mark our winding route, but it didn't occur to us until later. We often had to drop on either side of the ridge, which was dicey at a few points since anything not directly on the ridge was an extremely steep snow slope (and don't forget we had left our snow gear at the lake). By the time we were about 500 feet below the summit and still a tenth of a mile away, it was already past 3pm. We reached an impasse, and we just didn't feel comfortable continuing. It was a heart-breaking decision, but turning back was the wisest thing to do. If we had continued, we probably wouldn't summit before 4:30 or even 5, given the speed we were traveling at.
We started to pick our way back, following the few cairns we had the foresight to leave. Unfortunately our cairn trail ended where the route finding got trickiest. We started to downclimb a steep gully, with Luca ahead of me. I could tell we were starting to get tired and a little sloppy, and I made a mental note to have a chat about it on the hike back. The gully was a typical Sierra gully, with many ledges linked by steep, short downclimbs. As I was sliding down one section on my butt, I felt a rock dislodge. I screamed "ROCK!", and Luca had only a fraction of a second to react. The football-sized rock tumbled down the ledges, heading straight towards him. Before I could blink, I watched as it impacted the left side of his head. My whole world stopped. Everything became silent. I watched as the rock knocked him off balance. He stumbled. He started falling towards the precipice below. Then somehow he through himself backwards and landed on the ledge. I started screaming and asking if he was ok. He wasn't saying much. He touched the side of his head and his hand was full of blood. Tears were streaming down my eyes and I started downclimbing frantically to reach him. I told him not to move. I was panicked and nearly fell myself. When I reached him I took off my pack and, not thinking, tried to hug him. He pushed me away. I have never been so scared in my life, and never felt so alone. He looked so out of it; dazed.
I had taken a first aid training course about a year and a half before, but I just couldn't remember what I was supposed to do. I started asking him questions to test his cognitive ability. His name, his address, where he works. Everything checked out. His vision didn't seem impaired. He wanted to know where the blood was coming from. I grabbed the emeregency kit and started to clean his head. Eventually it became clear that the rock had cut the top part of his ear. Everything else looked ok. But there was just so much blood. We didn't have gauze, and I couldn't stop the bleeding. I was wearing a headband that covers my ears, so I took it off and put it on him. At least that would protect it from the outside world for a while, and hopefully the blood would soak into the headband instead of running down the side of his head.
The question was what to do next. All our gear was at the lake. We didn't have emeregency blankets (d'oh). It was getting late, we were at 12,000 feet in May, we were miles away from our camp, and many of those miles are on tricky terrain. We were alone. I had to get him down. I asked if he felt that he could move on his own. He said yes. I put all of his gear in my pack and strapped his pack to mine. I gave him some water, although we were incredibly low. I started to lead the way down, but we quickly became cliffed out. I tried another gully with the same results. I was trying to stay strong but every time he wasn't looking at me I would let the tears flow. I had heard of so many stories of people with head traumas collapsing hours later. I had no idea if he would be ok, and it was all my fault. I just couldn't believe we were in this situation. We are always so careful about loose rock, but today we got sloppy. I got sloppy. It just happened so fast.
We tried every possible route and couldn't find a way down. Eventually I had him wait so as not to tire out while I went and scouted out the route. I have never climbed so fast on class 4. It felt like it took hours, but we eventually made it back to the saddle. The wind was picking up and Luca was starting to feel cold, so I gave him my jacket. He was moving incredibly slowly. I tried to encourage him as we made our way down to our gear cache and came up with a plan for getting back. There wasn't much choice; we would have to get to lower ground. I told him he could rest at the cache as I packed everything up. I went ahead so that we wouldn't waste much time there, as daylight was rapidly fading. When he arrived, he sat on a rock and asked me to join him. There were so many emotions. We were both scared. I was trying not to cry.
He started talking about how life is so short, and that anything can happen. We are partners in life, in adventure, and in love. Some things are just meant to be, and he wants to spend the rest of his life with me. And then he asked me to marry him. We both started crying at that point, and I told him of course! We sat there, hugging and crying in the middle of the vast Sierra wilderness. It was hard for everything to sink in. It was hard for me to celebrate that we had just gotten engaged, because all I could think about was that I had to get him out of there. I told him to start ahead while I finished packing, and that I would catch up shortly. He agreed and started making his way slowly down the slope to Lyon Lake. After he left I was overwhelmed with emotion. I told myself to let it out now because we had an incredibly long night ahead, and he needed me to stay strong. I packed up and caught up with him after a few minutes.
The snow had softened quite a bit, and the route down was not straight forward. By some miracle, we were able to find a reasonable way down. Our next obstacle was getting around the cliff band above Tamarack Lake. We decided the bushwhacking route from the morning would be a nightmare, and that we ought to look for the scrambling route on climber's left. We were starting to posthole pretty badly, and at some point finally caved and put on the snowshoes (hey, we brought them all that way anyway, right?). We didn't have much beta on the scrambling route, and it was now completely dark outside. We walked back and forth along the cliff bands looking for a way down. At some point we found a steep but walkable slab and followed it. It led to another steep slab. We weren't sure if it would go, but it was our best bet. We kept making our way down, got cliffed out a couple of times but managed to find a way. The last bit was extremely steep with a little bit of running water, and I was afraid of ice. By some miracle, we were able to avoid it and finally found ourselves on solid ground. From there it was a talus slog to the trail, and I knew the hardest part was behind us.
It was getting extremely cold and Luca was shivering. He had left his giant puffy at camp, so I gave him mine. My arms were tingling with cold but it didn't matter. At some point as we walked through the forest looking for the trail, we were chatting like we normally do, and I finally realized that Luca was back to his old self. I felt so relieved. I knew he wasn't safe yet, but we were definitely out of the red zone. Our spirits were rising, even though we had many long miles ahead of us. I was starting to feel the weigh tof the packs. I had two pairs of snowshoes, ice axes, crampons, food, etc. We decided to take the high trail back, so as to avoid the nasty river crossing from the morning. It turns out that the junction marked on the GPS was entirely wrong. We ended up wasting about 30 minutes going back and forth looking for the trail. At this point I nearly lost it. We were two miles from the camp and we couldn't find the freaking trail! All I wanted was to get back and have Luca rest. We finally found it and started making our way back on this last stretch. The packs were feeling even heavier and I would have to stop every few minutes to rest. It was excruciatingly slow. At some point Luca insisted on taking some of the weight and I finally gave in. That helped immensely, and by 4:30am we were back at camp, absolutely exhausted.
Return to Civilization
Our initial plan was that I would leave Luca at camp, then hike the 11.5 miles back to the trailhead to get help. But by the time we got back to camp, I could hardly move. On top of that, Luca was doing a million times better. We both agreed that I should stay, and we could re-evaluate after getting some rest. We slept until past 11am. I woke him every once in a while to ask him questions and see that he was doing alright. When we woke up we both felt much better. We sat in the sun as I cooked up some food. We had barely eaten anything the day before and we were starving. I check on his wound. It has stopped bleeding, but it was pretty deep. Other than that, he was doing really well and insisted that he would be able to hike out. We decided to leave some of our leftover food at the bearbox to minimize the weight we would have to take. We felt guilty about this, but hopefully others will make some use of it.
We packed up and hit the trail around 12:30 or 1. It was still a long way back. We chatted for a while, then cranked the music. We rolled into the parking lot after 9. It was dark and nobody was around. We were absolutely beat. After resting for a bit, we started the drive back. We were both incredibly sleepy, and we had to switch drivers. At some point we had to pull over and take a nap because neither of us could drive safely. We woke up an hour later and realized it was futile. We grabbed a room at the first motel we found.
The next morning, Luca decided that he wanted to go to Urgent Care in San Francisco, not Fresno. Since so much time had passed since the accident, I agreed it could probably wait until we got home. We had a nice lunch and then made the 3 hour drive to the city. At the Urgent Care facility they asked us what happened. We got some really strange looks when we explained that a large rock fell on his head. Since it was a head injury, they saw him right away. His would was starting to get infected, and they had a really hard time cleaning it. The poor nurse picked at it for a long time, but she couldn't get the dried blood out. It was also really painful for him. They took x-rays of his head, which looked good. They also gave him a tetanus shot and a shot of antibiotics. When the doctor said that we were incredibly lucky and that he was going to be fine, I burst into tears all over again. I just couldn't believe it. I don't know how we made it out of there, but we did. Luca was going to be ok. The love of my life was going to be ok. And, we are going to get married.