Yes, there truly is a way to spend $25,000 in the backcountry and it’s not ransom to be paid to a gang of bandits. It happens from dehydration, poor planning and a satellite phone.
A few years back, some friends and I decided to head into the Ventana wilderness for a quick overnight backpacking trip. We had 1 Eureka! tent, sleeping systems, backpack bladders, a Katadyn water purifier and naturally, a bottle of wine. The Ventana wilderness had been up in flames the year before and the landscape was barren from the previous year’s fires. The weather was hot and the flies were swarming thicker than molasses. My two friends and I hiked in, swatting the biting flies off the whole way and settled in at a campsite that was scarred from fire. We all agreed to wake up early and be out before the sun was fully up because the weather for the next day was anticipated to hit triple digits.
Morning came, we packed up camp, pumped all of our backpack bladders full of water and headed out. The heat for 6am was incredible, we took our time getting back. Each of us had our own pace, mine being the slowest. We all agreed on certain check-points where we knew there was shade to meet and we would each go at our own pace, no hurry. The sun was blistering hot by 7am, the flies were biting hard and I was moving slowly up the mountain side when I came across a group of middle school kids, their instructor and a guy who was in his 60s. The kids were all getting sick, they were out of water and were all getting headaches. The narrow trail along the steep mountain side was fully exposed and the dry dirt trail was a vortex for heat. I gave the kids the majority of my water and some pain killers. The older man with the group was a local who picked up a ride with the school and then hiked back to his car. He was not doing well.
The school continued onward with my water, I was not worried because I knew where my friends sat and that they had much more water. The older hiker was having a difficult time walking, he and I sat together on the mountainside in some bushes while he gained his bearing, he too was out of water. He stood up to continue walking, so I followed him. The Instructor with the students had asked if I would hike back with the older hiker because the students needed to get out of the heat.
The temperature was increasing with every minute we lollygagged. The old hiker’s legs were uneasy and he most likely weighed in at least twice my weight (I’m small, he was big). He started to waver, we continued to hike and I talked to him to keep his mind off the heat. I didn’t have much water to spare, so we were going to hold off on drinking it until we reached the first checkpoint about 2 miles ahead, where my friends were waiting with granola and water in tow.
After slowly walking and weaving for about 45 minutes, the older hiker’s legs fully gave, he nearly tumbled off the trail and down a 1,500 foot mountainside. I lunged forward and grabbed his back, pulling him to the ground away from the steep hill. He was done, there was to be no more walking, there was no shade in sight, little water and there was no way I could carry him. He lay on the trail breathing heavily and coming in out of consciousness. I drug him around by his feet (while being careful to not fall down the mountainside myself) and propped his back up against the hill behind him with his feet pointing down the hill. I gave him the rest of my water, he started coming around. At this point, about 2 hours had passed since I had seen my friends, the temperature was hotter than Hades and the flies were attacking us like 28 Days Later zombies.
With no water and no shade I decided to leave the hiker and run to the first checkpoint where my friends and I were going to meet; it was about a mile. I hauled and got to the tall tree on the mountain ridge where the breeze felt like everything I ever wanted in life. Only one of my two friends was sitting there waiting in the shade, he explained the other person was too hot and had left to wait in the car about 8 miles ahead. The person who had returned to the car had the majority of the water (face-palm). I explained to my friend the situation at hand, he jumped to action and the two of us ran back.
When we returned the hiker was conscious, but was looking worse than when I had left him 20 minutes earlier. The sun was still growing hotter, my friend and I tried to carry the hiker but were failing at every attempt (we were both small and he was still big). It was then we decided to send one person back for water at the trailhead, my friend would go back and I would stay with the hiker. My friend only had a little water left, we emptied all our backpack bladders in to one cup so he could fill them up and then return. I also took the tent fly and poles out of my pack and set the 2 person tent fly up over the hiker to make shade. Things were looking grim, but my friend was confident he could hike out and back in within a few hours with water for us. He left his pack with us, took the water containers and started running.
Hours passed, I crawled under the tent fly with the hiker. My feet stuck out from under the fly and my exposed calves got burned by the dirt! I’ve been burned by rocks, sand, asphalt, bad jokes and slides, but never by straight dirt. The flies were relentless. When the hiker came to, he reached over and offered me 100% deet and … well … knocked over the only cup of water we had! I took the deet, put it on my clothes, didn’t realize it was on my hands and wiped my face. My lips swelled up to that which would rival Angelina Jolie’s.
We now had zero water, the temperature was well into the triple digits and I had big ‘ol duck lips. Things were not looking good (except for my lips). There was no word from my friends and on occasion a large gust of wind would blow up the mountainside taking the tent fly away from me. I chased the tent fly around until I finally got the bright idea to take my shoes off, tie the laces to opposite points on the tent and then stick one shoe under the hiker’s butt and one under mine. The fly no longer flew away, MacGyver would have been proud of my amazing camping hack.
The hiker and I talked, and talked, and talked. If we stopped talking he would slip out of consciousness. The tent fly was hot to lay under and we were picking up one another’s body heat from laying so close to each other, but it was better than sitting in the direct sun.
I learned all about the hiker, his favorite TV shows, international trips, big hikes he had done – he and I exchanged more information just laying there under the hot hut of a tent fly than I had shared or learned from anyone. Ever.
2 hours, 3 hours, 4 hours passed…my friends had not returned. The hiker and I began coming up with plans of escape that would clearly not happen. I would drag him on the tent fly like a kind of gurney-sled-thing, back down the mountain a few miles, to the creek where we would drink to our hearts’ content. This was a far fathomed idea, because after more than 5 hours of sitting in the 100+ degree weather, I too had grown sick.
Hours continued to pass, my legs were burned in multiple areas from making contact with the ground, my lips were huge, I was bleeding from endless fly bites and had heard all about The Big Bang Theory… there was nothing more to talk about.
At around 5pm I heard a helicopter – peeking out from under the tent fly and focusing into the bright blue sky, I saw two helicopters scanning the terrain. Had they come for us? Were there other people floored by the heat? There was seriously no way these helicopters were coming for me and the hiker. He and I assured ourselves that we were fine and didn’t need what had clearly been sent for us.
One of the helicopters spotted our tent fly and landed on top of the mountain about 1/8th a mile from us; the other helicopter followed. I crawled out from under the tent fly, stuck my shoes on and headed up the mountain to verify the helicopters were truly intended for us. As I walked up the hillside, my pants started falling down. I’d lost so much water weight, my pants no longer fit! The last time I lost that much weight that fast was because I picked up giardia from catching a mouthful of nasty water buffalo water when laughing open-mouthed in a monsoon in India. When I reached the top of the mountain the crews looked shocked to see me walking up to them. Why? It was 115 degrees, at 5:30pm, which meant it was over 120 degrees as the hiker and I lay under the hot tent fly together.
The crew hooked me up to an IV, strolled down the mountainside, loaded the hiker up on a gurney, and grabbed all three of the backpacks. When asked if I would like to go to the hospital, I declined since everything looked expensive. I said I would hike back with the backpacks, my friends would be waiting at the trail head. Both helicopter crews laughed at me, forced me into the Sheriff’s helicopter and off we went on a 10 minute helicopter ride and landed. Those 10 minutes? That cost the hiker $25,000.
What’s the lesson here? Bring water, too much water. Don’t go out backpacking if you have even the slightest inclination that the temperature may be extreme and always, ALWAYS have health insurance.
The rest of the day went like so: I was helicopter lifted to an all-terrain vehicle, which then drove me to my car where my friends were suppose to be waiting. When we got there, about 20 search and rescue people were looking miserable at the trailhead. Over 30 people had been looking for me and the hiker that day. My friends tried to hike back out with water but it was too hot for them. First responders tried to also, but it was too hot for them too. They used a satellite phone to call in the helicopters to look for us while Search and Rescue also tried to hike out, but they too were confronted by the same heat.
My Angelina Jolie lips deflated (I was kinda hoping the swelling would stay), what I thought was an awesome tan turned out to be a lot of dirt, and all the bug bites … well, they were just gross. When I stepped on the scale I’d lost 8 lbs, which I quickly gained back after about 8 gatorades and a few brewskies. From then on, the hiker and I kept in touch and went hiking together on that same trail again, whereupon we quickly retreated when the temps hit the high 80s because he didn’t “want to fork over another obscene amount of money”.