Rescued Hiker Tells His Story

April 23, 2010
Upper Skyline Trail

Written by Mike

Hi. This is the lost hiker, and here's my trail report of a 25-hour hike up the Skyline. I made some mistakes that got me in the unfortunate situation, and I made some good decisions that allow me to be happy and healthy today to tell the story. I'm sure it will bring a chuckle from some, and a smirk from others, but here it goes.

I'm 48 years old and have hiked all over, often solo. I'm preparing for a climb up Mt. Rainier on June 1 (with a professional guide), and I felt Skyline was the best training route in my area. I've hiked it before, but not in the snow. In the past few weeks I've hiked the lower part of the Skyline, up to 7 miles in, to be familiar with that part. I went up the tram, found the top of the Skyline, and hiked a short distance down, with crampons and ice axe, to get the visual on the top part in the snow.

Mistake #1: I should have hiked down much farther to be familiar with all the points of reference on the upper part of the trail in the snow.

April 23, 8:30am: I departed from my car at the Art Museum.

Mistake # 2: I should have left by 6:30 am, which would have given me the extra daylight I needed to get out of trouble at the top.

Good Decision: I packed 4 liters of water, two days of food, crampons, ice axe, cold weather clothes including a parka, maps, an extra battery for my cell phone, and the ten essentials. The pack weighed 25 pounds.

The hike was going great. When I reached the snow, there were very clear footprints on the trail.

Mistake #3: I paid more attention to the tracks, not the trail (Big Mistake).

The tracks were easy to follow and were clearly on the trail when the trail was still clearly visible. When the tracks appeared to take a more southern turn, when I was expecting a northern turn toward the tram, I figured it was just a switchback and kept going. The tracks were going steadily up, so I determined they must be going up to Long Valley on a different route, which I've heard about, so I followed.

4:00pm: The tracks came to a large flat area that appeared to be an edge of Long Valley. I sent a text to my wife "Safely in Long Valley." I quickly determined that I was still below Long Valley, and south of where I needed to be. Then I saw the footprints again, heading back North, so I followed. After a tricky glissade ending with a self arrest, and lots of deep snow, the tracks appeared to stop at a steep chute. It was 4:30 and I needed to be heading up. It appeared someone went up the chute, so I climbed up that chute, then rock climbed about 50 feet, where I hit an impasse. After two hours in this chute (6:30pm), I gave up and rappelled down the rocks using two trees in succession (my rope was only 50 feet).

Mistake #4: After one hour of attempting this route, I should have abandoned it and headed back down with plenty of daylight left to find the trail and the Crag.

When I started back down the snow chute, the side totally gave way and I performed another self arrest to a stop after sliding about 30 feet. I was next to a small tree and was able to grab it and stabilize.

7:00pm: I stopped to assess my situation. I tied-off to the tree and chopped a small ledge in the snow. Just as I got seated my phone rang. I had to inform my wife that I didn't think I'd be making the show at the McCallum Theatre that night, and that I was going to call for help. I've never needed help before, and I've made comments about those who did, and even though I thought that I could find the trail if I just went down, I knew I could be hiking the last mile of Skyline in the snow and in the dark, and that could be fatal.

Good decision: I called the Long Valley Ranger Station.

The Ranger used good protocol "Don't move. We're sending a helicopter." A helicopter? I just wanted directions. Bummer, I'll make the news.

8:34pm: I got a call from Riverside Sheriff to guide the helicopter to me. Within 20 minutes it arrived, shined a light on me, and pulled away. The contact on the phone let me know the winds, at 30-40 mph, were too much for the helicopter to drop a line, so they had turned it over to Riverside Mountain Rescue.

9:36pm: Call from Mountain Rescue, they were on the way. I was still on the ledge, sitting on my backpack, wearing the parka and I was completely inside an extra large garbage bag that was stopping the wind. I was prepared to wait for the team, but some parts were wet, and getting cold.

11:10pm: Call from Mountain Rescue. They couldn't get to the upper station tonight. I would have to spend the night. I told him I'd be fine, but I'd have to move from the ledge, and I may attempt to find the trail. He would call back at 12:00. This time I climbed down very slowly kicking in deep footholds. At the bottom I moved to the rocks on the side got on a stable platform. Received the call at 12:00am and I told them I would only move out if I'd found the trail and clear footprints. He said he would call in the morning, and I turned off the phone.

12:30am: I found a spot in the rocks that made a partial cave about 5'x8' and 4' high. I built a small fire and changed my soaked socks. I was feeling a very strong pull to find the trail and hike out. "Then I won't even have been rescued.'"

Good Decision: I had to place ego aside. I was uninjured, safe, secure, and warm. I was quite comfortable, and had lots of food. In the morning I could hike out with the team and still be uninjured and alive. If I tried it on my own, in the dark, their rescue could have become a recovery. I decided to stay put.

5:30am: I woke up to the beginning of daylight, restoked the fire, had breakfast and waited for the team.

6:30am: Call from Mountain Rescue. They were at the upper Tram Station and the team was heading my way.

7:13am: I sent a text to my wife "All's well. I hear them coming," I heard the team calling me and I continued to respond.

7:30am: The two members of the Riverside Mountain Rescue team appeared about 50 yards below me. They were on the trail, that was just 50 yards away all the time, oh well. They checked me out and determined I was in good shape. What great guys. Great attitudes. No judgment. Even when I began apologizing they said, "Don't do that, we've all been lost. What's important is that you called and you're safe." They were apologizing to me for not being able to get to me the night before. They truly are American Heroes. It was a beautiful morning and on our hike out one of the team members said that he couldn't think of anything he'd rather be doing that day. We had a great chat hiking to the Crag and out.

Making tracks near Grubb's Notch

Making Tracks Near Grubb's Notch

I had stopped about three ridges too soon. Back to Mistake #2, I just needed that extra couple hours of daylight to correct the other mistakes.

9:30am: I complete the Skyline hike in exactly 25 hours.

There's my story. The bottom line: 1) Never stop learning, so we are less likely to get into trouble. 2) Recognize when we are in trouble, and accept help.