What started as a beautiful weekend of hiking and climbing, almost turned into a deadly event. I am being a little over-dramatic, but with good reason as you will soon see.
San Bernardino Peak is a yearly trek which I take to complete the Six Pack of Peaks Challenge for SoCal Hikers, and to get into shape for my summer excursions. I was a little hesitant to go this time of year because I wasn’t sure what the trail conditions were like near the summit. I had put some “feelers” out in various Facebook groups, did my research as best I could, and decided to go ahead and go. I told myself that if the conditions were too dangerous or the snow too arduous to hike through (endless post-holing), I would suck up my pride, submit to Mother Nature and turn around.
I knew a woman from Facebook, hiking the mountain on the same day as I was. We actually arrived at the trailhead the same time, around 8:30am on Saturday, March 24th. Great timing, and so I was able to meet her at the trailhead. I do enjoy my alone time, so I opted not to hike with her group of 10, but knew I’d see them at Limber Pines Bench Camp, and could chat with them then.
It was a cool brisk morning, and not as much snow as I expected to encounter at the lower elevations. The endless switchbacks, until Manzanita Flats, had me ripping off my layers, chugging down the water, and sucking up the air around me. At around 8,000 ft, the trail turned to hard pack snow and continued as such until about 100 feet below Limber Pines Bench, where it turned to windswept ice from the freeze/thaw conditions and high winds. I did not put on my crampons, but dug my boots deep into the snow with every step near camp. I would later reflect back upon this decision, and how foolhardy it was not to stop, just take a brief moment, and put on my crampons.
I made it into Limber around 12:30 pm and proceeded to set up camp and wrestle with erecting my four-season tent. It’s an awesome tent, but a pain to set up. The winds started to increase and the fog soon moved in. At this saddle, the winds and weather can be quite ferocious because it’s so exposed. We were expecting 45+ mph winds, single digit windchill temps, and 10% chance of moderate snow. A couple of hikers asked me if I wanted to climb with them to the summit that afternoon, but I declined because of the winds and incoming clouds. I hoped that the following day would be a better day to summit. I battened down the hatches and took a light nap. Right before sunset, I got ready for a long night in the tent, and snapped a couple of pictures of the sunset. It was a long and chilly night, but alas…Daybreak came soon enough.
Limber Pines Bench Campground
I still wasn’t sure I wanted to head up to the summit, but I spoke to the trio who summited the day before, and they said the conditions were good for climbing with crampons. Three hikers ended up joining me from the group. Hindsight, I was very thankful to have the company. We left camp at around 8am, and made our way straight up the main chute. The crampons dug in well in most spots, and the other harder areas, you had to really make a concerted effort to dig in to gain purchase. The main chute wasn’t overly steep, just a constant ascent. We decided to take a smaller chute to the left for a direct path to the summit. This chute was steeper and the ice was harder because it was a little more exposed to wind. The weather was beautiful: sunny, light wind, and warm on the ascent. We soon made it to the summit, snapped a couple of pics, congratulated each other, and headed back down before our finger tips fell off from frostbite. Okay, I’m exaggerating again. =) It was damn nippy!
My Summit Buddies
On the way down, I was chatting happily with my partner when I tripped over my other crampon, and immediately starting sliding down the main chute. I didn’t slide far before I flipped over and self-arrested. It was a little disconcerting, but good practice. Murphy’s law is always present in my life, as I was just talking about self-arresting techniques with my buddy previous to my slide. Haha! We made it back to camp, taking about 3 hrs round trip. I took off my crampons and began to pack up for the descent back down to the trailhead.
As I was deciding what I wanted to pack up first, two young women approached me and asked if I was leaving. I thought it an odd question, and was wondering if they wanted my camp spot, but they did not have overnight gear. The duo then told me that another woman, who they were talking to on the trail, had shifted her weight, and subsequently, slid several hundred feet down the steep icy slope. She (Michelle) stated that the woman was most likely in serious condition, because she had hit a few obstacles on the way down. They could not attempt to rescue her because, like the victim, they only had micro spikes on. I immediately requested that my two hiking buddies join me to help (power in numbers/knowledge/experience), put on my crampons, and assembled some of my measly first aid equipment.
I then hiked down to where the main trail makes it’s last ascent into Limber, approximately 100 feet downslope. I could not see the victim, nor could I hear her from this vantage point. The two women, Michelle and Chelse, pointed to where the victim (Rachel) had stopped. I hiked up the steep icy slope and found that she had come to rest behind a tree.
This woman had fallen more than 500 feet, hit a tree and a few rocks along the way down. She flew over a natural rock ramp and head first into a tree, which finally broke her fall (slide). She was in shock, but coherent, and was able to answer my questions with a some difficulty. The victim had multiple injuries, including a two-inch gash in her head, a broken wrist, and was bleeding pretty badly from her elbow, along with other unknown injuries. Rachel, the victim, was also complaining of back pain, but thankfully, could move her extremities. Michelle, miraculously a trauma nurse, was assisted up to the location by my hiking buddy, Julian. As first responders, we administered first aid, cleaned her up, and Chelse called SAR from the trail below.
The immediacy of the Search and Rescue Team is to be commended. They, along with a sheriff’s helicopter, were at the accident site within the hour. I was very impressed with not only the response, but also the professionalism and expertise of the SAR Team. They airlifted the victim and took her to a nearby hospital. She had remained conscious the entire time, stated that she was afraid, but was calm even though she was in excruciating pain. We had called her boyfriend and told him where she’d be. We knew Rachel was in good hands when we last saw her being drawn into the helicopter.
The first responders were grateful to one another for helping a fellow human being, and remaining calm throughout the entire ordeal. We helped save a life that day. It’s what we do for each other. Rachel could not be seen or heard from the main trail. She was traveling alone, and had limited cell reception. There was no way, without assistance, that she could’ve made the climb down to the main trail. It was forecasted for one degree windchill temps that night. She had a cotton sweatshirt on, and most certainly could’ve died of exposure if SAR or others hadn’t come to her rescue. Although she was in serious condition, she was extremely blessed that day.
This was a learning experience for everyone involved, and could’ve happened to any of us, even with experience and proper gear. However, the chances of getting hurt are greatly increased from not having the right gear that fit the conditions, and not knowing how to use them. The victim had micro spikes on a steep slope, and poles with rubber attachments still on the ends. Micro spikes are ineffective on icy steep slopes. The victim, as she was falling, was not able to self arrest. She hit head first into a tree. Helmet, ice axe, and crampons were mandatory with the steepness and icy conditions of the terrain.
In reflecting upon this almost tragic incident, I came to the realization that gear, experience, and having buddies when winter mountaineering is vitally important, and could make the difference between life and death. Personally, I did not bring my helmet. My excuse: in order to reduce the weight I had to carry…Bad mistake #1. I went solo…Bad mistake #2. I had my InReach with me, but failed to leave an exact itinerary with my family. They erroneously thought I was on San Gorgonio…Bad mistake #3. Although, I value my alone time on the trail, and will never give that up, I will make a concerted effort to have fellow hikers join me on my winter excursions from this point forward.
It is my hope that by telling this story that others will see through my eyes, and think twice about what is needed in the wilderness, and especially during the winter season. Preparation, knowing your limits/comfort zone, and experience will enable you to hike yet another day.
I would like to extend a very special thank you and my utmost gratitude to the victim (for being a strong and calm woman), Michelle (heaven sent nurse), Chelse (her friend who directed SAR to our location, Julian and Kirk (my hiking buddies), The Mountain Humpers (helping to flag down the air vac), and most of all the SAR Team (San Bernardino Sheriff’s Dept, Sheriff’s Air Rescue (AR306)) who risked their lives to save a fellow hiker! Everyone was amazing, and helped this accident come, not to a tragic ending, but a positive one. ❤
Happy Trails and Stay Safe! ~SoloYolo