Thursday, April 04, 2019 – 0.10 miles
Tamara and I left camp at 7:15 AM and hiked the short distance to the north side of Apache Peak. Conditions were ghastly, with steep snow extending as far as we could see around the mountainside.
We pulled on our microspikes and started across. I felt stable on the hard early morning snow, but was scared and moving slowly. I knew that Apache Peak was supposed to be the most dangerous area of the day, but when I considered whether I wanted to face snow and other potentially perilous slopes for the next nine miles to Saddle Junction, I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. Tamara said that she would continue with Steve and Aaron, who were a few minutes behind us.
Just as I was coming off the snow, a European couple named Alba and Jordie arrived, followed closely by Steve and Aaron. Steve and Aaron started across, Aaron first. Both were wearing microspikes and holding one hiking pole. They had gone maybe fifteen steps, I was talking to Alba and Jordie on dry land, Tamara had already passed around a corner, when Steve slipped and began sliding down the slope. At first he was falling feet first on his stomach, but when he dug in his feet in an attempt to self-arrest, he flipped over backwards and tumbled into a gully beyond our view. Aaron was screaming ‘Dad! Dad!’ and instinctively tried to glissade down the snow after him, but could only maintain control for a short while before he fell too and both were out of sight.
I was crying. Jordie was shouting, asking whether they were okay and whether he should press the emergency button on his InReach. Eventually we received an affirmative answer from Aaron, who shouted up saying that Steve couldn’t see and had broken his ankle in multiple places. We could barely hear him from the trail. Alba has first aid training and started scrambling down the slope with an emergency blanket. Tamara hadn’t seen the fall, but she had heard the shouting and was making her way back across the snow. Soon after she arrived, Jordie headed down to join Alba with the InReach and Tamara decided to also call 911. What a useless enterprise! I’m sure the 911 operators were trying their best and following protocol, but they kept connecting her to different people, none of whom seemed to know what the PCT was and who kept asking questions like ‘What city are you in?’ and ‘Where did you park your car?’ and thought she ought to be talking to someone else. Understandably she got pissed off and short with them. God forbid an actual injured person have to deal with this. I said afterwards that we should have called the gear shop in Idyllwild and asked for help, that’s how bad the 911 process was.
We waited for a long time, unable to hear anything from the gully. It was freezing with the overcast sky and wind and we were cold even wearing all our layers, so we wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags. Eventually Aaron came climbing up the slope. He was ranting to himself and seemed a bit crazy. He explained that Steve had told him to return to the trail in case the situation worsened, but that the vision issue had cleared up.
Tamara made him a cup of hot chocolate and patched up his fingers, which were scraped so badly that the tips were solid red. There was blood all over his shorts. We wanted to put him in Jordie’s sleeping bag, since his own pack was still in the gully, but he said that he would walk to keep warm. He headed about six metres up the trail to a small amount of snow in the opposite direction from the bad snow, but didn’t want to cross and ended up just slumping down on the ground. We pulled out Jordie’s sleeping bag and Tamara sat with him and spoke in an excellent motherly manner. Parents have mysterious powers. He had been debating whether to call his mom – we said it would be better if he waited until Steve got to a hospital, but in retrospect, maybe it would have helped him if not her.
Other PCT hikers arrived sporadically, most asking whether we needed anything. A few went across the snow and the rest decided to try bushwhacking over the peak. Around 11:30 AM, Jordie came up from below to tell us that he had gotten a message on his InReach saying that search and rescue would be another 2-3 hours because they were unable to launch a helicopter in the wind, but that Steve was doing well and speaking lucidly. By then the sun had emerged from behind the clouds, so the temperature was at least warmer.
At around 1:30 PM, we heard a helicopter approaching. Circling around the valley, it broadcast the message ‘We see you and we’ll be back’ – the best message in the world – then flew away. Shortly afterwards we were joined on the trail by two search and rescue guys who had hiked 2200 feet up the Spitler Peak Trail, which meets the PCT less than a mile away. They went down the slope to assess the situation and explained to us how they intended to airlift Steve out.
The helicopter returned, lowering someone who prepared Steve for evacuation, then circled around again to pick him up. Finally rescued!
We were initially told that a sheriff would meet Aaron at the Spitler Peak Trailhead and drive him to the hospital or his car or something. I was worried about bringing him with us because I didn’t know whether the snow on Spitler Peak was before or after the trail junction and I thought that the crossing would be difficult for him mentally (and for me). However after Alba and Jordie and two search and rescue people had hiked back up to the trail, we were told that Aaron could ride out on the helicopter with the search and rescue team. Now it was just my mind to worry about. Luckily, the junction was before the snow. Goodbye area, you were beautiful but I won’t be missing you.
While 911 sucked, the search and rescue people were fantastic and kept us informed at every stage what was happening. The only off moment was when a man who arrived in the helicopter asked us whether we had microspikes and said that we would be fine crossing the Apache Peak snow with them. Jordie and I shared the mutual sentiment of WTF and Aaron exclaimed ‘That’s what me and my dad thought!’. Presumably the S&R guy didn’t know that Steve had been wearing microspikes, but either way, we just waited six hours for S&R after seeing someone fall 180 feet and get badly injured. Like any of us were still planning to cross! Apparently the S&R guy is made of stronger material than us.
Tamara, Alba, Jordie and I started together down the Spitler Peak Trail.
Near the bottom, we met Doctor Mindbender. He had decided to bail out even before Apache Peak, during the Spitler Peak crossing. Together we began walking down Acorn Canyon Road, but got split up when we managed to catch rides. Alba and Jordie were intending to hitch onwards to Cabazon, being totally over this area after the incident today and some other bad luck they’ve had. Tamara and I searched for a hotel room and finally managed to find a place with vacancy. She’ll head tomorrow to the Black Mountain Road alternate that bypasses Fuller Ridge. I’m planning to take that alternate as well, but I need time to resupply and process everything that happened today.
We’re too far away from any open restaurants to get town food, but as a morale booster I ate the second of the two dehydrated desserts gifted to me by my sister/her partner (Crème brulee). This one said to ‘beat’ in the instructions, not ‘beat with two forks’. I wonder which of the two instructions was the original – did someone wonder what to beat with or did someone realize that backpackers don’t typically carry forks? Coincidentally there were dishes in the hotel room so I actually did have a fork. While we were eating, we got word from Aaron that Steve was stable in the hospital. Man, this was the longest day.