Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Happy Rescue Day

Today, Tuesday April 17th, marks the one year anniversary of me, Christen, Jon, and Natalie being rescued in the El Dorado National Forest, after wandering lost in a snowstorm for 24 hours. To mark the occasion I have started writing the story of the experience, told from my perspective.

This is part 1 of many, probably 4 or 5. It has the most pictures of any of them, since they were taken during the less stressful part of the trip. No promises on when the installments will be posted, but I will finish the story at some point, I promise.


It all started innocently enough. A trip to El Dorado National Forest, above Pollack Pines, to stay in a no-longer-in-service Forest Service fire lookout tower called Robb’s Hut for the night. It’s Easter weekend of 2006, mid-April. The forecast called for some light snow, but nothing major.

After waking up Saturday morning in Oakland, hemming and hawing about whether we actually wanted to go (something about Natalie misplacing the combo for the lockbox at the ranger station containing the key to the cabin), somehow we rallied and Christen and I head up Highway 50 with Jon and Natalie.

At the ranger station we luck out as someone is there to give us the key. Jon and Natalie grab a map, we ask a few questions, and off we go. The rangers confirm what we’ve heard about the forecast; some light snow, nothing to worry about. After taking our exit and following a two lane road another 20 or so miles into the Sierra foothills, we park at the trailhead, strap on our backpacks and snowshoes, and off we go.

As the approach to the cabin is a three mile all-uphill snowshoe trek, I find myself thankful that the cabin has mattresses and propane heat, lights, and stove. This allows me to leave behind my lanterns, Thermarest, tent, stove and a few other heavy things, lightening my backpack considerably. Since Christen does not have a “real” backpacking pack, per se, we have no trouble stuffing her things into Natalie’s smaller backpack and strapping her sleeping bag to the bottom, with me carrying the rest of our supplies.

The four of us make good time up to the cabin, following the trail of blue diamonds nailed to the trees, with some snow flurries beginning as we approach tree line. As this cabin used to be a fire lookout tower it is naturally located above tree line on an exposed ridge, for visibility. It turns out we’re not staying in the tower itself (which is boarded up), but in the outlying cabin. As we approach the cabin I notice it is barely visible. The snow is nearly up to the roof of the cabin, with a partially visible picture window. We hike up to the roof level of the cabin, around the side (at which point I could have walked onto the cabin’s roof) and down some snow steps into the vestibule to get into the cabin. Once inside the vestibule, sheltered from the increasing snow, we unstrap our snowshoes, drop our packs and head inside. Jon turns on the lights, fires up the heater and in no time the four of us are peeling off our layers and lounging around, enjoying the warmth.

On the way up.

The cabin, with the lookout tower in the distance.

Into the vestibule.

The snowfall continues to increase over the course of the remaining day and into the evening, making trips outside to go to the bathroom a very cold and windy experience. Every time we try to venture outside, opening the door reveals a wall of snow where the snow steps used to be. This requires the full-bladdered person to stomp, lie on top of, and otherwise smash all the new snow into some sort of steps or ramps, just to get outside. Once you’ve squeezed yourself between the snow and the eave, you are now out in the howling wind and driving snow. The girls are no longer making the 20 ft trek to the outhouse, opting instead to brave the elements and drop trou outside. Those not paying attention could pee right on the roof of the cabin and not even know it. By the time we’ve eaten dinner, played some cards, and bemoaned the fact we didn’t bring more vodka, the picture window is about half-covered by an ever-growing snow drift.

Eating dinner.

Waking in the morning finds the picture window almost completely covered. There is one small corner in the upper right still allowing light through, but the rest is a cross-sectional view of striated snow pack. An attempt to get outside led to the discovery we could no longer see the sky. Overnight, snow had completely covered the opening we had crawled through the day before. I had to poke through the snow with a snow shovel just to see the grey clouds overhead. Opening the kitchen window revealed the screen covered in ice. Only by banging on the screen to free the ice could we get airflow moving in the cabin.

The picture window before.

The picture window after.

These new developments, coupled with the burning of the propane lamps and heater inside the single-room cabin, led to an ever increasing feeling of claustrophobia. It is not a comfortable feeling to have your little cube of living space be slowly buried by snow. In 12 hours we all would have welcomed that feeling with open arms. But right now, we all just wanted to get out and get home.

We eat some breakfast, pack our things, clean the cabin and head out the door. Of course, the hole has been covered by snow again. I scramble my way up the powdery snow slope, poke a hole through the snow cover, and exit into a near whiteout of blowing snow. It was like being at the top of a ski resort during a storm. The wind blew so hard the snow stung my eyes. Jon and I, working together, he pushing from below, me pulling from above, managed to drag everyone and their packs up out of the vestibule and into the storm.

The exit hole from inside.

The exit hole from outside.

Me and Christen are strapped in and ready first, and rather than stand in the blizzarding conditions, we trek to the outhouse to take shelter and pee one last time. Jon and Natalie meet us there, and in the lee of the howling wind we yell to each other through our cinched-tight hoods; Do we really think this is a good idea? Should we just stay here until the weather breaks? Christen is visibly shaken and favors this idea, and I can’t say I would complain if we stay. After some discussion, we take comfort in the fact that the car is only 3 miles away, downhill. All we need to do is head three miles down the trail to the car. If we struggle too much we can always drop the packs and speed to the car, coming back for the packs later. Additionally, we hope the wind will lighten up as we descend into the trees.

With this small comfort, and the overwhelming desire to be back in the comfort of our own homes, we begin to head down the hill to intersect the trail at the tree line.


The Great Leslie said...

Keep it coming...someone's gotta capture the story of our lives. Can you do the Death Valley trip next?

Steve said...

I'm sitting on the edge of my seat for the next installment of the story.