interview with rescued recounting the situation ... informative because you dont usually hear directly from the rescued as to the decision making ...
go to the link to watch the excellent video ...
A weekend camping trip had gone horribly awry, and now Panuakdet "Mock" Suwannatat led three other hikers down a treacherous, slippery slope.
Suddenly, he fell.
"I was rolling downhill and I was stopped by a very small yucca plant," he said. "I looked around and it was the scariest thing I ever saw — the cliff was 10 feet away from me. It was so scary. I could have died if it wasn't for that little yucca tree.
"I screamed, 'Everyone, stop! Stop! This is a cliff!'"
One of the other hikers, Teresa Norris, took a tumble that swept her to within 12 feet of the cliff. Her fall was stopped by a manzanita bush.
Heavy snow continued to fall that Sunday night, March 20. They were cold, sopping wet and exhausted. They'd hiked cross country eight hours after wind and wet snow had rousted them in the wee hours that morning and led them to flee camp in fear of a flash flood. Later stymied by high creek waters at a crossing on the lone path out, they'd gone off trail up a ridge and down to this spot.
They were stuck, perched precariously above the cliff, amid a slick limestone rock face on a southerly flank of Pine Mountain about 20 miles north of Ojai.
Below them, some 500 feet down, was potential salvation, Highway 33. But they had no way down, and hypothermia was tightening its inexorable grip.
A last-ditch 911 call confirmed what they already knew: They had no cellphone service.
Things got quiet.
Some had thoughts of death.
* * *
It'd been a long day for Bill Slaughter. Driving back from San Francisco after visiting family, the captain of the Ojai Search and Rescue mountain team began fielding calls from crew members about a powerful storm slamming Ventura County.
One to two feet of snow fell in the mountains that weekend. In lower elevations, some areas received almost a foot of rain. Near hurricane-force winds were reported in Rose Valley that Sunday.
By experience, Slaughter smelled trouble. By Sunday afternoon, he was right. Reports drifted in about overdue hikers strewed across the county's sprawling and rugged backcountry. Between San Luis Obispo and Ojai, Slaughter made several dozen phone calls, rounding up his forces and assessing the situation.
But hard facts about possible locations and the like were scant. Word was there were three groups of hikers or maybe more, perhaps more than 30 people in all.
"I was in disbelief at the numbers," Slaughter said. "They kept growing but the information about them didn't. I've been doing this for 25 years and this has got to be the largest number of people missing or stranded out there we've had in that time."
By Sunday evening, they had three possible locations, but all his crews found were parked cars at trailheads, and no people. A Ventura County Sheriff's Department helicopter had to turn back due to high winds, snow and low clouds.
Finally, Slaughter jumped in his pickup truck and headed back to a command post along Highway 33, about to dismiss crew members for the night and tell them to resume the search early Monday morning.
As he drove down the lonesome highway, Slaughter happened to look up. He saw something that fired in his brain instantly.
"I'll remember it the rest of my life," he said.
A CAMP IN WINTRY UPROAR
What was supposed to be a simple overnight trip into Potrero John Canyon began that Saturday, March 19.
The four on it were Mock, a Thailand native and 29-year-old graduate student in the computer science program at UC-Santa Barbara; Norris, 56, a Fillmore resident and after-school program supervisor; Eileen Crump, 53, a Fillmore resident and Ventura College employee; and office worker Annette Klaus, 56, of Ventura.
They were among 19 Sierra Club members amid a wilderness basics course who were on a weekend getaway outing.
The four chose the Potrero John trail because it was the "easy" hike among three offered. The other two groups, numbering nine and six, headed to the Middle Lion campground just east of Rose Valley and the Middle Matilija campground northwest of Ojai, respectively.
Potrero John Canyon is narrow and lined with vertical walls in spots. The same-named creek that threads it is typically a hop-skip-and-jump affair.
The four hiked in and reached the creek-side campground Saturday afternoon. The forecast Mock had checked the night before didn't indicate anything worse would hit before they were slated to leave the next day.
Then it started to rain. It got heavier and, that evening, changed over to what Mock termed "a very pretty light snow." They had hot chocolate and joshed around the campfire. It could have made for a Currier and Ives print.
Overnight, the storm hit with a fury. It rousted Norris in her tent around 2 a.m. Sunday with "blizzard-like conditions." The wind, she said, was blowing so hard "I felt my body was being lifted up." Klaus had to move in with Norris after water seeped under her tent, soaking her sleeping bag.
Mock awoke to find two sides of his tent caved in under the snow weight. It was very cold; he tried to stay warm by moving around in his tent. At one point, he put a trash bag over his head "even with all the layers I had on."
Outside, everything was white.
"It just wouldn't stop," Klaus said. "It kept coming down, a very heavy, wet snow."
Early that morning, they talked about leaving but decided to stay put, hoping the weather might clear or at least abate.
Concern was starting to set in.
Mock went back to his tent, played with his iPad and meditated, "trying not to think about what was going to happen." In her tent, Crump consoled herself by reading from a small, paperback Catholic prayer book.
By late morning, the winds were stronger and the snow more intense. "It just kept getting worse and worse," Crump said.
They met around 11:30 a.m. and decided to leave, thinking it could be a long time before anyone came along to help them.
The Storm Comes Early Click video chapter to the left to watch
A CREEK TURNED MENACE
Norris, the hike leader, knew that the previous year a flash flood had hit Potrero John Canyon, sweeping three people downstream who somehow scrambled to higher ground before a huge mudslide rumbled through the area.
Two of the three had to be rescued by helicopter; the other managed to hike out to Highway 33. Had they still been along the creek when the slide hit, "they'd have died, for sure," said senior sheriff's deputy Shane Matthews, an Air Unit member who was on that call. "They were very lucky. It wiped out the whole canyon."
Timber and other debris from that slide was all around Norris and the other three hikers in the campground this March weekend some 14 months later.
Mindful of that near-disaster, "I didn't feel safe staying there with all the precipitation we were getting," Norris said.
Mock, the assistant hike leader, remembers looking at the creek and thinking the water could get "very high."
They loaded essentials — food, space blankets, hiking poles, head lamps, knives, first-aid kits, clothing compasses and the like — into day packs and left about noon, leaving behind tents and sleeping bags. Mock brought a topography map and a GPS tracking device.
They planned to hike the two miles back to the trailhead at Highway 33, knowing they'd have to cross the icy creek waters many times.
"I thought everyone could make it," Mock said, "but little did I know how rapidly the creek was rising."
At each crossing, the rushing water got higher; at the fourth one, it was at thigh level. At one point, Crump lost her footing and fell onto her stomach into the water; Norris grabbed her arm and pulled her back up. Klaus also slipped and tumbled into water up to her neck. It soaked her "through all the four or five layers I had on."
At the fifth crossing, they stopped. The water was several feet deep and flowing madly. Norris and Mock went up and down the banks for a good 15 minutes, looking for a way beyond.
"We absolutely could not cross," Mock said.
They decided to abandon the trail and hike up a ridge away from the rising water in the canyon.
It was agonizing. They were less than a mile from the trailhead and a way out, Norris recalled; in normal conditions, they'd have been there in minutes. But several more crossings stood between them and the warmth and safety of their cars.
Potrero John Creek was telling them "no."
THE GRIND UP THE RIDGE
Around 2 p.m., they started up the slope.
The idea was to hike to the top and then down the other side to Highway 33, where they hopefully could flag down help or walk up the road to their cars. They also thought they might get cellphone reception up high.
"It didn't sound too good to me at first," Mock said. "I'd never done any cross-country, off-trail hiking before. I didn't see any trail up there; all I saw was snow and chaparral."
Another thought struck him: If they got up one side, how would they know they could get down the other? But he didn't say it aloud.
There was no path. Norris worked ahead, breaking trail and cutting steps in the snow by stomping sideways with her boots.
They kept up spirits by chattering about TV shows and such. Mock took pictures. Norris told everyone how well they were doing and thanked them for their good attitudes.
But it was arduous sledding. The heavy snow made the steep terrain slushy, muddy and slippery. All four fell down frequently, "practically every couple minutes," Mock said. A couple steps up, one down; the going was "very, very slow."
He was alert and not in pain, "but I was alarmed, too. By now, I knew this could go very badly."
At points, Crump was on her hands and knees, scrambling from one bush to another, just to gain a hold.
About 6 p.m., they reached the ridgetop peak, actually a knoll that sits at 4,510 feet elevation. Snow still fell hard.
Mock looked at his various devices. They'd gained 770 feet in elevation in four hours since they left the banks of the raging creek; in good conditions, they could have done it in little more than half an hour.
At the top, a tired Norris, who had twisted a knee on the way up, turned over the hike lead reins to Mock.
The four looked below and didn't like what they saw. The down side had far less vegetation on it; they could see it was solid, sheer rock in places.
Footing was "very tricky," said Klaus, who remembers "a lot of water trickling down that mountain." At times, Crump said, they slid down "on our bottoms."
Twilight bled into inky darkness — something they'd hoped to beat when they abandoned camp late that morning. They put on their head lamps.
Said Klaus: "There were a couple times I slipped and fell and I said, 'Slide and just hope you can stop.' It was scary."
Then Mock and Norris both fell to the cliff's brim. It was about 8 p.m. The cliff, Mock pointed out, didn't show up on his topo map.
Tiring, and losing mobility, the group had no desire to retrace the steps that'd taken them hours to complete. To their right was more of the cliff, which cut an irregular, diagonal scar on the rock slope.
They considered moving to their left, where the rock face and cliff ended and a vegetation-laden ravine began. But when they pointed their head lamps that way, they saw a gushing, 15-foot-wide ephemeral waterfall between them and that side.
The waterfall led right over the cliff. One slip there, Mock noted, and "we could die at that moment."
ON A ROCK, IN A HARD PLACE
By now, hypothermia — a lowering of core body temperature that can lead to brain damage and death — had set in. As it progresses, it's marked by joint stiffness, uncontrollable shivering, weakness and fatigue in mild stages, then poor coordination, slurred speech, impaired ability to make good decisions, an inability to shiver, an overwhelming urge to sleep, shallow breathing, blue skin and unconsciousness.
Moderate hypothermia is when the body's normal 98.6 degree reading drops below 95. Severe hypothermia sets in below 93 degrees.
Mock noticed that everyone was "shaking very hard." Crump couldn't even use her hands to look at her watch. Worse, they couldn't move their feet well on the slick terrain.
"When you have hypothermia," Crump noted, "every little activity is very hard to do."
This, like the high creek crossing along the trail earlier that stopped them from reaching their cars, was agony a second time around: They were in clear sight of Highway 33 some 500 feet below, but had no way down.
They discussed staying above the cliff and waiting for help to arrive in the morning. Norris sat down in the bushes near where her fall had been stopped.
"At that point," she said, "I realized it was going to be very dangerous if we spent the night there because we were so wet."
Mock stood even though he was very tired. He didn't want to fall asleep, or let the others fall asleep.
The group, Klaus said, knew it "couldn't really get anywhere" and didn't have a plan for how to spend the night there. After the failed 911 call, she started to worry. Norris, she said, got "real quiet."
"I was thinking, 'Will I survive the night?'" Klaus said. "That was the question in my head. I was sopping wet. I wasn't sure I could make it to morning."
They didn't have long to think about such things.
About 15 minutes after Mock and Norris fell to cliff's edge, they saw a vehicle come down 33, slow, pull over and stop.
"I saw a light beam, straight above me," Slaughter recalled.
He knew "in a fraction of a second" it was the missing hikers, or some of them — an unforgettable moment forever seared into his brain. After he'd pulled his pickup truck over, he saw a second beam, and maybe a third one. It was their head lamps.
Slaughter beamed a high-powered flashlight up at them and yelled.
He could hear voices — "we screamed," Mock said — drifting down to him, but the distance made communication impossible. Slaughter first drove back to the Potrero John trailhead about a half-mile up the road to alert crew members to head to where he'd stopped so they could keep their eyes on those lights, then headed to the command post to gather more forces. By the time he got there, the Middle Lions rescue crew, who couldn't make creek crossings there, had arrived.
A rescue was on. Aloft, a sheriff's Air Unit helicopter looking for missing people in the general vicinity attempted to reach the scene. People at the command post to the south saw it struggling above them. It couldn't climb beyond a set of ridgelines, and the mission was scrapped.
Ken Williams, a pilot for 28 years including the last nine with the Air Unit, said the blowing snow, low clouds and poor visibility was "too crazy."
"The conditions were far worse than we anticipated," Williams said. "And there are very few paths that allow you to get up into the mountains where those people were."
On the ground, Slaughter sent crew members up toward the cliff in waves.
The first two, Kevin Hartigan and Bill Carey, went up unroped in the dark, using ice axes a la mountaineers. Hartigan has been a technical rock climber for almost 40 years; Slaughter called Carey "an iron man."
Though they had to be careful on the exposed rock portion, "it wasn't out of the question for our skill level," Hartigan said.
They gauged the rock traverse where the hikers were as a Class 4 on a hiking-climbing rating system (1 being easy and 5 being difficult, akin to mountaineering). In that system's parlance, falls from a Class 4 can be fatal.
When they reached the hikers' elevation, Hartigan yelled from across the waterfall for the hikers to identify themselves and asked if anyone was injured. Getting a no, Hartigan told them to stay put, explaining later, "We always tell 'em, 'Do not move. Do not come toward us. Let us move around you.'"
The danger there, he said, is that a slip from a weary hiker can take everyone down for a fall. For the same reason, Hartigan and Carey then worked above the hikers before descending to them.
Their arrival, around 10 p.m., perked up the lethargic group.
Mock said he told Hartigan, "Thank you, you are my hero. Do you have some hot chocolate?" Similarly, Klaus asked Hartigan for hot soup. Crump, who was lying down under a space blanket, said "thank you" repeatedly.
Said Norris: "I felt like angels had arrived. I'd been praying all day."
She was looking at members of the county's Search and Rescue, an almost-entirely volunteer force with 145 people spread across seven units — three mountain units, plus K-9, dive, medical and horseback teams.
They put in a lot of hours, sometimes out on searches "for days on end," said Sheriff's Sgt. Frank Underlin, who coordinates the units. Many members have extensive knowledge of the backcountry.
SAR is in its 60th year as a formally recognized group, but its origins go back further, to the days when the Sheriff's Department enlisted the help of local ranchers on searches and when communication was sometimes by rifle blasts.
FOR LOVE OF A MANZANITA BUSH
Greetings aside, Hartigan and Carey were multi-tasking. Hartigan assessed the chances of a snow slide; the snow was sloughing, there was water running beneath it and ice was developing. They also eyed potential rope anchors and took stock of the hikers' condition. He radioed down for more gear.
Hypothermia was continuing its menacing creep. The hikers, Hartigan said, were extremely cold, fatigued and largely unable to move. Outside the body, they were "absolutely saturated," Carey remembers — an exacerbating factor.
Andy Van Sciver, among the second wave of SAR responders who arrived minutes later, said hypothermia "was affecting their ability to think."
None of the four hikers, Hartigan said, was fully oriented. The least oriented was Norris, who was sitting down with water running through her pant legs; he also noticed that she'd lost her ability to shiver. Typically, that's an indicator of severe hypothermia, a body temperature below 93 degrees, and can spell death in a matter of several hours.
At that moment, it didn't top the list of concerns.
"Their proximity to sliding off the cliff was the most important detail to consider," Hartigan said. "They could collapse or roll off."
The plan was to get them across the rocky slope and waterfall along a "clothesline" rope and then down the ravine via a rappel line to the staging ground 500 feet below on Highway 33, where ambulances and other emergency personnel waited.
The rope anchors were a problem. Crews look for what are called "bomb-proof anchors," meaning they're intractable and won't blow out in any circumstance. Typically, that means a sizable tree or a sturdy large boulder.
They had neither "luxury" here, and the darkness didn't help that search. Also, a wildfire about a decade earlier had denuded the slope of much vegetation.
They groped at yucca plants, mountain mahogany and other unstable brush. The available rocks were loose or had cracks near the surface. Everything seemed "of no use," Hartigan said. "Of course, we didn't want to tell them that."
Finally, they settled on two manzanita bushes, each with a tangle of about six sticks at their base. One of them was the one that helped stop Norris' fall. It was chaparral, but it'd have to do.
ROPES, LOOPS AND SUCCESS
The hikers, who were then tied into this temporary rope anchor system, marveled at the crew's cool efficiency. Mock called Hartigan and Carey "very fast and very professional." Added Klaus: "Ohmigod, they were amazing; this was not an easy rescue to set up."
Van Sciver, in the next SAR wave with Mike Weber and David Musgrove, brought up two 200-foot ropes and gear for more anchors. Weber was struck by the four hikers' condition.
"They almost appeared to have given up," he said. "Seeing them really hit home that we were dealing with a very serious situation."
Crews built a 15-stick "change-of-direction" anchor — designed to limit fall in case the two anchors over by the hikers gave out — at the edge of where the rock slope ended and the lusher ravine began. Farther east, in the ravine, they built a 40-stick main anchor — the only bomb-proof one in the bunch.
The rappel line ran from the main anchor to the road below.
Van Sciver crossed the Class 4 traverse and brought gear and one end of what became the clothesline rope to Hartigan and the hikers.
All four were able to walk; Norris was able to get up after Hartigan gave her a squeeze hug and rubbed her legs for warmth. At one point, Mock gave Crump a similar hug.
Wearing harnesses and helmets, the hikers were clipped into the rope and escorted across the rock slope one by one, with Carey leading them and Van Sciver behind.
All four slipped and fell along the 40-foot traverse. Mock appreciated the rope and escort — "I'm glad I didn't have to do it by myself."
Noted Van Sciver: "A couple of us slid a bit, too."
Crossing the waterfall, which ran along the interface of where the rock face met the ravine, was a bit tricky. Beyond it, the hikers were led past anchors, transferred to the rappel line and escorted down to the road by other SAR members in a relay system designed to ease weight and tension on the rope system.
On the rappel line, Klaus recalled a rescuer telling her to "lean into my hip" if she sensed a fall coming.
"And," she said, "I remember hearing someone say, 'Just 15 more feet,' and I thought, 'I can do 15 more feet.'"
Norris was brought across and down first, followed by Klaus, Mock and Crump. Each one's move took about 30 minutes, from precarious perch at cliff's edge to the road below, Slaughter said.
All were down by about 1 a.m. Monday. They were ushered into heated vehicles, examined by medics and given hand warmers and water.
Amid the hubbub, Klaus said she had difficulty answering questions and speaking, adding, "My thought process was not good."
Klaus and Crump were taken by ambulance to Ventura County Medical Center in Ventura. Mock and Norris went in the other ambulance to Ojai Valley Community Hospital; on the way down, they had a short conversation about how glad they were to be alive.
A Rope Trail
A LOOK BACK, AND LESSONS LEARNED
All four were treated and released Monday morning.
The weekend continued for Search and Rescue. The nine Sierra Club hikers stranded near Middle Lion campground east of Rose Valley were rescued Monday morning by helicopter and taken to their vehicles. The other six stranded at Middle Matilija campground had to be plucked out via "hoist rescues" — in a sling-like suit, sometimes called a "stork diaper," hooked to a winch at the end of the cable lowered from the copter — because it couldn't land in the tree-studded area.
Two other groups of seven hikers were rescued farther east of Rose Valley along Sespe Creek at Willett Hot Springs.
The Potrero John cliff rescue, Slaughter said, was "not particularly problematic" once the four hikers were found.
"We've done far hairier ones than that," he said. "We've had more dramatic ones — in terms of danger to our guys."
But the four hikers were in peril. The general consensus among SAR crew members is that some of the group would not have made it to morning.
There was doubt, Hartigan said, noting that the night after a storm is always much colder. But who knows, he added — stories abound of people trumping severe situations with a deep survival instinct. Some people have it, some don't. Survival, Crump opined, "is 80 percent mental."
That night is full of "what ifs" and armchair analysis. It would have been easy, Hartigan noted, to miss those hikers.
"I guess there's an element of luck in all of these things," he said.
In the aftermath, Norris and the others say they are humbled and still have much to learn about the wilds.
Mock regrets not checking the weather that Saturday morning, before they hiked in to the campground. Had he done so, Slaughter noted, he would've known the storm was coming "fast, hard and early."
Had they hunkered down in their camp as the two other Sierra Club groups did, he added, they'd have been fine.
Hindsight being 20-20, Norris said, she would have kept the group in the Potrero John campground and had them move their tents and gear to higher ground there, but at the time "I felt like the whole canyon was dangerous."
The Sierra Club, she said, will be making changes on its trips, among them being more cautious about trips to creek-riddled canyons in springtime and providing more detailed destination information with the Sheriff's Department.
The four hikers are grateful for Search and Rescue's efforts, and a bit surprised their rescuers are unpaid members of the community.
Slaughter, for example, is an attorney who lives in Upper Ojai. Hartigan owns a commercial construction business and lives in Oak View. Van Sciver does ad sales for Fire Chief magazine and lives in Santa Paula, where he also volunteers on the fire department.
"It's a very, very special group of volunteers," Norris said. "I mean, it takes a special person to go out there and rock climb in the dark, in the snow."
Mock said the incident has changed him — and his perspective.
"I never thought I loved my life that much," he said, fairly shouting with glee over the phone from Thailand, where he's taking care of his sick mother. "It's just so good to be alive."
Now, the stresses of graduate school or the times when his electronic equipment doesn't work are bad days no more. A bad day, he said, "is dying on a stony mountain somewhere."
Like others, Mock donated money to SAR. He chipped in $350; a friend who heard his story immediately added $50.
"I wish I had $4 million to give them," Mock said. "I just love those guys."
Crump also passed along her gratitude, but noted, "How do you even send a proper thank-you card to someone who saved your life?"
She has a "souvenir." In the tumult on the cliff that night she lost her prayer book, and she asked Hartigan to retrieve it.
"It really means a lot to me," she said. "It's demolished, but I still have it."
Klaus said the group got "very lucky."
"I know one thing: Having those lights saved our butts," she said of the head lamps.
Slaughter will never forget spotting them on that stony cliff that night.
"I've been doing this for 25 years," he said, "and this is one that stands out to me."
The hikers say they've been back or will return to the backcountry.
Klaus has limited that to day trips thus far. She doesn't regret going on the Potrero John trip but said she's had difficulty reliving it and telling the story to family and friends. Once, while strolling a beach in Ventura, she came upon some logs that reminded her of logs she saw on that trip and "I started crying."
"It's been very, very emotional for me," she said.
Only in recent weeks did the numbness in her toes fade. Norris still has a bit in her fingers; doctors have told her that she will regain full feeling.
Said Norris: "To me, it's a small price to pay for something that could have ended tragically."