The vulture’s eyes

August 8, 2022 Comments Off on The vulture’s eyes

I don’t think I almost died. But I think I could have died if a few key things weren’t in place.

  • If I hadn’t brought shoes
  • If I hadn’t been out walking, running, and riding in the heat
  • If I hadn’t known every step of the 18-mile route
  • If I hadn’t run out water there before

It began to dawn on me, still an hour to reach the front door, that I was in trouble. I’d sat down on a high ridge to shake some rocks out of my shoes. The house was visible, far down in the valley below, but there were a lot of steps between me and it, and almost all of those steps involved steep hills, mostly down but some up as well.

As I sat there a shadow passed over me, then another, then another. Pretty soon I had five vultures for company, taking turns flying so low that their giant red heads were less than ten feet away before tipping their vast wings, catching the updraft from the ridge, and making another big circle.

They are beautiful birds, but they are in the business of knowing when things are about to die, and they’re .watching you long before you even know they’re there. They’re watching your face, your steps, your stumbles, and most of all your stops. They may not be able to predict when you’re going to die, but they know when you’re in trouble.

And trouble is exactly what I was in.

I had three swallows left in my 28-oz. plastic bottle, which was the only thing I’d brought for a 7-hour hike with about 4,000 feet of climbing. I’d left at 6:10, shortly after being awakened by the cat, when it was still in the low 70’s. I’m hardy in the heat and figured that when I got to the turnaround at five miles I’d just skip back home; I left without breakfast.

I’d done it before, and I didn’t want a heavy bag so I hadn’t bothered bringing more water. Chocked in between the gaping gaps of stupid, though, it occurred to me to take shoes. I’ve been caught out before in the extreme heat barefoot, and once the ground gets a certain temperature you cannot walk anymore. “Probably won’t need them but just in case.”

I made good time to the turnaround and still hadn’t had a sip of water, so I took one. By then it was getting warm, but it was still early and I decided to push on to Rancheria Road, another three and a half miles farther up. “It’ll be cooler there, too,” I thought. The last time I’d done this walk, those last few miles had been blissful, covered in the cool canopy of big cedars and pines.

Much of what was happening to me, that is, stupid, happened almost exactly a year ago to a 45-year-old man named Josh, his wife Ellen, their 1-year old baby Miju, and their dog, Oski. The terrain was similar; they had started out in the Sierra National Forest farther north from me at the Hite Cove Trailhead. They had a shorter hike planned, eight miles, but like mine it was going to be a hot day hike followed by, no doubt, a nice lunch and a walker’s high. The trail was aptly named the Savage-Lundy trail, a few miles from the border of Yosemite.

Like me, Josh had done his hike before, and like me, he’d done it before a fire had burned through and taken away the cooling canopy. Like my hike, his was mostly on the southeast slope, where the heat is most intense and stays the longest. His hike would be taking place in the extreme heat of the day, as did mine.

The similarities sort of end there, because Josh and his entire family never made it back to their car. The heat killed them 1.6 miles before they regained the parking lot.

Although news reports said he was an experienced hiker, there was nothing to indicate that the experience was recent or that he was in particularly good shape. The photos show a smiling tech money guy in his mid-40’s with a paunch and the pasty complexion of a man used to lots of air conditioning. His wife was a rail thin yoga instructor but it was rail-frail, without musculature or any apparent outdoor fitness. It’s the kind of skinny that some women get by not eating, not the skinny of hard activity.

There is no doubt in my mind that each of them thought they were fit and in great shape. There’s also no doubt that they were both delusional beyond belief: Who takes a 1-year-old infant on an 8-mile summer hike where the temperatures are predicted to be in triple digits, no matter what your fitness level? And the post-mortem showed that Josh had mapped it all out on hiking software, so it’s not plausible that he hadn’t also checked the weather. You could be Reinhold Messner but that’s not going to help your baby child.

Unlike my day yesterday, where the ambient air temperature never got over 105, they died coming up the steepest part of the trail, the end, where it was 109. When it’s 109, you can be sure that the ground is at least 130, if not hotter. I put my shoes on somewhere around Mile 7 because the trail that had once been covered with leaf litter and loam had become a rocky painfest from the fire trucks churning up the ground during last year’s fire. Each time I stopped on the way down to empty my shoes, the soles had gotten hotter and hotter until, at the time I swapped stares with the vultures, the soles were almost too hot to touch. I’d grossly underestimated the heat and had simply gotten lucky.

Like me, Josh had woefully underestimated the heat and his family’s concomitant water needs. They died with an empty 85-ounce container, something that was supposed to supply two adults, an infant, and a dog on a six-hour hike. The general recommendation for triple-digit temperature hiking is a minimum of one liter per hour per person, more if there is strenuous climbing. Somehow I made the 7-hour slog with 28 ounces. Josh and his family, with less than 20 ounces apiece for three people and a dog over a gruelingly hot and somewhat hilly 6-hour trek, didn’t.

Unlike mine, Josh’s route had all the climbing at the end, when, with a baby, frail wife, and old dog, it would have been impossible in the heat unless you were totally hydrated and very, very fit. The final 3.8 miles packed in 2,108 feet of climbing as they tried to ascend from 1,785 to 3,893 feet at the parking lot. It’s not a severe climb but 554 feet of climbing per mile will get your full and undivided attention, and with an infant, two presumably exhausted and dehydrated adults, and a dog to look after, things got lethal. The fact that it took them almost four hours to do the first six miles, most of which were downhill, tells you that even when the going was easy, they were moving at a snail’s pace. Add the paunch, the pasty face, and the tech hubris, and it’s easy to conclude that they weren’t in shape for the conditions.

Which brings things back home: If I hadn’t been out in the heat these last few weeks at the urging of my girlfriend, running, hiking, and riding in triple digits, I might not have made it back, either. Heat stroke isn’t gradual. When your body overheats, you fall down and cannot move. There is no recovery from it without emergency aid. The consequences are immediate damage to brain, heart, and kidneys followed by death.

As his family was dying, Josh sent a text asking for help, but never called 911. Even in areas where there is no cell signal for your particular carrier, sometimes a 911 call will be picked up by a different carrier and relayed to the police. Hyperthermia, like hypothermia, is often accompanied by confusion as the brain’s cognitive facilities begin shutting down. This probably explains why Josh waited 13 minutes after trying to send the text before trying to make a phone call for help. Then he waited almost 20 minutes between his first call for help and the final frenzied calls sent at one-minute intervals prior to death.

It took him over 30 minutes to realize that they were all dying. Part of this was likely hubris. It’s really hard to accept that you’re dying because you were too dumb to bring an extra couple of water bottles. Another part of it may have been his realization that without cell service, it didn’t matter. And the final piece of the puzzle was likely the disorientation as his brain began shutting down. Still, there may have been something else at work: He may have never really realized until the very end that they were going to die. His text message indicates urgency but not desperation. 911 was never called. Somehow the thought that nature is going to kill you is a tough one to grasp, especially when, your whole life, things have always worked out. As one of the stories mentioned, he had “fallen in love” with Maricopa and “bought several houses.” Money and pride rarely play well together in survival scenarios.

This combination of pride, stupidity, and bad judgment is a familiar one. I’ve found myself in tough scrapes many times and after the fact have often wondered how in the world I managed to survive. A lot of it is luck, and some of it is simply experience, the experience of not dying the last time.

Last year, coming down this same trail, Kristie and I had run out of water. So stupid does strike twice. But that time it wasn’t as hot, we’d turned around at Mile 5 instead of Mile 9, and we’d brought a lot more water. Even so, I still remember taking the last swig out of that bottle and thinking, “Fuck, I wonder if I’m going to make it?”

By the time I got to the 9-mile mark yesterday, I still had a mostly full bottle of water. I knew it was going to be scorching but I wasn’t too worried. I also knew every step of the route and where to meter what I had left. I literally planned every single sip from that bottle so that when I got to the final hill, not even a half-mile from home, I had exactly one swallow left.

Knowing where you are, how much farther you have to go, and especially the difficulty of what lies ahead made the difference for me. For him, stuck at the bottom of a 1.6-mile climb, swimming in temperatures between 109 and 120 degrees with a dying infant, and not knowing what they were going to have to do to make it, ensured that they weren’t going to make it.

And I got lucky in another regard, too.

Since moving to the mountains I’ve been eating less and less while outdoors. There is an indisputable body of science confirming that for the most part you don’t need to eat and exercise. Your body has a relatively limitless store of fat that it can very efficiently use, in combination with training, to keep you going. The GU’s, gels, snacks, and snake-oil drinks are nothing more than a glucose shortcut around the way your body evolved to go for long distances without regular infusions of sugar. Early hominids didn’t walk for a hour, stop and pick a few gel packets off the tree, and continue on. They burned the fat they carried with them, and trust me, it was a lot less than what you’re carrying with you.

But this utilization of body fat as fuel, though efficient, is not fast, and it requires conditioning. The only thing I ate on my hike was two handfuls of raisins. Had I eaten anything else, I’d have needed to wash it down with water–and it was the water I had conserved that kept me from getting heatstroke. Another small piece in a puzzle made up of small pieces, was starting time. I was out walking at 6:10, a bit late for me, but it still saved me a solid two hours of walking in the heat. Josh and his family, at a lower elevation and going down even lower, and therefore hotter, didn’t get started until about 8:00. Would I have made it had I started two hours later? Or if the temperatures had been five degrees hotter? I don’t think I would have.

All of this is simply to say that the difference between an adventure and a tragedy is the ending. I had a pedestrian day yesterday. Walked a long way, got hot and thirsty, but got home fine. After drinking half a gallon of chocolate milk and an equal amount of water, then napping, I was able to hop on my bike and ride to the store. This morning I’m, well, taking it easy. Josh and his family are dead.

What I’m also saying is what Kristie has been saying for a long time. Forego the air conditioner. Forego the easy choices. Condition yourself for the heat, for the cold, and for the outside. You still may die tomorrow, but it isn’t likely to be because you couldn’t finish a day hike.


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