“First responders” is a term that has become so ubiquitous in our daily lexicon that it loses much of its meaning. It is a virtual mantra for politicians — an overarching term for police officers, firefighters, medical personnel and others who respond to every crisis great and small. Then, for some us, the meaning of a first response is driven home in a more immediate and personal way. That is precisely what happened to me in a ravine in California this week when I became the subject of a first response.
Now being rescued is hard to explain and, for some of us, even harder to accept. My preferred explanation back in D.C. is that I went into the desert to find my spirit animal guide only to discover it was Lanny Davis. That is when I stroked out. Everyone knows that Lanny only appears when you are virtual carrion.
The fact is however that I found myself in the ultimate no spin zone. I got caught in the heat emergency that paralyzed Southern California with raging temperatures and brush fires. It was my turn to be “that guy” on the trail who found himself overwhelmed by elements that he failed to fully anticipate. On a stupid day hike.
I did not relish the role. I have spent a lifetime hiking and backpacking around the world with largely solo treks in remote areas from the Amazonian Forests of Brazil to the Alaskan tundra and beyond. This has included a number of desert hikes. For that reason, when I was asked to speak to the Ninth Circuit conference in Anaheim, California I jumped at the opportunity to do a hike in the Santa Ana area – a mix of mountain and desert conditions. I decided to do a roughly 10-mile trek up a mountain in the Cleveland National Park in Orange County.
I pride myself on taking care in challenging hikes and on this occasion I took all of the steps that I had learned the hard way over decades of hiking. I have done much higher elevations and longer distances. I gave my wife my trail plan to keep her informed on my progress by cellphone. I started at the earliest time possible after buying a pass in the morning to minimize hiking at the peak of the heat. I checked the temperature, which was predicted to be around the upper 80s or low 90s at its peak. The recommended water load is a gallon. I took 1.3 gallons, food, medical kit, small flashlight, knife, sunblock, distance and heart monitor, and back up clothes. One element however would change in a big, big way: the temperature.
Everything seemed fine as I reached the summit. It was clearly hotter than expected. However, I was right on time and headed back down. It was then, with five miles ahead of me, that I discovered that I was out of water in my camel backpack. I later found that my camel pack seal failed to fully lock. That and a higher consumption rate depleted the water in half the time. The temperatures quickly soared beyond 100 degrees with virtually no shade to be found. The conditions became increasingly brutal with the rough terrain and blazing sun. I monitored my heart rate (which began to soar with the temperatures) and after a couple of hours began to experience telltale signs of heat exhaustion. I checked in with my wife and told her I was out of water but pushing ahead. I started to break up the hike by stopping under occasional shade and then pushing ahead. My increments became smaller and smaller. Pretty soon it was difficult to simply get up to stagger twenty or thirty feet. However, I was finally near the trailhead where my car was parked with my backup water. That is when I started to lock up. I knew I was spent without water. I tried to call the ranger station but they were closed on weekends. I then called Orange County to see if they knew of any officer nearby with water. About the same time, my wife called 911 after I failed to call her as expected.
Before long, I was speaking to an incredibly helpful Orange County sheriff deputy named Rod on the trail trying to find me with some water. I was close to the trailhead and I believed I could make the final stretch with some hydration. However, we could not locate each other and, in an effort to get to higher ground, I took a tumble into a steep ravine. I tried using my whistle and called out but we could not locate each other. That is when I spotted the helicopter. It was one of those moments when you thought things could not be much worse and then it does. I told Rod on my cellphone that I hoped that the helicopter was not for me and that all I needed was some water. Rod however said that it was the easiest extraction given the difficulty in locating me and the ravines. After I moved to open ground, the helicopter spotted me and soon there was a deputy descending from this helicopter in the blazing heat wave now stalled over much of Southern California.
Despite my pride, I needed help. Yes, it was a day hike but I was close to heat stroking out. Yet, all I could think as this rescuer descended was this guy doesn’t even know me. He is willing to dangle from a helicopter and drop into a ravine to save my sorry butt because that is what first responders do. It turned out to be Reserve Deputy Jim Slikker of the Orange County’s Sheriff’s search and rescue team. He quickly worked his way through the thick brush and found me. He checked my vitals and concluded that I was severely dehydrated as the helicopter with Deputies Jason McLennan, Tim Kozma, and Devon Kemp hovered above.
These are the guys you always wanted to be growing up. Tough, professional, patient, and empathetic. I kept on apologizing to Jim like an idiot as he patiently tried to get my vitals. I told him that I could make it to the trailhead now that I had water. He repeatedly assured me that they would not charge for the lift – misconstruing my concern. The prohibitive part of the airlift was hardly financial. It was being hoisted high for all to see the middle-aged wretch who had to be rescued off a day hike
Soon he was hooking me up to a harness for a short haul. I would dangle from the helicopter for the hop to the nearby trailhead. When we started to ascend, however, a large gust of wind slammed me into the rock face of the ravine. Jim was immediately apologetic but I really felt I deserved it.
As we approached the trailhead, I was amazed to see some huge accident had occurred with multiple fire trucks and police cruisers. Then it hit me. They are there for me. Whatever ego was not left in the ravine then fell 200 feet and disappeared into the arid haze. We landed near my car and Orange County paramedics Michael Ray and Byron Alexander checked me out. I declined to go to the hospital in favor of going to the store near the trailhead for a couple hours of hydration in air conditioning.
In the end, it was not embarrassment but gratitude that I felt most. The Orange County Sheriff deputies, firefighters and paramedics are the ultimate professionals. They come first – no matter where or who you are. I am not sure if I could have made the last leg to the trailhead but I would not want to bet my life on it. More importantly, the Orange County Sheriff’s personnel were not willing to take that bet. They rescued me.
I cannot tell you how hard it is to say those words: they rescued me. I have spent my life enjoying solitude and self-sufficiency in the wild. What I found is that you are a lot lighter for an airlift when you leave your ego back in a ravine. I am not proud to have ended up where I was but I am incredibly proud to have met the men and women from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. I will be forever in their debt.
I always say that every trek or hike leaves you with something unique. An image or a smell that indelibly links you to a place. This trip obviously is memorable in a different sense. Rather than the impressive chaparral yucca or beautiful orange bush monkeyflowers on this trail, I have another image seared into my head. It is of a stranger literally appearing out of thin air to help me in a sun-scorched ravine during a heat wave. That was no abstraction. That was my first responder.