Bailey Range Rescue

Posted by on Sep 2, 2018

I was almost at my destination for the day – Cream Lake, the small blue dot in the center of the map. Instead, after a miscalculation in my position I ended up on steep terrain closer to the large lake at lower right.

Olympic National Park, August 30, 2018. I was alone and cold. My shoes, and most of my gear were soaked. I was tired, lost, and had only a few ounces of water as I put on all my pile clothes and zipped up my sleeping bag over my head with a wool hat on. As I lay there shivering and wet, I contemplated my situation. Would my body warm up? Would the fog and clouds lift in the morning so that I could determine my location? I had just climbed up some very steep and sketchy terrain, pulling myself up by root and tree trunk, carefully selecting each handhold and footstep to avoid a fall which could have resulted in serious injury or death.

While I was not in a life or death situation as I curled up into a fetal ball in my sleeping bag, I was concerned about several things – dehydration, energy, warmth, and tomorrow’s weather. There were many unknowns. I had made several miscalculations, both in the last few hours, and in my preparation for the trip. On my drive out from Seattle, I had listened to a 9 point Tibetan Buddhist meditation on the CD player in the car – it was all coming back to me now – for everyone, death is definite but the time of death is uncertain. I thought of my family, my 90 year old father who depended upon me for daily care, my wife and teenage daughter, the clients of my acupuncture practice, my work teaching meditation at the parole center. My life has meaning and purpose and I have a responsibility to many. I decided to press the SOS button on my SPOT device, knowing that would set in motion a SAR (Search and Rescue) operation, although largely ignorant at that moment of the mortal dangers involved for the personnel of the SAR crew.

Where I sent the SOS call from, lost and far from Cream Lake.

This is the story of how I arrived at that decision, and what I have learned – about wilderness adventure in the age of online hiking blogs, about new communication technology, and about myself. It’s not your typical hiking blog with stunning images of mountain scenery, or tales of ego-stroking accomplishments.  Instead, I offer you an unvarnished account of my mistakes in the hopes that it might save lives. Unfortunately, I lost my phone somewhere deep in the woods, so I can’t show you the close ups of the elk herd I encountered in a meadow below Cream Lake, or the giant trees cloaked in morning mist at my campsite deep in the forest, but perhaps it’s apropos – topics of life and death import deserve single pointed focus and reflection.

I had visited the Bailey Range 4 or 5 times previously over the last 4 summers, and completed many variations of the traverse, though I had never been down the infamous Snowfinger from Dodwell Rixon Pass.  (Note: The Snowfinger is no longer continuous, and has become much more dangerous in recent years, with melting snow bridges. I do not plan to attempt it ever again.) My plan for this trip was to hike up the Hoh to the High Bridge and then to venture further up river, off trail, on the south side of the lower Hoh canyon, a route that two kayaking buddies had completed some thirty years previously, then ford the Hoh at a wide spot, and continue up the angled ridge towards Cream Lake, and from there, follow the standard route through the Southern Baileys to Dodwell Rixon Pass and out the North Fork of the Quinault.

The day of my departure though, another friend suggested trying the north side of the river, following elk trails that he had learned about during a presentation on elk migration in the Hoh. It made sense to me, and it saved me considerable elevation loss and gain, presenting a more level route. I was also worried about fording the river, so I decided to go for it.  I hastily printed out some CalTopo maps with contour shading, and spent an hour studying them before my drive out Thursday afternoon. Not enough preparation it turns out.

I left the Hoh Ranger station at 620am on Thursday, August 30 and made it to a creek just before the High Hoh Bridge around 1230pm and began hiking up the creek, switching to the forest after a bit. I soon found myself deep in the old growth timber at 2250 feet, between a nob and the slope leading up to Cat Peak. Sure enough, the elk trail was obvious and beckoned me onward. At intervals – blowdowns, or grassy meadows, the trail was lost, but after searching up and down the slope, I would usually find the trail again.

Following the trail down a steep sandy bank into a dry creek bed requiring me to shoe surf the last ten feet, I lost all sign of the trail exiting the far side and found myself in thick brush.  Twenty minutes of thrashing through smaller trees – probably recently established after a fire – I emerged into a spectacular glade of giant old growth firs. It was five o’clock and time to camp after over ten hours of hiking and fifteen miles behind me.  I was in my sleeping bag by 7pm after a hearty vegan dinner and felt well rested the following morning. After breakfast, I hoisted my pack at ~730am, and continued to follow the elk trail, but the trail only lasted about ten paces and then disappeared. I was at the edge of the first of several wide swaths of slide alder, growing at the bottom of huge avalanche gullies funneling off Mount Carrie, 5000 feet above me.

Devils club.

It would take me an hour to travel the next 300 hundred yards, crawling in the air, fighting my way through a horizontal barrier of alder, sometimes descending into creek beds, often pausing in a desperate search for the path of least resistance. It had rained lightly the previous evening, the leaves were wet, and in no time I was soaked from head to toe.  My body’s engine was humming at full power though, so I wasn’t cold – yet.

After a few more slide patches, I eventually arrived at a narrow creek, cut deeply against a steep ridgeline. At first glance, I saw stones that offered the possibility of a dry path hopping across, but upon closer examination, the black rock was smooth, slick and obviously very slippery. There was no alternative but to wade through the creek, choosing my foot placements carefully to avoid a fall, grabbing a small tree trunk and hoisting myself up the steep opposite bank.

The ridge was beautiful – giant firs and cedars in terrain that looked like folded pie crust. The USGS topo map gives the false impression of one singular ridgeline, when in fact it is much more complex terrain. The folds in the earth were 50 to 100 feet high, very steep on both sides, with the gullies running at a slight angle off my desired route, requiring me to hike up and down through steep waves of rock and turf. I could barely make out the light of the sun though and with my map and sense of direction, my guesses fortunately proved accurate. Around noon, there was a moment of clearing and I could see the large gravel bar on the Hoh a few thousand feet below. I was nearing the edge of the large valley defining Cream Lake Creek.

I quickly emptied my pack and draped my tarp and some wet clothes over a bush, but the sun disappeared as quickly as it arrived, so I stuffed it wet back into my bag and continued up the valley, arriving at what might have been a large lake earlier in the season, now a huge bog. At one point, I sank up to my knee in mud. I rounded a bend and there came suddenly face to face with an elk cow, her large eyes fixed upon mine. We looked deep into each other’s spirit for several moments which seemed to transcend time as we experienced our mutual connectedness on a small planet spinning through infinite space. I slowly approached, thinking she might show me the path; she trotted off though and shortly thereafter, several of them were in full flight, a thunderous sound. In a clearing below me, the giant bull bugled to the herd two or three times. As much as I hoped they would show me the path up to Cream Lake Creek, they moved off in the opposite direction and I lost the trail again.

Soon I found myself at Cream Lake Creek, which is where I made my most critical miscalculation. Unfortunately, one of the maps I had hastily printed out cut off the last little bit of Cream Lake Creek below the lake. I pulled out my phone and opened up the USGS map for Mount Queets – but I could only guess at what elevation I was at. My guess this time was wrong! I ventured off at a 90 degree angle from the direction I needed to go.

The helicopter arrived at around dusk, only ~ two hours after I had put in the call. In my interview with the SAR coordinator the following morning, I gained some perspective on the dangers of helicopter rescues in the mountain. When someone signals on a SPOT device, SAR have no way of knowing whether someone has a mortal injury, perhaps bleeding uncontrollably from a fall, with broken bones, or is in a less serious situation like mine.  They have to assume the worst. And in my case, that meant sending a helicopter into the mountains at dusk with a double cloud layer. Any mountainous terrain is dangerous flying territory for a helicopter. Limited visibility makes it even more dicey. He suggested that if I wish to continue to backpack, get rid of the SPOT which has an inherent communication limitation described above – it only gives a location with no information. He suggested the Garmin inReach which allows one to text with SAR, adding a layer of safety for everyone.

I waved my wide brimmed white hat from side to side in a wide arc at the helicopter and after a few minutes they circled directly overhead. It was clear they had spotted me. The SAR coordinator commended me for signalling them. (I briefly considered staying in my sleeping bag to preserve body heat). This gave them enough information to reason that I would be okay until morning, not requiring a dangerous extraction at night fall.  I intuited as much and snuggled back into my sleeping bag in an effort to stay warm.

Curiously, although I had not drank any water for hours, I continued to pee through the night, using one of my water bottles so that I did not have to get out of my sleeping bag and risk lowering my core temperature in the night chill. By morning, I had urinated four times, each time filling up a 12 ounce water bottle.  According to Chinese medicine, the emotion of fear can adversely affect the kidneys and bladder. In retrospect, I think I was in a mild state of shock. However, I realized the importance of staying calm and present, focusing on my breathing and did not allow my thoughts to wander much, occasionally reciting mantras of protection, and contemplating various points of Buddhist wisdom regarding the illusory nature of the seemingly inherently existent self.

In today’s online social media hiking blogosphere, backpacking enthusiasts are often inspired by stunningly beautiful images of mountain scenery and imagine themselves in those places, often resulting in their venturing into the wilderness unprepared. Advertisements for communication devices give one a false sense of safety, leading people to believe that with the touch of the button, they will be rescued from any mistakes or unexpected circumstances they encounter – without always realizing the extensive physical and mental preparation required for backcountry travel, or the potential dangers that SAR personnel may undergo in order to rescue them.

Although I did have extensive experience backpacking alone in the Bailey Range, and was in peak physical condition, I had never been there in anything but sunny conditions with good visibility. My maps were inadequate. I failed to fill my water bottles at Cream Lake Creek, thinking I would save myself a few pounds and then refill when I reached the lake. Then I would cook dinner, warming up my core temperature. But I never arrived at the lake – no water, no dinner, and suddenly I was cold, hungry, lost, tired, out of water. I still had energy bars, but it was the heat of cooked food, and water that I really needed.

The search and rescue personnel were high trained professionals, but also very kind and compassionate. They first asked me whether I was injured, and then offered me Gatorade, chips and water, before helping carry my gear to the helicopter on a bench a few hundred feet higher up.  I was feeling the effects of dehydration, light headed and easily winded on the twenty minute scramble, pausing with my new companions to graze on bushes loaded with fat, sweet blueberries.

They risk their lives on a daily basis to help others. Let us not venture into the wilderness unprepared and increase the inherent risks of their job. May my mistakes offer you a sobering reminder of the ever-present dangers (and rewards) of venturing into the wilderness. May all beings be safe and protected. May they make wise decisions that bring them long term happiness and not harm to self or others.

4 Comments

  1. Jordan, I do not envy your experience. But I thank you for writing about it so eloquently.

  2. Thanks for sharing your harrowing experience. If you were to do this trip again, what would you do differently?

  3. Lars – other than the switching from the SPOT to the Garmin inReach, and making sure my maps were adequate, I can’t say. So much depends upon the weather conditions, one’s energy and inspiration in the moment, and listening to one’s intuition.

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