Some bad decisions were made while backpacking The Lost Coast and a buddy ended up alone, in a storm, after dark, fording whitewater and climbing cliffs with no gear. I should have known better, but at least we got a good story out of it.
The day started cool and misty, then a cold torrent began falling from the sky. The wind picked up, temperatures plummeted and we decided we wanted to spend Christmas Eve in a sad bar rather than a cold, wet tent.
My car was parked at the north end; our best guess was 15 miles away. Ty's super dog had decided to go on independent operations and Ty and Wes had to go search for him. We decided they would do that, then walk to a crossroads down below the mountains. I handed them my backpack and figured I'd fast hike to my car, then pick them up. I said three hours to get to the car, but figured two in my head. Ty and I regularly run the same distance through mountain trails in less time.
Wes insisted I take my headlamp. I couldn't imagine why, it was 11:25AM; six hours before dark.
Matt didn't have his camera with him during any of this, so what you see here are photos shot by Ty Brookhart when the weather was a bit better.
Jogging at an easy pace, I made the first four miles in 25 minutes. 11:50AM, baller. At the car by 2:00PM, no problem. The next four I covered in the same time. 12:15PM, already halfway. But now there were four trails to choose from, none of which were on that pitiful excuse for a map and none of which were labelled. Three of them were overgrown.
So I took the one with regular signs of passage, broken branches, boot marks and trampled brush. 10 minutes in that turned into a washed-out culvert. 20 minutes in and I was scrambling across a fresh landslide, clinging to the side of a mountain — sketchy, but not scary. 45 minutes in I had to do the same, while climbing across a huge downed tree — scary, but not dangerous. 60 minutes in and I can see the clear sky through the trees, there must be an overlook coming up. Rounded the corner to find a giant washout, with nothing but a landslide beyond. Harden up Matt, we've got to be getting close. Crossed that only to realise there was no more trail beyond. I'd just spent 60 minutes crossing an obstacle course, only to have to turn around and do it backwards. Now it was dangerous.
It was now 2:30PM and I couldn't find the trail that was supposed to allow me to avoid the coast. Low tide wasn't until 7:00PM, so I might have to wait it out before I can pass. New plan: bomb down Randall Ridge, which can't take more than an hour, then up the coast and at the car by 5, if the tide is favourable.
The ridge took two hours of mixed running and fast hiking. It was starting to get dark, but hey, I had my headlamp. I could hear flowing water raging in the distance.
Finally hit the flats and the trail is faint. Walk through a campground and exit into the roiling waters of a flooded creek. I lost my knife a couple days previously, but Ty had generously gifted me his Leatherman Charge TTi to replace it. I used that to cut a sturdy walking stick and plunged in, the water coming up to my waist and doing its best to push me over.
Get across, but now I'm cold. And there's game trails, but no clear hiking path. Whatever, onwards towards the beach, I know where I need to go now.
Another landslide blocks my path where they creek turns and boils; I have to cross it again. I make it across, but now I am tired and almost fall.
There's two-hundred feet of landslide on the south side and a thirty-foot embankment on the north. I'm not getting through on the south, so I cross the creek again. The water's up to my waist again, but faster now and, halfway across, I stumble. I go in as deep as my forearms before catching myself.
Now it's up the embankment, the top six-feet of which is nothing but mud. Scramble up, hand over the edge. Every core workout I have ever done on a hotel floor while hungover was worthwhile; I make it. All that took me an hour and now I am very cold. The final strands of twilight are disappearing as I start north on the beach.
It's covered in rocks, from fist size to car size, most slick, some loose. If you want to test your agility, try and move across the beach on the Lost Coast in the dark.
A commotion on the cliff, 100-feet above me turns into cormorants, all diving towards me, clipping me with their wings and crashing into the rocks next to me. Terrifying in normal conditions, but exhaustion and hypothermia turn this into a powerful reminder that cormorants suck.
I finally get off the beach and back onto the trail and just keep telling myself: "Ocean left, mountains right, just keep walking." I last saw Ty and Wes eight hours ago and I am still not seeing the trailhead anywhere close. Just keep walking.
Finally, there it is.
"Hello, I am Travis from the Petrolia volunteer fire department. Are you…"
"I am who you are looking for, Matt Talbott. Good to meet you. Sorry for dragging you out on Christmas Eve."
"It's what we do. Are you ok?"
"Very tired and very cold, but I will be fine."
Editor's Note: What can we learn from this experience? There were a few mistakes made here. It's easy to make those when it's wet and cold and you're tired and hungry. But I'm still responsible for making them.
- We shouldn't have sent Matt off on his own. In these conditions, he could easily have fallen and hurt himself. Even a twisted ankle would have meant a night spent unprotected in abysmal weather. Sticking together means someone's always there to help if you get hurt.
- We underestimated the effects the storm was having on the landscape around us and predicated Matt's journey on a best-case scenario. Even with maps, you don't necessarily know what conditions will be like over unknown terrain.
- Taking chances outdoors in dangerous scenarios like fording fast moving water or climbing a muddy cliff is how you get yourself killed. Matt made it because he's an athlete and, at 6'5", a mountain of a man, but he took some sketchy chances regardless. Any time you're falling back on your fitness and athletic ability to make it through something, you are close to the metaphorical edge. Avoid predicating your safety or the success of a trip on those two things unless it's an absolute emergency. Our bad decision making turned this into an emergency unnecessarily.
- Our big mistake though was just underestimating the situation. We're three confident, experienced, tough guys and we forgot for a second that nature is easily capable of hurting even us. We've all been places that, on face value, are more immediately apparent in their danger, but even here in some simple mountains, with temperatures (slightly) above freezing, there was real danger. We shouldn't have forgotten that and we should have been more prepared for it. We will be next time.
- I think the one thing we did do right was calling in Search And Rescue when it became apparent that Matt must be having trouble. It sure was embarrassing to have to do that, but had Matt been laid up somewhere with a broken leg or other injury, we maximized the chances that he'd be found before succumbing to hypothermia. The time to call SAR isn't when you're taking your dying breath.
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