The climb to West Lake was harder than David expected. Despite a decent night’s sleep, a solid hot breakfast and decent morning weather, he started losing the mental game that backpacking demands we play. The elevation was affecting his breathing and tiring him out. His pack felt heavier than it should, he lost his appetite and didn’t force new calories in to replace the ones he spent. David was drinking water, but not enough. The snow drifts he encountered were deeper and softer than he cared for. But he was getting closer to his destination, so he pushed ahead.
David’s GPS guided him when he lost the trail through snow and trees. The area was all scree and without a clear trail to follow, every step demanded caution and focus. Eventually he crested the last rise and looked down into the basin for West Lake. The far slope had several feet of snow all the way to the water’s edge. The area was all snow, rocks and trees. There weren’t any obvious places to camp. The temperature was dropping. The skies had darkened, like his mood. David was disappointed and tired.
It was still early in the afternoon, but David didn’t want to go back down to Green Lake. So he found a patch of rocky somewhat level ground just big enough for his tent and set it. There was little dirt, so David used rocks and sticks to anchor the tent and fly. Just as he finished, it happened. Snow. At first soft flakes that melted as soon as they hit his jacket. Then larger round pieces. They were like hail, but with softer edges. Like Dippin’ Dots. Dippin’ Dots were falling from the sky, but without all the cool flavors. David later learned this kind of snow has a name – Graupel. Kinda neat reading about it in a warm hotel room. Not kinda neat living in it, not eager to be snow camping. David was prepared for low temps or even rain. He wasn’t (mentally) prepared for snow or freezing rain.
Still, David had warm clothes, a rain jacket, rain pants, 20 degree bag and a dry tent all set up. David put all of his clothes in the tent so he had plenty of layers, secured his bear can, covered his pack and hunkered down. His plan was to shelter in place and hike out in the morning. It was all downhill, all the way to the trailhead. No problem…or so he thought.
Oh wait, problem: David had no appetite; the thought of food made him want to vomit. He had a liter of water, and was too tired and angry at his own situation to get more, so he started rationing it, knowing it would have to last him until sometime the next morning. Thankfully he had enough mental energy to throw his Sawyer water filtration system in his sleeping bag with him, so it wouldn’t freeze, along with his fuel can. David pulled an updated weather forecast from his Bivy Stick and knew what tomorrow looked like. Snow until midnight, low of 29 degrees, 26% chance of snow around 6am, but temps would rise above freezing around 9am. No big deal, he thought. He had warm clothes and it’s all downhill. Just get through the night, stay warm and dry, and all is good.
And mostly, it was. His Nemo Hornet 2P tent was probably not designed to carry the weight of snow, but it did just fine. The fly sagged under its weight, but not so much that it touched the walls or collapsed. At one point he got out for nature’s call, and saw it was holding a few inches of snow rather well. Impressed, he climbed back inside and watched a movie to pass the time. After the lightning and thunder (1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000, that one was pretty close!) passed, the graupel turned to regular silent falling flakes. The sun set somewhere in the world and night fell. David drifted into a fitful sleep, dry and not freezing so things were looking okay!
The next morning he woke to a frigid 28 degrees, but the snow had stopped. While David still had no appetite, he forced a few bites of an RX Bar down. It tasted like paste. He drank some water and didn’t vomit, and contemplated getting more water, but the edge of the lake was ringed with ice. He knew if he fell through the ice trying to get water, he’d be in a very bad situation with no one to help him. David packed everything and started carefully making his way across the snow-covered rocks. It was unnerving not being able to see the terrain under the snow and David was in constant worry of twisting an ankle, or worse, falling and breaking a bone.
David’s GPS app guided him because there was no sign of the trail. Everything was covered in several inches of fresh snow, but all he really needed to know was to go down. He had been telling himself all night “shelter in place, tomorrow is all downhill, just get below the snow line and walk to the car.” But as he made his way through the fluffy white, he looked out at the valley and saw that everything had been covered in snow. Green Lake was covered in white. From his vantage point, his fuddled brain saw only snow and determined there was no snow line. It didn’t dawn on him that the valley only received a dusting, and it would melt by the time he got there. David only saw white, and just like that, the seed of doubt was planted.
David kept sinking as he walked, and more than the few inches that had fallen in the night. He wasn’t following the trail; he had wandered into areas he had seen off the trail on his way up, areas of snow in perpetual shade that wouldn’t melt for maybe another month. On his way up they weren’t a concern. They were “over there somewhere.” Well, now he was “over there somewhere” too.
He was either sliding on the snow or sinking into it up to his ankles. Then mid-calf. Then to his knees. Eventually to his hips. David was expending huge amounts of energy to go 20 feet, crawling out of snow pockets.
As he made his way down, back towards Green Lake and eventually the trailhead, he noticed a theme to making his way across a steep slope of snow: sink or slide. His feet either sank into the snow or slid out from under him. As he slid, disturbing the top snow, chunks would go sliding down the slope. In his calorie and sleep deprived mind he started thinking of a mini avalanche. I knew the snow wasn’t that deep, yet somehow, he didn’t know the snow wasn’t that deep. Struggling mentally and physically, going 20, 30, 50 feet, stop, catch his breath, exert himself again. David looked up and the peak above him was shrouded in cloud. He looked ahead, down the valley towards Bridgeport, his ultimate destination, and the sky was not blue. It was dark gray and moving towards him. He saw more snow in those clouds. He saw vanilla Dippin’ Dots in those clouds. And as hard as it is to admit it, being an ice cream lover, David did not want any more Dippin’ Dots.
David was tired, dehydrated, nauseous, short of breath, calorie deficient, and not thinking clearly. He had about a quarter of a liter of water and plenty of food on his back but lacked the will to eat it. Having a soaking wet tent on his back but lacking the will to stop and set it up. All he could think of was “I need to get off this mountain. I do not want to spend another night on this mountain.” Never mind it wasn’t even 9:00am, his head wasn’t clear enough to register that he had TEN hours of daylight left. David had plenty of time to move bit by bit down the hill but didn’t know that. He had mental tunnel vision. He was so focused on the perception that he needed to get off this mountain that he couldn’t see that he had plenty of time, and all the resources he needed, to get off the mountain. Instead, David was stuck in a loop. “Get off the mountain. But I don’t have the energy to get off the mountain. But I need to get off the mountain.” Nothing else mattered. His mind had shut down. The feedback loop had started. The seed of doubt was growing. And as he crawled himself out of another waist deep snow pocket, made his way to a stretch of rocky trail before another snow drift, he got lightheaded and this time the tunnel vision wasn’t mental. David sat on a rock, chest heaving, and looked up at the sky and everything narrowed in. He felt like he was going to faint, or maybe did but only briefly, because then it opened back up and he hadn’t fallen off the rock. And the very next thought was, “Oh shit.”
Up until that point, David believed he would make it. It was difficult, it was a challenge, he didn’t want to deal with it, but he knew he had the knowledge and tools to make it. He had warm dry clothes and protective outer clothing. He had food. He had a stove. He had a water filter between his shirts and belly, keeping it from freezing with body heat. There was no reason David couldn’t make it off that rock, until he almost passed out on that rock.
That bit of tunnel vision changed everything. It was the first time the situation went from “not ideal” to “potentially dangerous.” David thought if he fell and hit his head on a rock, or broke a leg, that would be a game changer. And that thought grew and grew. In a matter of moments, it was all he could think about, “Do I call for help now, while things are still actually not life threatening, or do I push on and risk making the situation worse?” On the one hand, David could probably make it out with nothing more than chapped lips and a good story. On the other hand, he could push on, and put himself in a life-threatening position with a broken bone (or worse). And being solo, he didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of, or catch him if he slipped, or go for help if things turned truly bad.
A few years ago David took a two-day Wilderness First Aid class. Of the many things taught, one of them is that being in the woods, 911 doesn’t work. There’s no six-minute emergency response time. There aren’t any Paramedics a few minutes away, a hospital a few minutes more. Backcountry rescues are measured in hours, not minutes, and in bad cases days. David had a dilemma: request help now, under good conditions, but not dire need, or wait until there was dire need, but conditions were potentially no longer good.
David looked at the gathering clouds and was concerned they could bring more snow. More snow would make potential rescue operations more difficult, and likely more dangerous. The longer he waited, the less daylight there would be. Nighttime rescues are inherently more risky than daytime rescues. They would have his GPS coordinates, but even with that information, finding him would be easier in daylight. David was actually on the trail, in a place where he could wait on rocks instead of directly on snow, an arguably better location to hunker down. While these thoughts floated through his exhausted, clouded mind, hiding in the background was that mantra: “I need to get off the mountain, but I don’t have the energy to get myself off the mountain.”
Months ago, David had started looking into a GPS locator beacon for the backcountry. Last summer (2020) there were massive wildfires all over California, Oregon, and Colorado. In California, a group of backpackers were caught in the blaze; thankfully they were near a resort, where they were able to take shelter until helicoptered out. David thought if he were caught in a wildfire while backpacking, what would he do if he couldn’t get to the trailhead, and his car, and escape? A satellite locator device seemed like a pretty good insurance policy in that kind of situation. After researching half a dozen options, he settled on a device with two-way text communication capabilities. A satellite tracker would allow for critical information about his situation to be communicated to rescue teams, so they know what they were getting into. It allowed up to date localized weather forecasts to be pulled while backpacking. It also allowed for two-way text messages to be sent to anyone, so if something came up worth noting, like wanting to spend an extra day somewhere, people wouldn’t worry. David picked the Bivy Stick.
David took the Bivy Stick on this trip to test its features. He had owned it for less than a month and did not expect to be in a situation where he would even remotely consider using the SOS feature of his satellite emergency device. But that’s why Bivy Stick is worth having – in expected situations, it’s a luxury, but in unexpected situations, it could be a life saver. Out of everything that had happened so far, the tunnel vision is what pushed David over the edge, figuratively. Rather than wait for it to push him over the edge literally, David decided to push the button and ask for help.
With the satellite texting device, David was able to do two important things. First, he was able to alert his wife to the predicament. David knew from the Bivy Stick manual and sign-up process that if he activated the SOS feature, the monitoring service, Global Rescue, would likely call his emergency contact, and so he didn’t want that to be a surprise to her. Second, he could let Global Rescue know exactly what his situation was, so they could arrange the best assistance. Some personal locator beacons cost less, have cheaper plans, and don’t require a cell phone for communication. David had looked into them, and yes, they can alert someone that there is an emergency at some set of coordinates, but without additional information, authorities have to mobilize for a worst-case scenario, potentially activating resources that aren’t truly needed for your rescue, which could perhaps make them unavailable for someone else who truly does need them. Also, it can cause rescuers to take unnecessary risks (think: flying in bad weather) just to determine the nature of the SOS. With a two-way communication device, authorities would know how best to manage a rescue while using the least number of resources necessary, keeping additional rescuers and equipment ready for a different emergency, or lowering the risk involved in getting you the help you need.
In David’s case, help came swiftly, more swiftly than he expected. Due to the two-way communication capability of the Bivy Stick, they knew he was conscious, breathing, uninjured and not in imminent life-threatening danger. They knew that getting to him by foot was a completely acceptable, low risk option. Within about four hours, four rescuers from the Mono County Search and Rescue Team found David on the trail. That means they got the call, rallied, drove out the dirt road to the trailhead, and hiked about four miles uphill very quickly. David admired their stamina and appreciated their help. They asked him questions, gave him Gatorade and a dried banana. They took the load off his back and redistributing his gear to carry it down the mountain. They let David know much of the snow between their current location and the parking lot had melted, and the way was now mostly clear of snow drifts. Most of all, they gave David confidence. They were friendly, non-judgmental, and professional. And they were all volunteers. They helped David walk off the mountain on his own two feet, and while still exhausted and short of breath and needing frequent stops on the way down, they reminded David how much of being in the wilderness and hitting “the wall” is in your head. It’s a mental game with physical consequences. It’s important to fuel the body with calories and hydration, but it’s equally important to fuel the mind with positive energy.
David admits that he doesn’t like camping in the snow. It’s not for him and he’s known that for a long time. So, when faced with a snowstorm on the top of that mountain, David was already losing the mental game and saw the rest of the weekend as the thing of dread. Remember, David had everything he needed; warm clothes, waterproof layers, a 20-degree bag, shelter, food, a stove with fuel, and access to water. He also had the know-how to protect his gear, keep his filter from freezing, keep his fuel can warm for better performance, and keep his water bottle from freezing at night. All David was missing was a positive attitude telling himself to view the experience in a positive light. But a negative attitude towards snow camping, and preconceived dread shaped everything that came after. It was a key factor behind the nausea and loss of appetite, which led to fatigue, which led to not having the energy to get down on his own.
And that’s the key lesson David takes away from this experience: a negative attitude breeds negative outcomes. That and take a piece of technology with you into the backcountry – just in case you find yourself at 10,000 feet with Dippin’ Dots falling from the sky, or worse.