I’m an inveterate cross-country hiker. When I go meandering, I prefer to avoid people. So I avoid trails. On four occasions, this preference has resulted in my being unexpectedly caught in the wild overnight. Only once was water a problem.
In the summer of 2001, I’d made plans to share my passion for cross-country traipsing with Pann, an old friend from college. We started up a steep hillside behind some condos out in Christmas Valley, at the base of Luther Pass. I enjoyed showing Pann the joys of cross country hiking–the wildflowers and aspen groves we came upon with no warning, the amazement when coming out on an overlook where we could see Echo lake and Highway 50 far below us.
It was a warm day, and we were both hitting our water supply pretty regularly and Pann, who was much better steeped in the theories of exercise than I, specifically mentioned the importance of maintaining one’s level of hydration. I, on the other hand, mostly just drank to keep up with him–I usually postpone drinking until I’m actually thirsty-an old habit that usually means “until I’m through with the exercise all together.” Besides, the hydration argument did make a lot of sense.
We were hardly worried about water, anyway, since we expected to spend the night at a creek on the other side of the ridge, which wasn’t more than three or four miles. By mid-afternoon, we’d gained about 2500 feet in elevation, which put us very near the 8900 foot level, when Pann, who lived near sea level at that time, suddenly said, “I can’t go any further.”
He was an avid bicyclist in excellent condition, so I was surprised.
“You kidding?” I asked.
“No, I’ve got to stop.” He began getting out of his pack.
“Okay, let’s take a break,” I agreed.
“No, I mean I can’t go any further today.” He was clearly struggling as he wrestled his sleeping bag from the pack.
We were on a slope of maybe forty degrees and I thought I could see the top of the ridge, finally, about 300 feet above us. We’d been looking for it for at least two hours and I was really beginning to feel good about the slope’s apparent leveling trend just ahead. I knew sleeping where we were would be difficult, at best, but no amount of reasoning with him could muster enough energy to gain another foot of elevation that day.
Altitude sickness is a serious problem for those who come to the high elevations and attempt vigorous activity like this, but this was the first time I’d seen it up close. By offering to move his gear, I finally talked him into repositioning downslope about fifty yards where the ground was more level. He was asleep within moments of our relocating.
The rest of the afternoon and evening until dark I scoured the topo map, double checked our location by triangulation as well as I could with my compass, given the limited field of view I had from the side of a hill in a forest, and pondered our situation.
We had few supplies, as it was to be, at most, only an overnight. Left between us was one grapefruit, two energy bars, and only about a pint of water. There was no signal for the cell phone.
Water was the real problem. We had counted on getting to the creek before nightfall, an easy goal, or so we’d thought. I was thirsty.
Whether Pann would be any better in the morning was iffy, at best. If not, he couldn’t make the distance to the creek. I wished we’d gone easier on the water on the way up that hill. Going back the way we’d come was also too long, and besides, we knew there was no water in that direction. The Tahoe Rim Trail was not far off our scheduled path and cutting down it to Highway 89 was clearly our best plan, but I knew nothing about the reliability of any of the water sources we would encounter that way.
I was really wanting that big gulp I usually indulge in at the end of a long period of exercising.
Once we got to the trail, though, we should be O.K. since we’d be able to bum water from other hikers.
If Pann could make it to the trail.
If he couldn’t, I’d have to hike out on my own and get help. No other option. If that’s how it went, he’d need all the water we had left.
I was very thirsty.
Too f-wording bad. If Pann wasn’t better in the morning, he was in real danger of dying of thirst, for there was no way of knowing when rescue would get to him. It’s not easy to find an exact spot in the wild once you’ve left it.
(to be continued next Tuesday)