It was Summer, 2011 and we had ventured on one particularly long tour in the back country. For over a week, we had been exposed and free – isolated from the persistent grip of society. We were wild. And now, some thirty miles deep in the Sierra mountains of Yosemite’s northlands, we were committed to a multi-day hike out with several passes and valleys along the way.
After we broke down our temporary but homey camp near the blue waters of Smedberg Lake, we began our rise out of the valley of green and of mosquitoes that relentlessly molested. Gaining elevation and looking back, alpen glow was just beginning to kiss the tops of the crags and pinnacles watching guard over the trout laden emerald blue lake below. We were transient members of this beautiful alpine community – leaving now with clean souls.
As we approached the first pass, late in the afternoon, we passed a group of college-ish looking hikers. Of the dozen or so of them, one or two appeared to be enjoying the experience. We waved and chatted them up; we had not seen this many people outside our group for some days. Bedraggled and slow, they peered up at us. The long trek had fragmented the adventurous spirits of the outing club’s members.
“Will you all be camping up here tonight?”, the de facto group leader inquired.
“No, we are headin down the other side and down into Matterhorn canyon tonight.”
Surprised looks told us they thought it to be a long way to go still that afternoon. But we wanted to make good miles in hopes to get out of the mountains soon. Beers, pizza and showers were waiting on the other side.
As we descended through the fur and pine wooded forests of the canyon, the lure of cooking something hot to eat quickened our pace. At the bottom, we found the same spot we camped a week before; near the verdant stream channel. The sound of water and of birds echoing in the trees gently bade us good nite as the stars tracked over head from canyon rim to canyon rim.
We awoke and ate breakfast with hot coffee before beginning the several hundred vertical foot hike out of the canyon. Pushing through the conifer woods we made our way toward the top and toward the basin where Miller Lake hosted Mountain Yellow-legged frogs against a backdrop of Tuolomne area peaks rising on the horizon. At last we crested the canyon rim and below us the twisting creek faded around the bend in the valley. The Sawtooth range and Matterhorn peak, walls of earth, stood majestically at the east end. Our size, our importance, brought into question here among the slow giants of this vast landscape.
We took some pictures of ourselves, attempting to create a “photo shopped” appearance. Something so beautiful seemed to be only for dreams.
We strolled down, that mid morning, toward Miller Lake where we planned to have a light lunch.
“We actually need to survey another meadow here by the lake guys.” Steve, holding his shoulder straps in each hand and looking down.
I stepped up onto the damp meadow from the beaten dirt path. “Eh”.
This meant our hopes of cold beers and pizza that evening would have to wait another day. But as the sun was high and the birds sang on the wind, we ate our lunch on the sandy bank. After a quick jump into the cool blue waters from the granite slab above, we proceeded to survey the meadow.
With tight legs and sore backs we crawled transects: identifying, quantifying and otherwise learning all we could of the meadow community.
With packs one lunch lighter and a single night left, we left the meadow there by Miller Lake as the sun was just retreating from its zenith. The breeze stirred ripples in the water and cooled our sweat soaked bodies as we ascended toward the pass above Virgina Canyon. Atop the pass over the meadows and trees below, I found a boulder who invited me to rest. As I let the others pass and continue down, I sat there against that warm boulder in the sun. Gazing beyond the valley below and the snow laden peaks beyond, I felt the gentle touch of breeze. It was one of those days you wanted to curl up and let the landscape absorb you in sleep and take you into a dream. And the only thing to wake you is the coolness of shade washing over you. So you roll a couple times back into the sun and fall to sleep once more. And you sleep. It was one of those days. Beautiful. I didn’t want to get up and leave, but to enjoy the sun and the mountains and trees of the valley below.
But, I could not sleep all day, for the nights are not warm and the cold will leave you hollow and exposed. I rose and began the downward journey through the boulders and into the forest below. Still several miles to our intended camp, we needed to take advantage of what was left of the day.
As I followed the switchbacks through the forest of jack pine and fur I approached the sound of water running. Then, ahead and around a bend in the trail where the trees and the boulders blocked view, I could hear the sound of speaking. Speaking people, but different somehow. One voice sounded deeper than I was used to hearing. Mary, Brenna, Mara, Rebecca, Steve. That was who we were that week. And this voice was none of them. Who could it be.
As I approached the stream I remembered its slippery cobbles and gingerly crossed to avoid falling. On the other side, just before the trail faded off and right, a darkened man stood talking to the girls. His dusty Levi pants, plaid long sleeve shirt, and cattleman marked him as a packer. Up from the valley, packers guide clients through the high country of the Sierra. For enough money, one can hire them to take you anywhere you please, cook warm meals around campfires each night, and tell stories of the old days out on the trail.
After clearing the stream crossing, I walked toward the group. His mules and horses were hitched to trees off the side of the trail in a cleared area that looked like it could have been a camp. Their pack boxes lay undisclosed on the ground beneath the shade of the trees – no telling what cornucopia stowed inside.
“What you all doing out here?” His voice said he wanted to know but needed something.
“We work with the United States Geological Survey and are hiking out from a trip.”
“Government… do you happen to have a satellite phone?”
“Yeah, our crew leader has it with him.” Mara was pointing back up the trail.
Steve had just started to cross the stream, apparently forgetting the treachery of the undertaking. Cobbles were not his friend that day.
“Is that your ‘jefe’ on his ass in the stream?” Grinned the packer.
“Yep, that’s Steve” Mara laughed.
“Dammit, what the hell? Damn cobbles. Hey guys, what’s up?” Steve shaking his pants dry.
“One of my clients was bucked from her mule just down the trail. She has there 2 hours now and we can’t move her. Anytime I try she screams in pain. I’m afraid she either broke her femur or dislocated her hip. Her husband is with her now. I have sent my partner back to Glen Aulin camp to alert rangers. But I am afraid it will take too long for a rescue. Do you have a satellite phone I could use please.”
“Yes” Steve didn’t waste time with small talk.
Luckily, the sat phone’s pricey bill was current and the signal was not blocked by the canyon or weather. After several minutes of back and forth with dispatch, Steve was off the phone. A helicopter was being sent now, they new enough of where we were to locate us. All week, we had been alone. Only sounds of wind and water, trees and birds. Now, a helicopter would be landing near by in a small little side canyon above Virginia Canyon.
We walked with urgency down the trail to where the woman and her husband would be. She was reclined on a granite slab near the trail with her husband at her side. She had been drinking water for hours, trying to stay hydrated in the mid day sun.
“Hello” her mood surprisingly chipper.
“Hi, we are here to help.”
“Girls only…I need help to go to the bathroom. I’ve drank so much water and now I need to go.”
Steve and I , along with the packer walked a ways up the trail and turned the other way.
“Dispatch wants us to clear a landing spot for the helicopter and lay down a tarpaulin or something for the pilot to see.” Steve was squinting into the sky above the canyon rim.
“I have a red tarpaulin we should lay out.” said the packer.
“I’ll move rocks from the flattest part of the granite slab there above the creek.” I was eager to help with something.
While the water cascaded down the granite slabs of Spiller Creek, we moved rocks, cleared debris, and spread out the red tarpaulin. The girls were distracting the woman with stories of our trip. Considering her situation, she seemed rather in good spirits. Her husband, to our disbelief was filming most of what was going on.
“This is a bit of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Figure it is worth the 2 thousand dollars we paid for the trip in the first place”.
After we placed some small stones on the tarpaulin to hold it in place Steve and I stepped back up to our spot under the pine trees next to the trail. We waited. The helicopter would be coming any time now and we had prepared for it. The girls were giggling with the woman; stories and memories. Her husband still filming. The packer then just returned from up trail where he was checking on his stock.
“Did they say how long it should take for them?” I was beginning to worry that daylight would become an issue.
“They said it should be here within the hour.” Steve said.
We waited there above the trail under the pine trees with the others below. The sound of the creek below us spilling over granite slabs and falling downward. Occasionally a sparrow would come investigate, quietly chirping. Once I thought I heard the faint beating of helicopter blades cutting the air. We looked up toward the ridge of the canyon and waited. Still no helicopter.
“Do you hear that?” Steve perked his head up and gestured toward the canyon rim.
It took me a moment and then I heard the unmistakable sound too. Around the canyon ridge came a helicopter. White and red, with a cross on the bottom it flew over us and kept going. It disappeared up canyon over a stand of pine trees. How could it miss the red tarpaulin? It surely saw us. Perhaps it was assessing a landing area.
Then it reappeared above the trees and slowly flew back over us. Then, only about a hundred feet up it began a controlled descent. I saw the pilot’s helmet through a bubble of glass next to the cockpit. The sound of blades now was all to hear and dust began to blow and swirl around us. Slowly the helicopter touched down on the slab, there above of the creek.
Immediately the EMT crew jumped out and into action. The head paramedic, a bald man with dark sunglasses and a green jumpsuit, acted deliberately and with confidence. He was taping notes to his leg as he asked the woman questions and took her vital signs. The others wore long sleeved yellow shirts with green pants, and with their white bubble helmets looked like astronauts from some far away place. They all worked in unison and speed.
We watched now from our positions, uncertain whether to offer help or remain out of the way. Just then, the bald man in the jumpsuit very deliberately pointed to our group. Without saying a word, he motioned with one finger for one person. Mary, closest and already standing jumped forward. One of the EMTs handed her an IV bag. While Mary stood holding the IV, they continued to prepare the litter and the woman to be carried back to the waiting helicopter.
I sat transfixed, watching the team work so seamlessly. How much training and experience they must have had. Then, as I sat there imagining back stories for each of them, the bald man in the green jumpsuit pointed one finger at me and motioned me over. “Me”, I thought. I jumped up and stepped down past the trail to the group of them. They were preparing to lift her into the litter. I needed to hold the litter level as they placed a rock under it to hold it; then as they lifted her in I was to keep it from tipping. Quickly and carefully, they lifted her in and carried her to the helicopter.
Mary and I were finished helping and each gave bewildered looks.
Once the helicopter was high enough, it flew off and back around the canyon rim. We were again alone, the sound of the creek below us washing away the granite. The trees gently bending in a breeze and birds softly singing their melodies. Just as fast as it started it seemed to end. The packer and the husband returned to the animals where they would camp that night. He would have to wait til the next day to leave the back country and find his wife recovering in the hospital.
We wanted to get down to the bottom of the canyon before stopping for the night. As the day was long now, we would find warmth and cover in the forest near the river in Virgina Canyon. As we strapped our packs back on and gathered our things we prepared to move on. Each of us had left something there that day. Pieces of us that we traded for memories. The mountains and the forest and the animals were witness to our transaction.
As we began our hike down, the group of college students reappeared. Looks of relief as they too were nearing the end of their trip. We waved at them as they passed, unaware that anything unusual just happened. We didn’t trouble them with the story. To them it was just another evening hike down a canyon.