Friday, January 1, 2016

Day 124: Emergency! Emergency!!!

July 9: I woke up early and it was a beautiful day for hiking! We hadn't entered the infamous White Mountains as of yet, but the mountains were already getting tougher and more strenuous. Practice, I would tell other thru-hikers, for what was to come....

For the first time, I met a heck of a lot of southbound thru-hikers. I'd guess that I passed about 20 of them during the day, and I chatted with a few meeting the first one who said they had actually summited Katahdin. I'd been seeing southbound thru-hikers throughout Vermont, but all of the ones I'd talked to had skipped the top of Katahdin because it hadn't opened yet. Now I was getting into people who had started after Katahdin had opened for the season. For them, the hard stuff was now behind them.

The trail was rugged, and by the end of the day, I was getting pretty tired. My goal was the Fire Warden's Cabin at the top of Smart Mountain which would have put me at just over 20 miles for the day--my first 20-mile day in over two weeks! I thought I was about a half hour away from the end when I reached a viewpoint and could clearly see a firetower off in the distance at the top of a mountain. #*@&! It looked like it was hours away, but I knew that's where the trail was heading. It was rather dispiriting. I thought I was closer than that.

I pushed on, and the trail became even more difficult even including a section with steel bars driven into the rock to make going up easier. Somewhat surprisingly, I reached the fire tower about a half hour after I first saw it. I thought I was a half hour away--until I saw the fire tour and thought it looked a lot further away than that! It's a little surprising, sometimes, how far and fast a person can travel on foot.

The fire tower was closed because it's no longer considered structurally sound, but from the signage around it, it looks like they want to find the money to fix it up again rather than just tear the whole thing down.

Nearby is the Fire Warden's Cabin--presumably where the guy manning the fire lookout tower lived while it was in use but was now turned into a shelter for hikers.

When I arrived, there was only one person there: Milkshake. I'd toyed around with the idea of cowboy camping nearby rather than inside a dark structure, but I felt a couple of drops of rain and decided to set up camp inside. The only thing I hate more than a dark shelter is sleeping out in the rain! I was surprised to see that Milkshake had set up his tent inside of the shelter which I didn't think was very considerate, but it was a huge shelter--expected to fit 12 hikers, and it was just the two of us there. I knew of one other person that I had passed who planned to camp there as well, but I wasn't aware of anyone else behind me who planned to hike this far and given how late in the afternoon it already was, it seemed unlikely that the shelter would be very crowded. I didn't say anything about his setting up the tent in the shelter, although I still thought it was an inconsiderate thing to do.

Once I laid out my groundsheet and set up camp, I went back to the patio where it was brighter to cook dinner and chat. I wasn't out there very long when I heard an alarm go off, and Milkshake pulled out his smartphone to turn it off telling me it was to remind him to take his medication. He pulled out a big ziplock bag full of prescription bottles with a comment that it sucks to be old, but he had had a heart valve transplant (or something--I don't remember the specific details, just that it had to do with his heart) and now he has to take all these medications for the rest of his life.

I'm glad he was still out here and enjoying life, but at the same time, I hoped that didn't mean he might die in his sleep during the night either. I really didn't like the idea of waking up next to a corpse in the morning. But he had also hiked from Georgia to Hanover the year before--nearly 2,000 miles of trail experience so I figured he knew what he was doing.
A few other hikers soon arrived, including a mom and her son that I had passed much earlier in the day and had thought they were hiking in the opposite direction so I was rather surprised to see them. It was totally an assumption on my part about the direction of their hike since I passed them while they were stopped on the trail. I hadn't stopped to chat, however, because I accidentally caught the mom relieving herself near the trail while her son was running off the trail to the shelter's privy.

The mother and son were named Ultimate and Eleven, although Eleven was actually 12 years old. He got the name when he was 11 and was camped at a shelter where everyone tried to convince the caretaker to not charge extra for him because he was "only 11." 

After a few people had arrived--and I was as surprised as Milkshake about all of the people suddenly showing up--Milkshake decided to take his tent down which I agreed was a prudent idea.

Milkshake said he was going to get water, so he took a water bottle and left down a side trail. The water was from a spring maybe a five-minute walk away, although I hadn't gone down there myself. I had enough water in my pack that I didn't need any more.

And I didn't think much of it at the time. More hikers arrived--far more than I would have ever guessed. The shelter was actually filling up! Where did all of these people come from? I'd done over 20 miles, but they all did even more than that over some fairly rugged terrain.

It wasn't until about 9:00pm in the evening, as it was starting to get dark, when one of the new arrivals asked about the person who had set up their camp in the corner of the shelter.

My ears picked up at this. Milkshake hadn't returned yet?! I hadn't checked the specific time he left, but I figured it must have been around 7:00... maybe 7:30 at the latest. The water was only a five minute walk away. He should have returned by now. He should have returned over an hour ago! With all of the other hikers now milling around, though, I had completely overlooked the fact that he had failed to returned--not that I was supposed to be keeping track of him.

But I remembered him waving around that big, plastic bag full of prescription drugs and his comment about the surgery on his heart and had a sudden vision of Milkshake keeled over dead at the water source. It seemed unlikely that he'd have gotten lost--the water was just a five minute walk away and I knew he'd hiked from Georgia to here. It seemed unlikely that he could get lost so badly on such a short section.

"We need to look for him," I announced to everyone. "Right now!" Then I told them about his medical condition and that he had merely gone to get water nearly, but that was two hours ago and the fact that he hadn't returned was a very, very bad sign.

Someone suggested that maybe we should call 911. It wasn't a bad idea--and at the top of the mountain, one of our phones was bound to find some sort of weak signal--but I suggested that we look for him first. We really didn't know what kind of problem we were dealing with yet and out in the wilds where we were, emergency personnel wouldn't be getting here anytime fast. We had to be the first responders!

In my head, I was frantically working out what might have happened to him. My first, immediate thought was that he was dead by the side of the water. But he could have had some sort of medical emergency that disabled him and left him unable to get back to the shelter. Or--which I considered unlikely given his hiking experience--he could have gotten lost. Dead, injured or lost. None of which were happy scenarios. He had walked out of the shelter with nothing but the clothes on his back and an empty bottle of water. It was now getting quite dark and looked like it would start to rain at any time. Even being lost without any of his gear could get him killed from hypothermia. This was bad.

Of course, the best scenario would be that he took a nap next to the water and we'd find him sleeping, he'd wake up, and walk back to the shelter. Nobody really believed that was likely, though. No, something very bad had happened--and until we went out and looked for him, we wouldn't know what it was.

The last person to see Milkshake was Eleven, who had walked down to the water with him. The first water they saw was from a slow, shallow spring, and Eleven told us that's where he got water from but that Milkshake continued further down the trail hoping to find water that was running a little better and that was the last time he'd seen Milkshake. Eleven got his water and returned to the shelter.

A couple of other hikers had went down to get water during that time, and we quizzed them if they had seen anything strange or suspicious even though it seemed unlikely. If they had seen a dead body on the side of the trail, wouldn't they have mentioned it already?

When you see something like this, it just doesn't make you feel very safe as you cross on the unbroken log, does it? =)

So we're all discussing this in the shelter as I work to get some shoes and socks on my feet and put on my fleece jacket. I slipped my smartphone into a pocket, just in case, and put a headlamp on my head. I was ready to search for Milkshake.

Ultimate (Eleven's mom) and Mac joined me for the search and we all headed down towards the water. None of us said it out loud, but we were all thinking it: We're looking for a corpse. We're going out in the dark, in the woods, looking for a corpse with headlamps and flashlights. If this were a horror movie, the audience would be telling us to stay in the shelter. Don't go out! Only an idiot would go out and separate from the rest of the hikers!

But we had no reason to believe there was a serial killer in the woods either, so the three of us left to look for Milkshake. Ironically, none of the three of us had been down to the water before so we were all walking into unknown territory, although others who had been down there described what we should expect.

We soon found the first spring--more like a seep that looked like stagnant water than an actual stream--but there was no sign of Milkshake. We hadn't expected to find him right there, however. He'd have been difficult for other hikers who got water to miss if he was laid out at the very first pool of water, and Eleven had told us that he went past it looking for better water.

But at this point, we needed to keep our eyes peeled. The search for Milkshake really begins here.

Being as dark as it was, our headlamps and flashlights didn't pierce very far through the trees. We could see clearly maybe 15 feet on either side of the trail, but presumably, if Milkshake just keeled over, he'd be close to the trail.

We continued along the trail, seeing nothing. A few minutes later, we found a small stream trickling across the trail. It had a good, strong flow. If Milkshake was looking for a good place to get water from, this would have been it. He should have been somewhere between that initial, stagnant water and this stream, but he was still nowhere to be seen. What the hell happened to him?

I wanted to follow the creek upstream in the unlikely event that Milkshake had done the same--to be as thorough as possible in our search, but the other two women didn't think that was a good idea. The trail also continued going down the mountain--it wasn't just a trail to the water source, but an actual trail that led to who knows where. Somewhere off the AT and outside of the scope of our guidebooks. Maybe he went further down the trail? I wanted to look a bit further down the trail as well, but I couldn't search two places at once and I suggested we split up. They go a bit further down the trail--maybe five or ten minutes--and I'll follow the water source upstream.

They really didn't like the idea of us splitting up--especially with me going out on my own, but I assured them that I'd be okay. I had a headlamp and a cell phone which I could call for help with if I needed it. (I didn't tell them that I hadn't checked if I got a signal.) But it was just a short way and they'd know exactly where I'd been looking.

We split up. There wasn't an actual trail that led up the creek, so I bushwacked a bit through the brush and fallen trees, working my way back uphill and eventually to the original stagnant-looking pond. Still no sign of Milkshake.

I started to head back down the trail again to catch up with the girls and help them search the side trail, but they were already heading back up saying that it didn't look promising. Mac asked if we should call 911 now.

"Yes," I replied, "we really need to call 911. But let's get back to the shelter first."

I figured any search for Milkshake wouldn't get started until the morning when it got light again and that he'd be stuck outside all night. Which was no small concern because now it was started to sprinkle and he literally had nothing on him but the clothes on his back. He might not be dead or injured yet, but he might not be able to survive a cold and wet night. I thought about maybe walking further down that side trail--maybe for a half hour or so in an attempt to find him. I didn't want to get caught out in a storm during the night without my gear either, though! By morning, though, I hoped there would be a lot of boots on the ground searching for him.

When we got back to the shelter, I asked if Milkshake had unexpectedly arrived while we were searching for him. We doubted that was the case, and sure enough, he was still missing. I wanted to search Milkshake's bag and get a real name for the guy. Calling 911 to report that "Milkshake is missing" might sound like a prank!

Beast pulled out her cell phone and called 911. I started emptying out Milkshake's backpack looking for any information about the guy. I found his headlamp--not a good sign if he was still out in the woods in the dark. I also found his smartphone--another bad sign since if he had gotten lost, he wouldn't even be able to call for help assuming he was somewhere with a signal. And there was his big bag of medications--which clearly he wouldn't have deliberately left behind since he needed them to live.

What about the hikers?! What about me?! Maybe I should start wearing a tracking collar just to be safe....

We were all listening on Beast's side of the 911 call and her answering questions about where we were located (on Smart Mountain, at the Fire Wardens Cabin along the AT), the hiker who had gone missing and explaining our search for him.

She stopped talking for awhile, and eventually looked back up at us. "They found him."

We were all a little puzzled at this. "What do you mean that they found him? We just reported him missing!"

She didn't seem to know what was going on either, but put up her hand to signal to us to be quiet as she listened into her phone.

The story eventually emerged that Milkshake had, in fact, gotten lost during his hunt for water. We still weren't sure how that happened--it seemed fairly straight-forward and we had no trouble finding our way to the water in back in the dark with our headlamps. We were, quite literally, at the top of the mountain. Just go uphill! If you're going downhill, you're going the wrong way. How did he get lost?

But in any case, he did get lost, badly so but managed to find someone living in some sort of off-grid cabin who took him in for the night. Because he was lost and knew he'd eventually be reported as such, they called 911 to report that the "missing" person had already been found, so when we actually did report him missing, they'd already knew about him and that he was safe and taken care of.

Well, we were all greatly relieved to hear that he was doing well and was okay. For about an hour there, however, we had quite a scare going on! Presumably, he'd have to hike back up here to retrieve all of his possessions. I stuffed everything back into his backpack and Ultimate was going to write a note to leave with his gear in the morning to not remove it since he would be coming back for it soon.

I headed back to my sleeping bag, staying up an extra half hour to write down all of the details of the evening in my journal while it was still fresh in my head, but it took me a long time to get to sleep after that as the events of the night replayed themselves in my head.

The Trapper John Shelter had a chimney nearby!

The privy at the Trapper John Shelter might, perhaps, be the most comfortable of the entire trail!
I didn't stop to see Bill Ackerly, although I heard he wasn't there at the time I passed by.

The trail is getting rough!

Bad weather is rolling in....

You know the trail is tough when....

Smart Mountain lookout tower was closed due to structural problems, so there won't be any views from the top today.

When I arrive at a shelter, I'd always take a photo of it for use on Walking 4 Fun. So I took this photo of the Fire Warden's Cabin when I first arrived. Little did I realize when I took this photo that it might be the last photo ever taken of Milkshake, and it might be needed by the authorities to determine what he was wearing when he was last seen!


7rxc said...

While I'm only starting to Letterboxing, I've been outdoors quite a while including long stints with various SAR groups... I just retired from my team for the last 9 years and have yet to reconnect yet. I just mention that to qualify my comment for now.

This story for Day 124 is a great insight into what happens quite often to outdoors people. And does so from several perspectives (provides insight that is) in relation to people and their reactions. I have to go read it and digest it. I like it so much I'm trying to figure out how to use it as a training aid (after talking permission of course and trading some further comments) for both searchers and subjects alike. More on that later.

For now I'd like only to give my usual advice to people I talk to about this.

If you are an outdoors person at any level of experience consider this.

Locate and contact your local SAR team, they have high expenses and are almost always self funding volunteer groups, so first thing is SUPPORT them financially.

While you are in contact, ask about taking a Ground Search training course. We didn't worry about whether someone would join and stay around... just taking the course orients people to the problems involved with searches and the methods, as well as the reasons we do things the way we do. Most people who ask usually find the time if possible and become members... but it isn't true that most teams require that for the course since it is pretty basic stuff and you would probably know most of it anyhow...

I've been following the blogs and one thing I've noticed especially in this one was how taking notes can really help... things like real names, descriptions and such.
Eleven had one of the most important things in my book... he had the last point seen and the direction of travel... good job on that part.

I hope to get back here or elsewhere after I dissect this more... I want to compare it to our pre search information gathering requirements... still there is no doubt that the decision to ACT was was correct as High Urgency... based on age, person alone, without medications, dark with weather degrading and so on... anyone of which would trigger that level of response from most teams... experience counts, but not much if the subject is unresponsive..

Anyway I had to say something in the short term and there it was. Glad it worked out and thanks for the informative descriptions in the blog.

Doug 7rxc

Mary said...

Reading this just verified for me why I could never hike alone or with another directionally impaired person. My husband has a built-in compass (well, he was in the Boy Scouts!) and has tried to teach me about orienting myself outdoors. I'm hopeless because I'd get lost/disoriented in my hometown of 5,000 people! I can also get lost indoors which happened at work one day in a large hospital with a new addition! You'll never encounter me hiking so thank you Ryan for these virtual hikes!