On Monday, November 2, 2015, winter arrived in Yosemite. By early afternoon, rangers began enforcing tire chain requirements, and the snow plow drivers began their first operation of the winter. White stuff dusted the Badger Pass chairlifts and rain soaked Yosemite Valley. Visitors and park staff alike bundled in jackets, drove more slowly, and marveled that water was finally falling from the sky.
It’s worth noting, however, that not all park visitors found Yosemite’s first 2015 winter storm to be so beautiful. At 3:30 pm, the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center (ECC) received a 911 call stating that a 60-year-old man, somewhere on the John Muir Trail, had hypothermia and needed help. Unfortunately, the call immediately dropped. Yosemite ECC attempted to call the caller back, but Yosemite ECC was unable to reconnect with the caller. Yosemite ECC passed what little information they had on to the ranger staff.
Frigid, winter rain fell in sheets on the Valley and heavy clouds blotted out what little sunlight remained in the day. Despite these conditions, Valley rangers organized a hasty search and rescue response. Around 4:00 pm, a team of two rescuers started up the John Muir Trail. They hiked quickly, wearing rain gear and carrying headlamps and advanced life support materials. As the afternoon faded into evening and the conditions worsened, the rescuers called the ambulance and asked them to have warm IV fluids waiting. They hadn’t found the patient, but they knew when they did, he would be colder and wetter than they.
Around 5:45 pm, the patient from the John Muir Trail appeared at the Yosemite Medical Clinic’s back door. He stated he was hypothermic and requesting help. The rescuers, still on the trail, were immediately recalled, and the patient was treated for hypothermia. Most likely, the responding rescuers missed encountering the patient due to launching from a different entry point than the established Happy Isles trailhead. Because of the complex network of trails in the Vernal-Nevada Falls corridor, as well as the unknown exact location of the patient, responders were forced to choose the patient’s most probable location and start their search from there. This is why it’s most helpful for rangers to know your exact location if you’re calling for help.
After the patient was warmed, rangers learned that he had planned for a week-long trip into the wilderness. The patient, who was actually seventy-three years old, had nearly forty years of winter camping experience, having gotten into ski mountaineering in his mid-thirties. The patient stated that he had checked the weather report prior to embarking on his trip. The forecast put the projected temperatures to be in the 30s to 40s (degrees Fahrenheit) for the week. As a result, the patient, who owned colder weather gear, only packed gear for mild winter conditions.
The patient started his trip on Sunday, November 1, from the Valley floor. He spent the night at Little Yosemite Valley. Snow dusted his tent that night, but when he woke up on Monday, the snow had turned to a light drizzle. As he packed that morning, the patient noticed that his tent had gotten wet, subsequently dampening part of his sleeping bag.
The patient continued on his wilderness itinerary and began to hike towards Tuolumne Meadows. Around 11:00 am, the temperature dropped suddenly, settling in the 20s. The patient, already wet from the day’s ongoing precipitation, decided to turn around.
The patient told rangers that he’d had plenty of wretched days while winter camping and this one was no exception. He knew that he had 15 miles of misery in front of him, but he saw no other option than to walk himself out. He began his trek back to the Valley, making his way around as many of puddles on the trail as possible.
By the time he got to the Ice Cut on the John Muir Trail (just below Nevada Fall), he was soaked down to his long underwear. There, he encountered the women who would call 911 for him, but he kept walking even after she had initiated the rescue. He arrived at the Happy Isles trailhead and took a shuttle to the clinic. Once there, he took off his boots and found standing water in them. Later that night he checked into a hotel. When he opened his pack, which was relatively new and had “rain proof” zippers, he found that everything inside was soaked.
First and foremost, this situation drives home the fact that it is now winter in Yosemite. While this individual had checked the weather report and was prepared for conditions matching its projections, the conditions changed. This individual accepted this and prudently turned around, eventually not only self-rescuing himself, but taking a shuttle in order to get further medical help. No doubt, this individual’s prior winter experience helped him know when to turn around and gave him the mental fortitude to continue forward, despite knowing he had 15 long, wet, and cold miles ahead of him. Additionally, this individual did not stop and wait for rescuers to come to him, even after another hiker called 911. This got him out of the elements much faster and potentially prevented much more serious problems.
Be prepared for rapidly changing conditions. Be prepared to abandon your objectives and head back to the trailhead. Wear appropriate clothing and accept when you are under-prepared. This individual had gloves, a hat, long underwear, and gaiters, but they were all ineffective once they were wet. He accepted this and ended his trip early. Know that the fastest rescue response is a self-rescue, when doing so is safe.
Be safe and enjoy the winter season!