Last updated: September 11, 2015
If you find yourself in a helicopter over the Yosemite landscape, something has gone terribly wrong. On Saturday, June 13, at a few minutes before 10 am, two hikers ran down Half Dome's subdome to the permit check point. They reported that a female hiker halfway up the subdome was having a severe allergic reaction, including facial swelling, vision loss, and, most concerning, difficulty breathing. They reported she had eaten something she was allergic to. The rangers contacted dispatch and ran up the trail.
Let's rewind to better understand how this happened. Our hiker was headed out for the hike of a lifetime. She and her best friend were the proud winners of Half Dome permits! So they headed out early to beat the midday heat. Along the way, they wisely stopped to refuel. Her choice of snacks included an energy bar, which contained some tree nuts. The hiker was "technically" allergic to them, but had eaten them many times before in small amounts with no problem. While her doctor had prescribed her an EpiPen just in case, she had never needed to use it. (An EpiPen contains epinephrine, a lifesaving drug that reopens airways that are swelling shut due to an allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.) But hiking Half Dome is not something she did regularly and it put stress on her body that it didn't normally experience;the allergy flared like never before. Her extremities and face swelled. Her vision went. She started to pass out and collapse. But in her first aid kit, she had no epinephrine or antihistamine (e.g., Benadryl).
By the time rangers reached the scene, bystanders had supplied antihistamine, which stopped the allergic reaction. But the hiker was in bad shape and her hike was over. The rangers called for the helicopter and moved her to a landing zone, where a helicopter picked her up and transported her to the Yosemite Medical Clinic.
The wilderness can be unpredictable and it is best to stack the deck in your favor by preparing for your hike and taking the essentials. (This is also true when you're just driving around or taking short walks in the frontcountry.) One of those essentials is a first aid kit. People debate endlessly about what is or isn't necessary for a particular kit in a particular set of circumstances. But not up for debate are those medications prescribed by doctors that you must take at regular intervals or need in case of an emergency. Examples include: asthma medication, epinephrine and antihistamine, medications for heart conditions like angina, medications and testing equipment for diabetes, and any other medication you must take at a regular interval. You never know when you might be delayed due to weather, because you got lost or injured, or because the hike just takes longer than expected.
Even a 15-minute walk up to view Bridalveil Fall is too far to be from life-saving medications should you be allergic to bees and get stung. Your first aid kit won't be helpful if it's incomplete or too far away. Cell reception is too spotty to be reliable. A ranger who can help or call in more help may be miles away when minutes are precious.
No matter how short the hike or how close the car is, stack the deck in your favor. Prepare before you hit the trail. Pack the essentials. Take your medication. Hike Smart!