I was staring at this view, trying to capture the changing colors of the sky in the reflections on Angel Lake, when the sounds of shouting cut through the tranquil silence. I looked around me, but even though I was only a minute or two walk from the campground below, I was the only one in sight. The shouts came again, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. It was just sounds, clearly human, but I couldn’t make out any words. I couldn’t see the source of the sound, but I was sure that something wasn’t right.
I suddenly felt very alone and frightened at this beautiful spot where I had hurried to minutes earlier to try to score an award-winning photo. Was I hearing things? Was I mistaking voices across the lake for shouts from the campground behind me? What if campers were just messing around and yelling at one another, how could I know that someone was in trouble when I couldn’t actually understand what they were saying or see who was calling out?
I walked quickly down the trail that heads up and around the lake to the left, the only trail I knew about that headed in the direction of the sound. As the trail narrowed and headed up the hillside I could still hear shouting and it was getting louder. I picked up the pace, my heartbeat quickening and my mind racing through possible scenarios. It was about 30 minutes until true darkness and I had no idea what I was running towards. What if I was running right into a bear encounter? I was quickly trying to sort through my options in my head — no one knew that I was up here, I wasn’t equipped for a serious hike in the dark, the only thing I was carrying was my camera, … how could I help without endangering myself and others?
I went as far as I felt was safe, to a rocky steep part of the trail where I had a better view of the lake. I still could not see anyone up ahead, but there was a large boulder between my position and where the sound seemed to be coming from. I stopped, cupping my hands around my mouth and shouting “Hello” in the direction of the voices. The voices continued, not seeming to notice my voice, but finally I was able to make out one sentence, “Justin, stay where you are!”. That was the proof I felt I needed that this was definitely an emergency and I should find help to search for the people who were out of sight, but still yelling in the fading light.
I hurried back down the narrow trail and then broke into a full out run when I reached the wide path around the lake. I stopped first at our tent site to tell Jay what was happening and that I was going to alert the campground host, Bill. My next stop was the host’s trailer, where I found his wife. She stopped Bill before he headed out to make the rounds in his truck. I shared what I had heard, being careful to separate out the facts from my assumptions. It was going to be dangerous for anyone to head back up that trail after dark, and I didn’t want to be a source for misinformation. Bill had hiked that trail everyday for the last several weeks and said he would try to find the source of the voices. I felt reassured that he was going up, more prepared than I was. But I was also worried for him, going up alone, armed only with a flashlight, just a volunteer in charge of the campground, not a trained first responder. What events had I just set in motion?
As Bill got his light and prepared to go up the trail, I went back up to the lake with binoculars and a flashlight. Unfortunately it was becoming darker with every minute and I couldn’t make anything out on the opposite side of the lake. All I could do now was wish Bill well and wait for him to come back.
About 45 minutes later, I heard and then saw a police car winding up the mountain to the campground. A few minutes after, a fire truck, then an ambulance, then a search and rescue unit. I was filled with a mix of relief, fear, and concern. I hadn’t seen Bill again and at first I worried that maybe he hadn’t come back and his wife had called in the rescue team. I went up to the staging area and was relieved to see Bill talking to the search and rescue guys, who were assembling harnesses and climbing gear. It was finally clear then, that the voices I had heard had come from hikers in distress and that at least one of them was going to need to be carried out of the rocky hillside in the dark.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I found out the whole story. Four teenagers (3 guys and a girl), probably local from down in the valley, had been hiking. They were ill-prepared, not carrying much, and hiking late in the day. The girl, who was wearing flip flops, had lost her footing and fell halfway down the mountain, injuring her leg badly enough that she could not get back up. Bill, who turns out to be a very fit 68 year old, had managed to find two of the boys before it got dark. Having previously worked for the police, he was actually a well trained first responder and was very smart, giving one of the boys a lantern to hold and telling him to stay put so the rescuers could find them again. He took the other boy with him to help inform them and guide them back. The third boy had climbed down to where the girl was stuck. Bill then called in the accident and guided the rescue team back up the trail since he knew the way. The girl was finally carried off the mountain around 1 am. If it hadn’t been for the efforts of all involved, all four teens would probably have spent the night on the mountain, at 9,000 feet elevation, without any supplies. They could have suffered from hypothermia or sustained further injury trying to self-evacuate.
This incident brought back a lot of memories from our own rescue from Death Valley in March. It also got me thinking a lot about what it requires to take action, especially when there may be personal risk involved. And of course, about the role of volunteers in community. Bill and his wife are spending their summer volunteering as campground hosts at Angel Lake. Usually that involves restocking the pit toilets, collecting fees, and enforcing campground rules. But on this night, Bill was called on to use all of his unique background, knowledge and skills to lead a rescue effort at 9,000 feet. And the rescue squad that he guided up the mountain, they were almost definitely a volunteer squad full of trained young men from the local community of Wells down below.