We quickly unpack only what will be needed for the night, move the bear cans back to their sleeping spot and pitch the tent, then get inside to lie down. “I’m sorry I put you through all of this son”. “ It’s not your fault dad. I couldn’t handle the part of the switchbacks”. “I’m proud of you son. You’ve done well”. I slipped backwards into my flannel shirt, as usual, and lay down to rest. My son starts to rock back and forth and cry. I thought to myself, “every time he breaks down, something good happens. Maybe something good will happen”. He lies down and I give him a supporting rub on his shoulder. Suddenly, I hear something rustling outside in the distance. My son hears it too. It sounds like footsteps. “Dad, what’s that”? “Move over, let me see”. I look outside the tent door to see two orange shirted men walking toward camp. I bolt out of the tent and hear, “ Fresno county sheriffs, would one of you happen to be named Jim and the other happen to be named Jason”? “Yes, I’m Jim and this is my son Jason and we are so glad to see you guys”! I gave them a quick synopsis of how we ended up in this situation and choked back tears as I told them, “I couldn’t take my son back up those switchbacks. He was so scared. I couldn’t do that to him. We had to sit tight and go overdue”. The sheriff looks away for a moment, then looks at me and says, “I think you made a good decision”. He said that I had no idea of how many people do the wrong thing. They’ve often come across empty abandoned tents. Several times, it took them all day just to figure out what trailhead a hiker actually left from. “Your wife had complete details on your itinerary. You were smart to stay put once you were in trouble”. Has anyone contacted my wife”? “Your wife is here”. “She’s here? Where is she? Prather? Fresno”? “She’s at the trailhead”. The reality of what my wife has been going through hits hard. The sheriff informs me that their communication lines are down and the plane has landed for the evening. I asked him what plane and he said they’ve had a communication plane circling the area since mid-Saturday. Suddenly, the drone of an engine that was haunting us made perfect sense. I told him I thought I was going mad. The sheriff asked if I had a fire. I told him that the place was a tinderbox, so we elected not to have a fire. He said, “well we’re going to have one and when we’ve set-up camp. We’ll invite you both over for some hot chocolate and a hot meal. He informed me that there were three others behind them who would be coming through soon. I told him that I’d been hiking these mountains for 30 years and have never been to my own SAR before. I told him about a trip many years ago where one of my hiking partners broke his foot in Ionian Basin, but Ranger Mortgensen happened along within the hour and call for a helicopter the next day to evacuate him. He said “Randy Mortgensen”? “Yes, he was hiking up out of the crowds below for the evening when he came upon us. The sheriff called back to his partner and said, “Hey M-----, (I don’t know that names are appropriate, so I won’t) he met Randy Mortgensen”. The reply was, “It must have been a long time ago”. “Yes, it was 1985”. I thanked them again and told them we were going to rest in our tent for a while. He said he’d come back when camp was set-up and we would have some food.
We retreated to our tent and soon saw the other three pass through our camp. “We’re going home tomorrow Jason”. “I can’t wait to see mom. I miss her. I even miss my sister”. I never thought I’d hear those words from my son. I could hear quite a bit of movement from the rise between the wash and the river bank and soon, one of the sheriffs came over and invited us for some grub and hot chocolate. We grabbed our sierra cups and spoons and headed over. To my surprise, there was a nice camp area where our lonely river bank once lie. They had moved logs to make sitting benches and right in the middle, a small inviting fire. We cozied in and drank coffee, hot chocolate, then they offered us some dinner. One of the sheriffs started to list off the choices of Mountain House dinners available. I whispered to my son to choose the chili mac, he won’t be disappointed. My son wolfed his down and went for more hot chocolate. Then they passed around a baggie of Motrin and Tylenol PM. They all took something from the baggie. My son wanted to know why we never took freeze-dried dinners when we went backpacking in the past. I guess I’ll have to re-think my position on freeze-dried foods.
We chatted for quite a while, then I asked if anyone was able to get reception in the interim. They informed me that there was no communication on any of the channels. It was going to be a long night for my family. I commented that they looked quite light sauntering along in their internal frame packs. My stuff was all relics from the ‘80’s and weighed 60 lbs. One of the sheriffs looked at me and said, “you hauled 60 lbs down that trail? My pack weighs about 30 lbs. We do this all of the time and our knees are killing us.” I told them, well, a bit more because I was carrying my son’s pack over my shoulder part of the way.” The sheriff looked at my legs. I guess to assess whether or not I had the muscle on my bones to carry that much weight. We chatted for some time, then it was time for us to get some sleep, so we excused ourselves and thanked them for their hospitality and especially, the attention they paid to my son who was quiet, but obviously in a much better space.
Morning came and I was up early, as usual. One of the volunteers came over with a small carafe of coffee and offered it up to me. I told him I’d love some as my supply ran out two days ago. We were invited back over to camp and had hot chocolate and tea. I asked if anyone could get word out this morning and was informed that they did get word out that we had been found, but lost communication before they could relay our condition. Soon, I excused ourselves to go pack up our belongings and ready them for the trip out. Everything was packed up and ready to go when the first two sheriffs who originally walked into our camp came over. One looked at me and said, “you did everything right. Your wife knew your itinerary so well that we thought she had been here before. You guys got down to water instead of trying to turn around, you stayed put when it was obvious you were in trouble. You were a huge part of the success of this outcome. I can’t tell you how many times that hasn’t been the case and the consequences turned from a search and rescue to a search and recovery.” A couple of the other guys came back from a hike and asked if we were ready to get out of here. We shook our heads yes and donned our packs. One of the guys asked my son if he wanted a helicopter ride and my son shook his head yes. He said it would be about a half-mile hike up canyon, but a helicopter was waiting. So, off we went.
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