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Tragic Student Drowning; A Separate Student dies on Climb

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Tragic Student Drowning; A Separate Student dies on Climb

Postby kpeter » Tue Sep 20, 2016 5:19 am

My university, San Jose State, has been running a backpacking program to introduce students to the wilderness. Given the decline of backpacking among young people, we need a lot more of this. Tragically, one of the student guides--Billy Nguyen-- who had been through a year of training, drowned on Saturday while swimming in Eagle Lake. Eagle Lake is near Mineral King. The group was scheduled to camp at Mosquito Lakes.

http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/09/19/s ... erra-lake/
http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-m ... story.html

The news stories don't answer all the questions we might have. The group was more than 20 people, making me wonder about their camping permit. Some decided to swim to a rock in the lake, and when they got back, they noticed that Billy Nguyen was not with them. They sent an electronic emergency message but it became a recovery effort.

The water was 52 degrees. On the one hand, Nguyen was reportedly in excellent shape and others apparently made the swim. But anything below 60 degrees is considered life threatening. It is a common mistake that people make comparing water temperature with air temperature.
http://www.coldwatersafety.org/WhatIsCold.html

There are a number of trail reports here and elsewhere on Eagle Lake. There is an iconic rock not so far off shore with a flat surface that looks like a place one could rest. I wonder though, if on reaching it, one can pull oneself out of the water and up onto the rock, or if you would have to stay in the water and swim back to shore. Pure speculation on my part.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/howardclayton/7538069918

It reminds me that the number one cause of death in the wilderness is drowning--not falls, hypothermia (other than from water), lightning, or animal attacks. Drowning.

My heart goes out to the Nguyen family and Billy's friends. I pray we may eventually learn something from this tragedy. And I hope the two dozen other students on the trip may eventually return to the wilderness--safely--and not be robbed of both a friend and an appreciation for the wild.
Last edited by kpeter on Fri Sep 23, 2016 9:43 am, edited 2 times in total.



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Re: Tragic Drowning near Mineral King

Postby SSSdave » Tue Sep 20, 2016 9:23 am

RIP, horrible tragedy for such a young person and his family.

Trying to swim distances in cold water can be much more debilitating than people expect. Among groups visiting our high country lakes, I would advise people (especially young rowdy guys) not to challenge others to actually swim in lakes but rather allow people to simply get in briefly and if they as individuals then want to swim a bit then do so.

52F degrees is rather balmy compared to many Sierra high country waters and rather compares just slightly below average summer water temperatures along our Central California coast. I'm rather infamous when in the backcountry for regularly getting into cold water regardless of weather or time of day. But rarely do I actually engage in real swimming as an activity unless the water temperature rises up to near 60F. Just last month made a couple minute video at an 11k+ lake with a water temp in low 50s, diving off a boulder then making several crawl strokes to swim back to shore and get out. Maybe will bother to set that up as a you-tube link here some day? Likewise along our Pacific coast one will find not many people down at popular beaches like Santa Cruz actually get into the water until temps reach at least the high 50F temps. And in places in the Sierra that indeed occurs especially by late summer. One will often find larger streams at late summer flow lows warm the best versus lakes that the wind tends to upwell cold water to the surface each afternoon.

Instead my purpose for getting immersed is about cleaning off daily trail dust and sticky sweat that leaves one's skin wonderfully refreshed and clean even if one was in just seconds. And that is pretty much what I do and will suggest here that others limit their dunkings likewise. The colder the water, the faster I am in and out. In 40F degree water I pretty much look like an Olympic jack-in-the-box on steroids. Most people have experienced walking shin deep into our Central Coast surf. At first step in it is cold. But then about a half minute later, a person knees bend and suddenly feels like crumpling over.

What is going on is the cold has gone through outer layers of flesh and muscle down to the big leg bones and when they get cold it squeezes fluids within including the big nerves. Thus if one jumps in and out of cold water quickly, the cold does not have time enough to convect much into one's flesh and once getting out, that remaining core heat will readily reheat outer body layers. What one does have to endure is a period of a couple minutes of evaporating water off of skin with possibly chilly and or breezy outside air temperatures. Unless one is an utter wimp that ought not be a big deal. Later in the evening one will feel much better getting into their expensive sleeping bag and the nylon surfaces will remain clean through many trips.
Last edited by SSSdave on Wed Sep 21, 2016 4:29 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Tragic Drowning near Mineral King

Postby maverick » Tue Sep 20, 2016 9:30 am

My heart goes out to the Nguyen family and Billy's friends. I pray we may eventually learn something from this tragedy. And I hope the two dozen other students on the trip may eventually return to the wilderness--safely--and not be robbed of both a friend and an appreciation for the wild.


As does mine, and I too hope they will continue to explore the wilderness and find peace.
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Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member: http://reconn.org
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Re: Tragic Drowning near Mineral King

Postby tim » Tue Sep 20, 2016 10:47 am

How awful. I swam across Eagle Lake when we were there in summer 2015 - that was in July when the water temperature was in the low 60s. 52 would be really chilly (but I guess not that surprising for mid September) and a big contrast to the air temperature on a hot weekend. The rock pictured is really quite close to the shore (by memory around 40 feet - you could hit it with a thrown stone) - I didn't go onto it but instead swam all the way across the lake, something like 80-100 yards (I swim a lot in SF Bay and this wasn't difficult).

But the lake is pretty deep and its somewhat hard to find your footing near the edge, due to a lot of small sharp pebbles and angled rocks. There are also some sharp rock edges which it would be easy to collide with if you jumped in on the side nearest that rock (you can see some of this in the photo below). I couldn't find an easy entry and exit there so I waded out on the opposite side of the peninsula (behind me from the point where my photo is taken), which is why I didn't go over to this rock.
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Peninsula and rock in Eagle Lake
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Re: Tragic Drowning near Mineral King

Postby giantbrookie » Tue Sep 20, 2016 12:29 pm

I had received the report of this from the Seki alerts I got but did not know of all the details. It is indeed a very sad event, regardless of the circumstances. This one, however, hits very close to home because I am a CSU professor in a program (geology) that frequently takes students into the outdoors.

As far as what might have been done to prevent this tragedy I really don't know. Cold water zaps your energy much faster than many think and cold sensitivity of swimmers varies with the person. I am a former competitive swimmer but I seldom swim in high country waters because they are nearly always too cold for me (my cold sensitivity may be partly related to very low body fat). Over the years I'd look at books such as Sierra South and Tahoe Sierra and the like and see comments describing a lake as "good for swimming" (lots of comments like this in various guidebooks, too) but I nearly always found such waters too cold for me. In fact there is a remarkably high correlation of me catching a cold after my rare high country swimming events (something like 5 of 7). Anyhow cold waters are deadly to swimmers and I am reminded of a particularly horrible example from WWII. When the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst was sunk in battle in the North Sea it is reported that most of the crew (ie those not killed earlier by the shell and torpedo hits) were able to successfully abandon ship, numbers estimated at over 1000. Vessels arrived on the scene very quickly (a few minutes) because the sinking of the ship had been eminent. Only 99 sailors survived, the rest succumbed rapidly to the cold water and sank to a sailor's grave.
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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Re: Tragic Drowning near Mineral King

Postby franklin411 » Wed Sep 21, 2016 10:58 am

Not to nitpick, but just because a person dies in the water does not necessarily mean they drowned. Plenty of folks have had an accident that caused them to lose consciousness, leading to death by drowning. Plenty of young athletes have literally dropped dead due to undetected cardiovascular or other medical problems. I was reading the story of a young college-age girl who was camping at Outpost Camp near Mt Whitney (which is an easy dayhike) with her father. She was dead in the morning, and the news never covered the autopsy report so who knows how it happened.

So drowning may be likely, but if you're interested in this case, keep an eye open on the off-chance that the news covers the autopsy report.
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Re: Tragic Drowning near Mineral King

Postby limpingcrab » Wed Sep 21, 2016 2:07 pm

I was thinking something similar to that, franklin. Just seems kinda weird. And sad...
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Re: Tragic Drowning near Mineral King

Postby kpeter » Wed Sep 21, 2016 3:42 pm

franklin411 wrote:Not to nitpick, but just because a person dies in the water does not necessarily mean they drowned. Plenty of folks have had an accident that caused them to lose consciousness, leading to death by drowning. Plenty of young athletes have literally dropped dead due to undetected cardiovascular or other medical problems. I was reading the story of a young college-age girl who was camping at Outpost Camp near Mt Whitney (which is an easy dayhike) with her father. She was dead in the morning, and the news never covered the autopsy report so who knows how it happened.

So drowning may be likely, but if you're interested in this case, keep an eye open on the off-chance that the news covers the autopsy report.


"The official cause of death of San Jose State student William “Billy” Nguyen, who died while swimming with fellow students at Eagle Lake in Sequoia National Park, was freshwater drowning, according to the Tulare County Coroner’s Office."
http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/09/21/c ... -drowning/
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Re: Tragic Drowning near Mineral King

Postby Cross Country » Wed Sep 21, 2016 4:06 pm

One time I was on a trip with Mike (25yo) at Grouse Like and he told me he was going to swim out to the rock off shore. I told him if he did he would see me way more angry than ever in his life. I had a LOT MORE to say about it and he didn't try it.
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Stanford Student Dies Climbing Bear Creek Spire

Postby kpeter » Fri Sep 23, 2016 6:21 am

Sadly, there has been another student death in an unrelated incident. Stanford medical student Maria Birukova died after a fall climbing Bear Creek Spire. She was an avid climber, but fell 800-1000 feet. A brilliant student.

http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/09/21/s ... -accident/

You can read more about Maria's career cut short here:
http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2 ... ident.html

I did not personally know either of these two fine young people, but somehow this is very emotional for me. I teach students their age every day. Maria was 26. Billy was 19. Maria was from my alma mater. Billy from my current university. I'm a 57 year old man who has backpacked safely for 45 years. Somehow this does not seem at all right, that two beautiful young people just starting their lives should be cheated of the time in nature that I have enjoyed.

billy_nguyen_092016.jpg
Billy Nguyen
billy_nguyen_092016.jpg (70.93 KiB) Viewed 205 times


Birukova.jpg
Maria Birukova
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Re: Tragic Student Drowning; A Separate Student dies on Clim

Postby Cloudy » Fri Sep 23, 2016 7:20 pm

Life is about choices and luck. I am 58 and have been hiking for almost as long as you. I have made some choices that but for luck, would have ended my earthly existence. As some say, "There but for the grace of God (go I)". Peace to the both of them.
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Re: Tragic Student Drowning; A Separate Student dies on Clim

Postby giantbrookie » Sat Sep 24, 2016 8:07 am

Cloudy wrote:Life is about choices and luck. I am 58 and have been hiking for almost as long as you. I have made some choices that but for luck, would have ended my earthly existence. As some say, "There but for the grace of God (go I)". Peace to the both of them.

Yes this has been a very sad week in the Sierra. Not only did we lose these two young people, but a 50-year-old professor at Pomona was killed in a fall off of Deerhorn.

It is so true about choices and luck. I had some close calls in the High Sierra that could have easily ended my life at ages 18, 19, 31, and was in some fairly high-risk spots (without a fall or other mishap) at ages 18, 20 and 28. Now, at age 57, I see things through the eyes of a parent and a teacher (a professor in the CSU system like kpeter) and these recent tragedies hit close to the heart as I think of this from the viewpoint of losing a child, student, or colleague. Again, this is a really sad week in the Sierra and my heart goes out to family and friends close to the deceased.
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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