Adventurers' Club Publications

SURVIVAL BY THE SLENDEREST OF THREADS by Paul MacCready, #959

Thanksgiving Night, November 25, 1993

Many reasonable choices followed a stupid initial decision. Not only were they unable to overcome the consequences of that first misstep but, in fact, cumulatively contributed to worsening the problem. Thus the stage was set for the terrifying, critical moment.

The steep rocky face featured ledges and footholds just good enough for the descent to continue. The route to the left looked a little safer, but then deteriorated into impossible, by which point there was no possibility of crawling or climbing back up. Strong exertion was required to stick where I was and, at first, there seemed to be nowhere better to go. Then a glimpse of the situation to the right provided a slight hope for avoiding a certainly fatal 70 foot fall. Some 20 feet to the side I could make out what seemed to be enough of a ledge to sit on -- to rest, to remain on -- and call for help or, perhaps to be the gateway to access to a safer descent route.

I edged along the narrow ledge, with gloved hands hanging on to every possible hold. I was exhausted, legs and arms aching and trembling with fatigue, and one foot and calf were cramping. The sand on the crumbling and rounded rock ledge that served as a hand hold was letting my right hand slip -- and the left hand could not secure a hold for another few feet.

I found a tiny, fragile bush, its branches creating a ball no more than a foot in diameter, with a flexible stem that was rooted into the sand crack a the back of the ledge, so I grabbed its stem and, exhausted but putting strength I didnt know I had into arms and legs, was able to stabilize for a few seconds.

I was breathing hard from exertion and fright and suddenly my pulse meter started beeping -- meaning over 160/minute. The precarious handhold provided just enough support to let me reach the narrow hold with my left hand. Then I continued a terrifying 15 feet to the sitting ledge I had spotted, sat down carefully and started calming down. A thought going through my mind was that the success I had just had was improbable. Considering all the troubling factors, four chances out of five, it would not have worked -- with death the outcome -- but it did work.

The sitting ledge was small with a floor that tilted down some 20 and ended within about 5 feet in an undescendable steep rocky face. The only option was rescue. I experimented with sitting positions, and found that a flat, empty water bottle placed inside my otherwise-empty belly pack could be used as a marginal pillow to ease the sitting which was on a tiny 2 inch wide ledge in the sitting corner.. My legs were shaking with fatigue because they were continually used to support my sitting position with back to the wall.

Later they would be shaking continually from this and from cold but, for the time being it was sunny and warm, about noon, and my little "domicile" was relatively protected from the wind. I tucked my pants legs into the sock tops to conserve heat, and kept on my jacket and yellow cap with a bill and a sizable neck skirt. Later, when cold became a problem, the jacket's connected hood was used, and I loosened the laces on my jogging shoes to permit maximum circulation to my feet. My thin, polypropylene gloves stayed on all the time and, surprisingly, were always adequate.

I now need help

I began shouting for help, repeating the shouts every 5 minutes. This is a lonely, remote area, where the trail from the Josephine-Strawberry Saddle east to Strawberry Peak is narrow and, in places, very steep. I was worried whether anyone would be hiking instead of feasting on Thanksgiving afternoon but, about 1:30 p.m. I could see distant figures moving and I was able to get a response. A great relief! Some 10 people heard my calls between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m., and three responded, showing that my calls were received and apparently the emergency understood although I could not make out their words.

The hope was that they would report my plight expeditiously to the Forest Service or Sheriff or Search and Rescue team. It would take at least an hour's walk back down to the road and Forest Service station. A helicopter might then be dispatched quickly to size things up and then to organize a rescue. There was a chance of resolving the situation before dark. The earliest there could possibly be a response was about 3:00 p.m. but by 4:00 p.m. nothing was happening. In fact, I saw no small planes or helicopters prior to dark.

Since it was then too late to reach my position on the ground down from Strawberry Peak (with very long ropes) or up the ravine (with pitons to make my 70 foot descent feasible) from very difficult trails from above and below, I was resigned to spend the night on the ledge. An unpleasant option but, at least my safety was now primarily in my own hands, not hanging on the slender thread of the chance location of a tiny bush. I subsequently found out the report to the Montrose Search and Rescue headquarters was not received until 4:30 p.m., too late for beating sunset.

Facing the cold night

Time passed slowly. The sun set around 5:20 p.m. and from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. I was very cold, shivering and worrying that the cold might get worse through the night and cause hypothermia. I knew the nightly low at home in Pasadena was about 50F and presumed that here, at about 4000 feet higher, it would likely remain above freezing. Later I learned that the low on nearby Mt. Wilson was about 42F.I imagine it was the same here, at lower altitude but with some cold air drainage flow. I recalled that a friend of my sons had died from an unexpected night exposure when rock climbing in Yosemite, but he was slender, in an exposed spot, and scantily clad. His stouter companion survived. I also thought about Linus Pauling who, some years ago, had gotten into rather similar circumstances, having to spend a cold night stuck on a cliff by the ocean in northern California. He made out fine.

My need now was to stay awake. I knew I could, because I am a sporadic sleeper who occasionally stays awake all night (but inevitably sleeps through concerts and most movies). Here, a momentary dozing and I could slip off the slanted ledge. The evolving scene was beautiful from this perch. Both Catalina and San Clemente Islands were visible in daylight. At night, the city lights twinkling, airport traffic at LAX, and car lights on the short sections of the Angeles Crest Highway could be seen. An insect, or frog, kept up a long note modulated at about 7 hertz and occasionally a bird could be heard.

Stars and a 7/8th full moon quantified the (slow) march of time. The moonlight herded the moon shadows across the ravine floor. For an hour or more prior to dawn the moon had set. I knew this would be happening from the geometry of the partially illuminated moon, and the fact that a rare full eclipse of the moon would be taking place three nights hence. The reflected lights of Los Angeles against high, thin clouds kept the darkness somewhat at bay.

By 7:00 p.m. the shivering from the cold was less intense, either because I was adjusting to it, or the air was warming slightly and the wind was low. However, shaking continued all night long, from a combination of cold, terror, and the need to use leg muscles constantly to maintain a safe position. Of course I thought about many things -- serious things such as life and family and friends and that our first grandchild (fathered by our oldest son Parker) was soon to arrive. I began to be a bit recriminatory about how and why I got into this most dangerous circumstance of my life. I worried about what might take place Friday for the rescue. I did not think I had the stamina to get through another sleepless, stressful night.

I wondered how my absence would affect others. My mind began to work on product design and writing some papers for AeroVironment (more to make time move than to help business). It even crossed my mind that the `key man' life insurance AeroVironment owned on me might turn out to have been a shrewd investment by AV. It was a bit amusing to remember that issuers had raised the premium when they found I did some paragliding and scuba diving, and would not relent when I said I would forego such adventures if the premium were to be lowered. Did they sense that I might take to subject to terminal stupidity?

Actually most thinking was related to survival: continually shifting position, fidgeting, heating my legs by friction rubbing with my hands which also warms the body through the exercise, monitoring my "energy consumption" by looking at my pulse meter (85-115 per minute most of the time, with the lower values as the morning arrived), and organizing my "diet" of one tiny sugar wafer every 4 hours and a sip of water every 2 hours, consuming all supplies by Friday morning when I assumed, or at least hoped, that rescue would take place. From 4 to 6:00 a.m. I had a few brief, perhaps 10 seconds, dreams or hallucinations which were warnings to use tricks or pressures to remain fully awake. Also, during this period I tried a risky but more relaxed position, cuddled up on my side, my head on a rock pillow. But three times I was startled into an adrenaline surge as the pulse meter started beeping, now signaling that my pulse was less than 60 per minute. This did not seem safe. Better to stay upright and alert. After sunrise there was no problem staying awake. I felt a bit stronger, my legs stopped aching, but my shoulders were aching more and my jaw ached from strain.

At 7:00 p.m. the prior night I had a surge of optimism when I saw car lights up on the Josephine-Strawberry Saddle. In another 20 minutes I saw some flashlights on the trails moving east towards Strawberry. I could communicate by shouting to the point where I knew they heard me, but my information about the location (rocky face, facing west, base of Strawberry, Im near the bottom just east of ravine) was probably not conveyed. About 9:00p.m. they had disappeared. Certainly the terrain was too tough for a nighttime rescue from the ground. But then a helicopter came, with a searchlight, and probed the area. On three occasions I was directly in its light, waving my yellow hat. On the second such pass I heard a distorted message from the loudspeaker instructing me to show something white. Consequently, on the last occasion I opened my jacket to expose the white shirt (from my previous days business attire). I thought of taking it off and waving it, but such maneuvering on my precarious perch was too much for me to handle at the time. Not contact was made and the helicopter departed to the west. It was reassuring that my plight was being taken seriously, but disappointing that the search was mostly far from my location, indicating that my earlier shouts about position had not clarified the situation.

It was light by 6:30 a.m. and by 7:00 the sun was up although I was in the shadow of the steep mountain. I still worried about what would happen next. It was obvious that the authorities knew of my plight but not my exact location

Were they aware of the seriousness of my situation? Could there be some problem requiring another night? Although I was feeling stronger than before, now with no muscle aches or cramps, I was still shivering from the several causes, and obviously depleting energy reserves. Examining my insecure shelf from which crumbly rock bits continued to be dislodged by my movements, I noted that the brick-sized rock I used as a foot stop was not solid -- a 3/16" gap appeared where it was slowly separating. The whole ledge reminded me of tooth fillings coming loose. I did some exhaling into my jacket. It is amazing how much heat our exhaust air throws away.

I explored the route down, to the limited extent I could without leaving my cubbyhole, thinking if I was not rescued today, perhaps my odds might be better to try the descent. I reckoned it to be a 50-50 shot, success or death. The odds didn't appeal, nor did the prospect of a second night on the sloping ledge, so I focused just on expecting a rescue this day.

At 7:10 a.m. I saw and heard several deer hunters on a slope to the west. I called to them, and they could certainly hear me, but there was no response. I suspected they spoke only Spanish. They stopped communicating among themselves and were stalking a deer. I gave up on this new contact. By 7:15 two small helicopters had appeared in the area but were probably transporting people to back country tasks. They certainly weren't looking.

About 7:30 two other small helicopters appeared and a big one (a Sikorsky with one of its doors off for rescue purposes). They circled the right area and one, presumably from a TV station, located me first -- with my jacket off so the white shirt would show. I waved wildly the light green jacket and my yellow hat. The large rescue helicopter then saw me, and came down, presumably to size up the scene to facilitate plotting a safe maneuver. Then it rose up about 50 feet. A man was then lowered down to me bringing an extra looped rope in order to harness me. The whole scene was so moving that I was about in tears: the huge, majestic mechanism with its low-frequency thumping noise, effecting my rescue, and all under perfect control.

As the dangling man was edged nearer, the downwash blew up so much loose debris I could not see clearly. I later learned that the lowering maneuver was performed away from my spot so as to minimize the effect on me. The man was then positioned expertly and ably at the edge of the ledge and we connected the yellow ring under my arms and back to the loop onto which his own ring was connected. He exuded confidence and competence, and I had no worries. He told me to put my arms around him to keep me in the ring, and to make sure that I was safe, he put his arms around me. (Viewing this on television later I noted his arms were not around me most of the time, but of course my grip on him was tight. We moved out from the slope and were slowly cranked up (rotating several times) into the helicopter. Once inside I disconnected and was instructed to sit. The rescuer went back down to retrieve my "pillow," the empty, thin plastic bottle in the blue belly pack. I didn't know if this was to recover my trivial property or to keep trash off the mountain. As the helicopter carried me away, the crew worried about my health because a night of exposure and stress is sometimes a severe jolt to the system. In a minute or two we landed close to the Josephine-Strawberry Saddle. There were perhaps three cars and about eight people there, all of whom knew who I was. It turns out I had been reported by a hiker at 4:30 p.m. the previous night. My car, registered to AeroVironment, had been located in the evening, parked by the highway at the start of the normally-closed fire road and close to a Ranger station. The Sheriff's office ran a check on the license and, at 9:45 p.m., reached AeroVironment by phone. Jeff Bradley, who was working late on this holiday, answered and told them I was the driver and lived in Pasadena near the Rose Bowl.

When my son Marshall returned home at 10:30 p.m. he found a voice-mail message from the Sheriff's office asking, ominously, for any relative of Paul MacCready. He called them and heard that they knew my situation and would send in the Sheriff's helicopter shortly after dawn. Marshall called the friends who knew of my absence and were worried. He did not call my wife Judy, who was visiting Parker in Washington and due back Friday afternoon, because she could not have helped and would only worry.

In early morning he was at the helicopter landing spot. When a rescuer on the ground was inquiring about my health and saying I looked a bit pale, Marshall was able to reassure him that that is the way I look normally. Ditto the red nose. I then convinced them the bloody ear was from a stick wound from the hike toward Strawberry. We were driven down to the highway and Marshall and I drove our respective vehicles home, where I followed the wise advice of the rescuers to take it easy as this sort of exposure can be very stressful.

Because I had to stop for gas, I didn't reach home until a bit after 8:15 p.m.. Voice mail messages said the rescue event had already been shown on TV. I was amazed at how many people watch TV news in the morning. Many calls came in, but I was too fatigued to engage in any conversation. By Monday things were back to normal except for a somewhat changed philosophy of mine that now involved more appreciation for the present and less concern with trivial annoyances.

An Explanation

All of the preceding does not explain what I was doing on that perilous rock face. The explanation is simple. I wanted to take a moderately strenuous hike and selected Strawberry Peak because I knew the early portions of the route and my hiking book called it "moderate" (but with some special warnings about following painted arrows where hand-hold climbing was needed near the top).

The particular trip from the Josephine-Strawberry Saddle east atop the ridge is spectacular, and in a few early places very steep, sandy, and difficult. En route there are some huge bramble thickets through which you push on a tiny trail -- if you have on long pants and a strong jacket. I couldn't help thinking that Brer Rabbit would feel safe there. As one reached Strawberry Peak the "trail" gets steep, and sandy, mixed with rocks -- and no discernible arrows. I went up only parts that I could also be comfortable coming down. When it was getting too steep for practicality I started down.

Not remembering my exact route up I apparently started down about 15 feet further to the south, and from that start each decision point looked like a slightly more southerly route would be easier. I followed this lure, thinking there would be a way around back west as I got lower. But, by then the die was cast. Steepness, with sand and rock mixed, precluded climbing back up, and the only way was down. There was a long way where coarse sand dominated but there were still small rocks. This could only be handled sliding, and it destroyed the seat of my pants. Once, when steadying myself, my hands landed squarely on a small yucca, and got 5 stabs, one of which left a needle under the skin but which I was able to pull out.

Then came the rock-dominated part, very dangerous and looking as though the east edge would be best until the east edge turned into impossible and I edged west and this story begins. All in all there were a number of reasonable decisions luring one into an intolerable situation that could have been avoided only by some better judgment before negatives became the only options.

One other time in my life a series of reasonable choices resulted in a dangerous situation where it was luck whether I survived or not. This was the last day of the International Sailplane Championship in France in 1956. Along the prescribed route, the clouds, wind, and mountains conspired to create a region, into which I blundered, of giant turbulent eddies that tossed the glider around without the pilot being in command.

Obviously I somehow got out of the blind valley; the other American pilot did not get out and crashed. He was seriously injured but lucky enough to escape with his life. The events in France were so traumatic they contributed significantly to my retiring from serious glider flying. I've been more cautious in every undertaking since 1956 until Thanksgiving 1993.

Conclusion

When the helicopter began the rescue operation my emotion, of relief, was indescribable. The life-threatening challenge was at a happy conclusion. The reward was to be alive. Twice before I had experienced this emotion. Once was when I escaped the valley in the sailplane flight cited above. The other was when we found that son Tyler, then probably 14, who had disappeared for over an hour hang gliding low over Guadulupe Dunes in deteriorating weather, was discovered safe on a tiny rock 150 feet offshore.

After running out of any landing opportunities on the rocky shore, miraculously, skillfully, he had been able to come down on this minuscule spot. With spray splashing over him, and too small an area for him to disconnect and try taking the glider apart, he waited, we found him, and the rescue was straightforward. The emotion of relief is stronger when the worry about your child's safety is over than when you extract yourself from a life-threatening situation.

What does one learn or feel from this experience?

1) Danger is stupid, if it can be avoided by caution. Perched on my ledge I kept thinking about what Dorothy asked of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. "If you had a brain, what would you do with it?"

2) Always let people know where you are hiking in case you don't return. (I had told Marshall in this instance.)

3) "Do not hike alone" is conventional wisdom. In this particular instance, the early incorrect decision was so innocuous that it could have easily lured a compatriot into joining me in the whole predicament. I would have hated to have anyone experience what I did and, in this instance, two might have been more dangerous than one.

4) Carry some equipment along always; whistle, food, compass, map.

5) Appreciate the wonderful job rescue teams do. There are many different groups. I am trying to track down all who helped me, and see if somehow we can help them.

6) I have discovered a way to lose 5 pounds on Thanksgiving instead of gaining 5 pounds. Also my persistent and annoying low back problem has completely gone.

7) Such a long, stressful experience does reduce your reserves, and you need to rest to build them back up. (Friday afternoon I could only do 2 pushups rather than the usual 15. Shoulders continually ached. I avoided almost all phone calls for 3 days to help with relaxing.)

8) The experience of the 20 hours perched on this magnificent viewpoint was wonderful, if you could ignore the terror and stress. I would love to spend 20 hours again, with family and friends, near here where civilization merges with nature, comfortably watching the sun, moon, stars, shadows, birds, city lights, cars, etc. as day evolves into night and night evolves into day.

9) For future aerobic exercise I may avoid mountains and safely use a stairstepper in the living room, surrounded by pillows in case I fall off.

10) Again, danger is stupid. Be extra cautious if there is a chance you are gambling with life.

11) It's great to have a future.

Addendum

There is continual pressure to delete the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Rescue Helicopter, as a budget-saving move. I may be biased but I think this helicopter, and its crew, is an asset the County needs, and I will try to help keep it in operation. In any case, being plucked out by helicopter, with its superb crew, substituted for what would have been a very difficult and perhaps too late ground rescue involving many people and much time.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's office operates a Sikorsky SK58T, as Air Rescue 5, out of Long Beach airport. (Aero Bureau, 4324 Donald Douglas Drive, Long Beach, CA 90808). Thursday evening before 10:00 p.m. the pilot was reached by pager, and picked up the information that a 68-year-old gentleman was stranded, had been in voice communication, but was not located. Plans were then made for organizing at the airport at daylight, about 6:30 a.m. for a 7:00 takeoff, to reach my location about 7:20.

Since November 1973 this rescue unit has been in operation. It used to be active 7 days a week, but last June budgetary realities curtailed it to 2 days a week full activity plus 2 days a week crew on standby. Activity turned out to be so needed that standby reverted to regular duty, and the unit now operates every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We'll find out next July if funding permits this unit to continue to exist, and to operate 7 days a week. I hope this does happen, for the sake of many people.

For the record, for this rescue Sgt. Randy Bresnik was pilot, Dave Martin co-pilot, Sgt. Harry Jones crew chief, and Deputy Steve Peterson the man lowered on the cable.