I learned some things today that I think are important
enough for me to share with you, and I hope that my experiences will help someone avoid something similar, or worse.
I am a member of your PAC, but you haven't seen much of me for quite a while because I have been hiking and taking photos with another group. I've gotten really slow at my hiking, and this other group has a lot of older guys like me (50's and 60's) and a number of people who are not regular hikers, so we go at a much more “leisurely” pace.
Today, April 8th, we went out to the Superstitions and hiked the Garden Valley trail, looped down to Hackberry Spring, and then back to the trailhead at First Water. It is not a particularly difficult trail (most would say it's easy), but it was a pretty warm day and the trip was about six miles, which is a little more than we usually do. We always start our hikes with introductions and reminders to everyone to be sure to take plenty of water. Then we distribute walkie-talkie radios to as many as we can. Today we had 21 of us, and 10 radios. It turned out this was one of the smartest things we do.
I'm usually the sweep on our hikes because I go slower and I like to stop and take lots of photos, which makes me last most of the time anyway. We often have a few who are faster and take off out in front of everyone, a bigger bunch who wander along in the middle, and a few stragglers who end up bringing up the rear. By the time my “rear guard” caught up with the bigger group at the spring, those in the lead had just taken off. This is normally not a problem, since everyone can stay in contact with the radios. Four of us lingered by the spring to cool off in the shade and enjoy some snacks after the main group left. This was at about the 5-mile mark, and it seemed like an easy mile remaining.
However, two of our “regulars” out front had missed the turn where the trail came up out of the riverbed, and they had gone at least a half mile on up the riverbed before they finally realized they were way off the mark. By then, they both had run out of water, and when one of them sat down, he started suffering from heat exhaustion and could not get up. The other had his dog with them, and she, too, got overheated and could not continue. They got on the radio and said they needed help.
Most of the main group had already gotten back to the trailhead, but the four of us at the end had just passed the point where the front two had missed the turn when we got the radio call. We had four extra bottles of water, so I took three of them and headed back to the riverbed, while the others, who were pretty tired by then, went on to the trailhead. I stayed in regular radio contact with everyone as I made my way up the riverbed, describing where I was as I walked, to confirm I was going where the two had gone. By the time I reached them, two others with water were just getting there from going around and over the hill from the trailhead. In a little while, our downed hiker was sitting up and feeling better, but we determined he was going to need more help getting back than we could provide, so we radio-relayed that we would need professional rescue.
There was a volunteer forest ranger (who is also a member of the 3H Hiking group) at the trailhead, and before long the Apache Junction Fire Department arrived with five BIG strong paramedic-types who had more cold water for us and an IV of glucose water for our down hiker, and other medical supplies to be sure we all got back safely. The trailhead group had given them one of our radios, which helped them zero-in on us and confirm they were going the right way. The dog, a dalmatian, had to be carried to the top of the hill and partway down before she recovered enough to continue on her own. A 4×4 truck from the fire department came down an old jeep road to the old ranch corral there and took “the patient” as they called him, and the dog, back up to the trailhead while the rest of us clambered up the road under our own power. Everyone was pooped, but in reasonable condition once we got back.
It all ended well, but we were lucky, because it could have had disastrous results.
What did I learn?
1. Even when you think you have enough water, when you go hiking in the desert, it might not be enough. Take more than you think you will need, because it may just save your life, or the life of someone else you care about.
2. Radios may seem like a pain in the butt to some, but they can come in really handy and may also help save your life in a crisis. We started out months ago carrying them because it was fun to banter back and forth, and quickly discovered they were good to help keep the group together while allowing some of us the freedom to go a little faster, or slower, or go places the rest of us didn't go, and still feel comfortable and safe. Today, they definitely helped us get to our “lost” hikers more quickly, and could have been the margin we needed to prevent a tragedy. Otherwise, they might have had to sit there until we all got back to the trailhead and discovered they were missing. And then we wouldn't have known where to look for them. Finding them would have taken a lot longer without the radios.
3. Even the most experienced hikers can make mistakes and get off the trail. It's better to stay in contact with the group and confirm your directions, even when you are very sure you are going the right way. Better safe than sorry. Yep. An old, weary saying, but true.
4. Dogs are not immune to heat exhaustion (this was the second time a dog on one of our hikes had to be carried). They wear a fur coat everywhere they go, and often they can't tell you when they are way too hot and having a hard time until they just can't go any farther. The desert heat can be deadly to dogs AND people, even on an overcast day like today was.
5. We all had photocopies of a map of the area the group leader had given us. This was very helpful in determining where our down hikers were and how to most directly get to them. They were able to say, “we are between point B and E on the map.”
Yes, we were darned lucky today. May you always be so lucky. But more importantly, may you be smart enough to always take the precautions necessary to guarantee you will come back out of the desert safely and alive.
A message from Tyger Gilbert
To join a Group that does safe fun events in Phoenix try the Photographers Adventure Club