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Larry Amkraut (56), of Fallbrook, California, regularly tests gear for Rock and Ice, Backpacker, and other magazines. He’s been doing it since the early 1970’s. One of his favorite backyard testing grounds is Mount San Antonio, better known to Southern Californians as Mount Baldy (10,064 feet), highest peak in the San Gabriels. Amkraut estimates he’s climbed it 50 times, and spent at least 30 nights camped on the summit.
On Christmas Eve, 2008 Amkraut climbed Baldy’s Devil’s Backbone Route, beginning from the top of Mt. Baldy ski area, to test a high altitude mountaineering tent and some other gear. “I’ve been up there in bad conditions before,” he told me on Tuesday. “Baldy sticks up into the weather, and kind of like a Mt. Washington West, it gets big winds.”
Indeed. Amkraut got struck by a storm that measured 70 mph. “But the wind wasn’t the problem,” he says. “It was an ice blizzard. Freezing rain coated everything.”
Despite the impressive meteorology Amkraut was warm, dry, and sheltered, with plenty of food and fuel. His instinct was to hunker down, but he’d told a friend that he’d rendezvous at trailhead by noon. “And I knew my wife would be going crazy if I didn’t show,” he says. “So instead of holing up, I tried to come down.”
The icing made for treacherous travel on the steeps. “I was going directly into a headwind, with visibility about ten feet and everything icing up,” he recalls. Coming back down the Devil’s Backbone involves a long traverse that’s slow and tiring when slick. “So I tried to take a shortcut,” Amkraut explains, “And that didn’t work out so well.”
Instead of making it out by noon, Amkraut ended up sleeping out a second night in an open bivvy on steep terrain in single-digit temperatures. His wife had already called authorities the previous afternoon. Friends noted that Amkraut had plenty of equipment for an overnight, but the San Bernadino County Sheriff’s office was concerned due to the weather, and began a search using 20 personnel and volunteers.
“I did get pretty cold during the bivy,” says Amkraut. But in the morning he got up, got going, and not long after that met two backpackers who helped him carry his gear down the trail. They met searchers near trailhead.
“I thought I was fine,” says Amkraut. “I just wanted to get dropped at the Mt. Baldy Inn.” But authorities took him to the fire department, where Amkraut says they “ripped off all my clothes, put I.V.’s in, told me I was severely dehydrated, that I had minor frostbite, and that I was at risk for rewarming shock.”
Teaching moment here: Rewarming shock occurs when dilating blood vessels at the extremities can drop your blood pressure to dangerous levels. This is often accompanied by a dump of toxins into the bloodstream, upping the potential for heart and kidney problems. Amkraut ended up in the hospital for four days.
For people who think that experience and expertise will always let them avoid such unseemly mishaps, consider this: Larry has about 40 years of hard outdoor experience. He’s trekked wilderness, reviewed gear and written for outdoor magazines beginning with Wilderness Camping – which morphed into Backpacker in 1973. No stranger to bad weather, he once walked across North America through the coldest North Dakota winter ever recorded. He’s hiked from Mexico to Alaska, passing through Canada and the North Slope in -50 F temperatures and -74 F wind-chills.
“Even after all that I made some major mistakes,” Amkraut says. “And the biggest one was that I shouldn’t have set out so strict a schedule. I was assuming I’d just toss everything into my pack and be down. But in the end, all my problems were from trying to descend and meet that deadline. And this ice blizzard was a whole other animal from the weather I’ve seen up there before. Everything, snaps, goggles, crampons, was covered in pounds of ice. Before I could pack the tent I had to beat all the ice off it and every inch of the guylines. I also should have fired up the stove on my open bivy to get warm and rehydrated instead of just crashing.”
Which all goes to show that experience isn’t a sure preventative, and that oftentimes the mayhem in a search and rescue isn’t about the primary situation. (In this case, an experienced camper parked securely in a storm-worthy camp.) It can be about all the other factors – schedules, personalities, relationships, holidays, even bureaucratic policies – on the far end.
These days, the way to short circuit that kind of mayhem is to use some sort of communication device – a cell phone, a beacon, a sat phone, smoke signals – whatever allows you to mobilize or stand down supporters on the far end. Otherwise a simple extra night out can turn complicated.
“I’ve been trekking all over the world for 30 years and this is the first time I ever had a search,” Amkraut says ruefully. “Now my wife’s really upset. The nurses were asking if I’d ever be able to go outside again. I’m not so sure.”
A cautionary tale if ever there was one. Hike safe. — Steve Howe
P.S. I’m off for a four-day ski tour across the top of Southern Utah’s Boulder Mountain.( I’ll try not to end up on the evening news.) This is the first salvo of Project Backyard, my self-assigned mission to probe out cool wilderness trips close to home. That begins with “Boulder Top” a vast 11,000-foot plateau that’s framed by my living room window. I’ll return with maps, pics, and invitations to submit your own Project Backyard explorations. Stay tuned.