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Stranded on a Mountain, and Running Out of Time

Don Buchanan (trail name: Don Viejo), then 85, spent a night on a ledge in California’s San Gabriel Mountains on January 25, 2014.

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I’m the youngest old man I know. I hike every weekend—usually by myself. I headed to a peak I was well acquainted with, 9,406-foot Mt. Baden-Powell, in Southern California. I’d climbed it probably two dozen times over the previous four years. But this time, I wanted a new challenge.

Instead of hiking 8.7 miles and 2,800 vertical feet to the summit via the PCT, as I’d done every other time, I would go up the backside of the mountain using an old, mostly forgotten trail that I found while scouring maps of the area. If I could make it to the summit before nightfall, I could easily hike back down using the standard trail and a headlamp.

From the Vincent Gap trailhead, I turned left instead of the usual right to hike the 2 miles to the ruins of Big Horn Mine. This trail was easy and well-traveled since the dilapidated, multistory mining structure is a popular target for dayhikers.

In the underbrush beyond the mine, I found the trail I was looking for. The path was only about a foot wide, but the going was easy. After 5 miles of cruising, I passed a couple of hikers who had turned around because they were worried about increasingly steep drop-offs. I paid no mind; a little exposure doesn’t bother me. The biggest dangers I had seen were the overgrown patches of Spanish bayonet bushes, a cactus with long and knife-sharp fronds.

In the early afternoon, I came to a right turn where the trail narrowed and traversed a rock face. A 200-foot drop rested just beyond my left shoe, and, in the middle of the trail, stood a spiky, 3-by-3-foot Spanish bayonet, itself partially hanging over the void. To my right, an old rope hung from a metal piton, presumably to aid hikers through the exposed part.

I gave it a few sharp tugs and it seemed like it would hold my 130 pounds. I held on tight and leaned out over the cliff, maneuvering around (but mostly through) the Spanish bayonet. Success. But then only a quarter-mile later, the path disappeared completely and I was still miles away from the top.

It’s probably worth saying here that I’m stubborn. I wanted to reestablish this lost route so I could use it again, and when I set out to climb something, I’m not going to let a cactus stop me. I’m not going to worry about a disappearing trail. But the sun was getting low and I knew I needed to get to the familiar summit before I lost the light. Looking up toward the top, I reckoned my best—and fastest—shot at getting there was to cut a beeline straight up the very steep rock face.

The scramble quickly proved harder than I expected. The terrain was loose. I had to pull myself up by grabbing onto bushes. Climbing like this demanded all my focus; I must have been at it for four hours. Finally, I gained a ridge—the first flat ground I’d seen in a while. I expected to see the summit, but I was still 1,000 feet below it, with another valley in between. I was completely exhausted, full of cactus wounds, and dusk was settling in. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized how badly I had miscalculated.

I was too weak and tired to continue up or turn around, and my headlamp wasn’t bright enough, anyway. I was not lost, but it was nearly 5 p.m. and I was out of energy and daylight.

I surveyed my ridge. It was narrow and below was the incline that I had just climbed up. There was no way around it; I would have to wait here for rescue. I took a seat on a triangular rock that was about 2 feet wide and started a vigil that would last all night, at least.

When I didn’t check in by 6 p.m., I later learned, my son, a sheriff’s deputy, drove to the trailhead and found my car. He alerted the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office that I was missing.

With the dark came the cold and I was only wearing a light jacket. I began shivering in the 40-degree chill. Switching sitting positions did not prevent my legs from cramping, and the ledge was so small I couldn’t get my legs under me to stand up. I knew I had to keep myself awake to avoid slumping off my rock and down the steep slope. I occupied myself by tracking the Big Dipper through the sky as the leg cramps came and went.

I wasn’t scared. I was concerned, I was cold, I was uncomfortable, and I was upset with myself. I had made a bad decision, gotten myself stuck, and would now need to be rescued.

But I made it to morning, and then, my wife Corliss, who had passed away a few years earlier, indirectly helped in my rescue. After she died, I had found a toy whistle among her things and put it in my daypack. As dawn came, I blew the whistle. A ground rescuer heard it from across a ravine and made his way toward me until we made voice contact. Finally, at about 10:30 a.m., a helicopter arrived.

Rocks and debris rained down as it swooped directly overhead. A sheriff’s deputy rappelled down and grabbed me, and soon we were spinning up. I continued to suffer from severe shakes for a couple of hours, despite the piles of blankets given to me. I spent the next two days being treated for hypothermia and rhabdomyolysis, a break down of muscle tissue that causes toxins to enter the bloodstream. It can be triggered through overexertion, which my cross-country scramble had most likely caused, and can be heightened by sitting or lying in one position for too long—especially for hikers of a certain age.

Buchanan pictured on California’s San Gabriel Peak in July

For a while after the incident I called myself a born-again flatland walker, and tried to occupy myself with gentler hikes. But that didn’t last very long; soon enough, I was back in the mountains. I love to be challenged on difficult trails, and I pride myself on being able to accomplish things that many people my age cannot. I hike up Mt. Whitney every year with my son, and in four years, at 92, I hope to be the oldest person to climb to the summit.

Key Skill: Know when to turn back.

Weather and terrain hazards are easy to assess; your energy level is tougher. On technical peaks, use the Rule of Halves to determine if you should turn back:

Expend no more than half your energy before the summit. It’s a long way down and technical peaks can be just as difficult on the descent.

Use no more than half your time on the way up. Aim to finish your hike during daylight hours.

Drink no more than half your water before the summit (if you can’t refill). Don’t mess with dehydration; water is your lifeline.

Eat no more than half your food before the top. Bonking happens on the descent, too.