June 26, 2021 started off fine. Steve and Trevor were excited - this was the first real hike the Scout troop would be doing in well over a year. (I was excited too, as I would have the house to myself for the first time in a very long time.) The troop had planned a 10-mile downhill hike for late March 2020, which was canceled because of COVID. When it came time to pick a hike for June 2021, they kept it simple and just shifted all the plans they'd already made from the canceled hike.
A lot had changed in the troop over 15 months. Several of the older Scouts had aged out, while we had gained new, younger members who had never done any hiking. The regular exercise and conditioning the Scouts did at their weekly in-person meetings didn't happen while they were meeting via Zoom. Many of the leaders, including Steve, were not in the same shape they'd been pre-pandemic.
The trail itself had changed too, though nobody knew that. The only person who'd hiked the trail previously had not been on it since before the pandemic. He remembered a shaded trail that was almost entirely downhill, which would be lovely in March in Northern California. But the trail they encountered in June was not shaded. The area had burned during the summer of 2020. Not only was there very little shade, but there were fallen trees blocking parts of the trail. And that day in late June ended up being 95°F.
The troop met at the trailhead and were ready to go by 9:00 am. All Scouts were told to carry at least 3 liters of water, but several brought less. Steve had stowed a 5 gallon jug of water in the car but didn't have any extra containers, so he filled everyone's containers to the top and gave away one of his own. The group started downhill and quickly realized the trail was much more difficult than expected.
When the troop hikes in the backcountry, they carry a beacon that pings every 10 minutes; those of us at home can watch their progress on a map online. I usually check once or twice in the morning, then more frequently in the afternoon so that I can gauge when to expect them home. When I checked around 10:30, I was mildly concerned that their progress was so much slower than expected. At noon they were stopped, not anywhere close to where they should have been. I was starting to worry. After what was obviously a lunch break, they continued slowly down the trail. A little while later, I saw that they turned around and backtracked. I was glad to see that. With the slow progress they were making, it seemed smart to retrace 3 miles uphill on known terrain than to continue for 7 more miles downhill on unknown terrain.
The beacon stopped again. At that point, I was very concerned and texted Steve to make sure everything was ok. It was not. It turned out that the group had gone through 2/3 of their water on the first 1/3 of the trail. They made the decision to turn back, but after a very short distance, Steve felt dizzy and weak. His heart rate was high. He rested in the shade and drank a bit more of the limited water, but the rest didn't help. The Scoutmaster and two other adults continued uphill with all the boys while another adult (Tom) stayed with Steve. At 3:00 pm, after 30 minutes of rest without improvement, Tom called 911 to request a rescue for Steve.
The CHP helicopter couldn't land because of the terrain, but Steve was able to walk downhill the short distance to where it was hovering. Before he got onboard, Steve gave all his stuff, including the beacon, his pack, and his car keys, to Tom. The paramedic started an IV and gave Steve fluids as they flew to a waiting ambulance that took him to the hospital. There he got 2.5 additional liters of fluid and they ran every possible test.
With Steve safely at the hospital and keeping me updated, I turned my worrying to Trevor and to Tom. I felt confident that the group would make it back to the trailhead safely, but was Trevor ok after watching his dad unable to continue on the trail? As I'd later learn, Trevor had no idea what had happened after leaving Steve behind, but assumed (incorrectly) that Steve was following them back up the trail after resting. As for Tom, he walked back uphill alone without enough water, carrying all of Steve's stuff in addition to his own. Fortunately, he had the beacon so I could see that he was making fine progress.
Thankfully, everything turned out ok. Steve was released from the hospital that evening and felt ok after a few days of rest. Everyone learned some very important lessons.
I struggled with how to document such a scary day and came up with this:
The picture in the top left is of the group at the trailhead just before heading out. (Lots of smiles and plenty of shade.) I took a screen capture of the beacon map, printed it as a photo, and then labeled the starting point, the planned ending point, and the rescue point. Tom didn't turn off the beacon until he got home, so the blue line you see on the left with only three pings is Tom driving down the hill to join the Scouts at the pizza parlor. Tom had taken video of the helicopter rescue, so I was able to do a few screen captures to print as photos, which I used on the right-hand side of the layout. I put a heart sticker next to Steve and the paramedic helping him to the hovering helicopter.
Thank you, Anonymous Paramedic. And thank you pilot, ambulance driver, and hospital staff. Thank you Craig, Carlo, and Collin for getting all the boys back up the hill safely and keeping Trevor from worrying. And thank you, Tom, for everything.