Don't Wait for MebyBenLong©
I stopped and looked back over my shoulder momentarily at the ominous black clouds that had been rapidly growing larger and angrier for the last two hours. I reasoned I still had perhaps half an hour before I was liable to get very, very, wet. It figures, I thought; the forecast two days before had been for a week of clear and sunny weather but seldom did I ever get into the high country that it didn't rain at least once. Returning my eyes to the seemingly inscrutable cliff before me I tried again to decipher where the path that I'd spied from below had gone.
I can't say as I've ever been lost. There have been many times where I didn't know exactly where I was, but I've never in my life been where I didn't know how to get to a location where I DID know where I was. Occasionally there were times, such as now, where I just didn't know how to get where I wanted to be, but I don't count that as lost.
What I did know was that I was high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Well below me the Owen's valley assailed my eyes with its glaring white sands and rocks, in sharp contrast to the dark greens and browns of the forest, the last of which was now several hundred feet below me in the valley that I'd left perhaps an hour before. Here, on the rocky escarpment that I'd been climbing, headed for the ridge that would hopefully take me to the next valley, there was nothing for cover but spaces between boulders buffered by the subalpine brush scratching a life out of the barren ice sculpted mountain. Just a few miles away the rocky crag known as Mt. Whitney scratched the pristine air of the High Sierras, covered for more than half the year in winter snows, but that famous peak wasn't on my destination list. To the southeast, the shadow of the looming thunderstorm eased the harsh contrast of the desert floor from where it was bathed in direct sunlight. A cloud of dust on the desert floor was expanding in a semicircle from the leading cloud, visible evidence of the microburst phenomena that has been the cause of so many aviation accidents, and an indication that it would, soon, be windy where I was. The approaching wind was of secondary importance for the moment; primary importance was finding shelter.
It wasn't really a technical climb; I didn't have ropes and pitons and a climbing partner -- I was just doing what I normally do, heading off cross country, by myself -- just because it looked like I could. Not recommended for the novice, but hey, this wasn't my first trip to the Sierras nor was it my first hike alone.
As it turned out, the route I'd scoped out from below was just momentarily hidden from view. Traversing across the slope another hundred yards to my left and once again - although not knowing or caring exactly where I was -- I knew how to get to where I wanted to go.
The sound of thunder rolled into my ears; with lightning approaching, exposed on a barren slope wasn't where I wanted to be. I hastened my climb, heading toward what appeared to almost be a cave, or at least a protective overhang, near the summit of the ridge ahead. A Marmot chattered at me, as if saying "Where the hell do you think you're going?" before disappearing into the black abyss of what I expected in just moments to be my protective cover.
The sound of wind through the tall Douglas Fir forest in the canyon below sounded like rushing water as I felt the first gusts of the impending storm. Seconds later the staccato clacking of hail stones marched up the slope behind me, the first ice pellets hitting around me as I reached the ledge. Just before sliding under the rock, a single hailstone hit me in the back of the head as if to tell me I couldn't get away that easily.
I slid in under the overhanging ledge, pulling my pack behind me. Lightning flashes, followed almost instantaneously by the thunder, let me know I was right in the center of the storm - but also gave me brief glimpses of the hole beyond. I reached for my flashlight to see if there was space or reason to try to move further inside the lip of the mountain when I felt the hair on the back of my arms rising with static electricity.
I awoke shivering, with a splitting headache, and wondering where I was.
The white noise of rain falling hard outside my rock shelter put substance and background to my addled thoughts. Soon enough they began to coalesce into recollections; a mountain, climbing, a storm, hail -- and a blinding flash. I opened my eyes; the sun long gone, now nothing but darkness and the sound of rain - the lightning and hail transformed into night and just another rainstorm. Reaching again for my pack, I found my flashlight and examined my right arm and the stinging sensation.
The hair that I'd felt rising with the static was gone. Sure now that I'd been hit by lightning, I did a quick self-exam but found nothing out of the ordinary except the missing hair on my arm, and a monstrous headache. Fumbling into a side pocket I found some ibuprofen, wondering as I did whether it was approved medically for treatment of lightning strike induced headache -- smiling bemusedly at myself as I wondered; if so, how would they know? At the moment, I really didn't care - I took a full 800 milligrams. Unrolling my sleeping bag and pad, I pulled my clothes off, slid in and covered my head. Having arrested the heat loss, the shivering soon came under control and I fell asleep.
I awoke with first light. The rain from the night before was gone -- the few remaining clouds were turning from gray to pink illuminated from below by the sun which was still below the horizon. I didn't remember warming up, having fallen asleep still chilly, but now I was perfectly comfortable. The ledge had done for me what I needed, keeping me dry, and I'd had the proper modern equipment to warm myself. I hadn't even examined the ledge I'd slept on, but then again, I'd never had the chance. Now, bathed in the morning sun, I could see the ledge gradually narrowed as it approached the far end, a fairly large hole in the rocks making me think that was where the Marmot that had chided me the day before had disappeared to. I knew I'd have to poke my head up there before I left -- you never know what marvels are just barely missed unless you check. I've always had that urge to see what's just beyond the next corner, the next rock, the next valley -- which has kept me coming back year after year to pick up where I'd left off the last time.
Coffee and reconstituted eggs finished, I repacked my camp stove, rolled up the bag and pad and got ready to leave. Looking out from my perch it reminded me of the picture from the Swiss Alps of a few years ago where a 7,000 year old man was found sitting on a ledge. Covered by snow for about 70 centuries, he was found perfectly mummified and preserved. I wondered if he -- like me -- had been struck by lightning on a stormy afternoon. Perhaps with just a little less luck, off the beaten path as I was, in another 7,000 years I could have been found and some future man would be wondering how I came to be there -- just as we wondered how that Swiss aborigine came to be where he was.
The hole at the end of the slope appeared to get larger as I crawled to it. The opening, somewhat blocked from my view by the intervening rock, was easily large enough for me to push through. Not seeing any reason not to -- I left my backpack on the ledge and crawled inside to see how far in it went.
The image of a cave changed as I crawled in, now seeming to be little more than a crawl space between boulders, its origin indeterminate. The rock felt solid, it didn't feel like piled up boulders, yet this cavern seemed to imply otherwise. So far above timberline, I wasn't particularly worried about bears, but a careful reconnoitering of the ground found no evidence of even so much as the Marmot. If my chattering friend from the day before had disappeared this way -- I saw no evidence of it.
Expecting the little hole to peter out, I moved into the slot that disappeared to the right and found that it didn't. Looking around I realized there was no way to go except ahead or back -- so had no fear of getting lost. A twist to the right, a few feet later another turn left, and still there was no sign of the easily passable crawlway diminishing. I estimated I'd crawled maybe 50 meters into the mountain with no sign of anything except a rock passageway when the ceiling finally began to narrow down. I could tell it was soon going to be difficult to go further, and mindful of my rapidly disappearing headache, I decided I'd seen all I desired to. Turning around, I found in just a few feet that I could just sit up - if I did so carefully. I set the flashlight onto the ground shining back where I'd come from, and brushed the crumbled pebbles and dust from my elbows before attempting to crawl back out to my backpack. Glancing over my shoulder before I resumed my crawl, expecting inky blackness, I was surprised to see that I could still see the small opening that was left where I'd turned back. Thinking I was imagining things, I reached down and turned the flashlight off. Surprisingly I found that I was not in complete darkness.
I flipped the light back on, turned around again, and headed toward that narrow spot where I'd previously turned back. Dropping onto my belly, I pushed the flashlight ahead, craned my head and neck through tiny opening and found that although quite narrow, I should easily be able to shimmy through the slot. Beyond the passage opened up nearly into the same size I'd been following. Moments later I'd shinnied through the narrow slot and after working through another couple of turns I found myself crawling through a hole in the canyon wall to a different valley.
The way down would not be easy but, after surveying the slope above me, I couldn't readily detect any other way into this hanging valley. A lake in the very bottom glistened silver in the morning sun. A few stunted trees, somehow having gotten into this valley from beyond the otherwise barren cliffs, had managed to eke out a living in the otherwise stark conditions. A tiny meadow accented the upper end of the small lake; nature was already turning the silt of the lake into grass - the only other greenery visible.
Although it would be a difficult descent, I decided that this little valley might be worth exploring. But without a readily visible path over the mountain, the only easily available entrance would be by way of the cave I'd just come through. Half an hour later, my pack retrieved, I began to pick my way down the scree and boulder slope to the valley below.
I'm not sure when exactly I realized that the silver of the water below wasn't all water. Something about the reflections or the rocks seemed wrong, but I couldn't quite place what. Stopping on a boulder, I pulled my small binoculars from my pack to take a better look.
I wasn't even sure where I was looking, or for what. Starting at the grasses and trees at the far end of the lake I scanned slowly along the shoreline until suddenly I realized exactly what it was that had caught my attention that I hadn't been able to place. A small rock protruding from the surface of the lake wasn't a rock at all; it was the tail of an airplane. A wing, broken off, was on its edge among the boulders, nearly invisible from above. What I'd taken to be a shiny boulder from above was actually the cockpit and broken fuselage. The canopy, surprisingly intact, had been pushed back. A stub of wing was visible on the closer dry side; the wing on the water side was totally missing or hidden from view. I couldn't tell how long the plane had been there, but it didn't appear to me to be badly weathered, just badly broken.
It took nearly an hour for me to get off the steep slope and down to the plane. The closer I got the more details there were that became visible. The propeller was mangled, the blades broken or bent over. I would guess from the looks of it that the engine had not been producing much power when it hit. I looked back at the angle from which the plane would have had to have come from to be in the position it was now, and it appeared the plane had come over the small lake, probably trying to make an emergency landing. The nose and cockpit were on the shore, the broken tail facing the wrong direction with just the end sticking out. The numbers on the tail were visible and had a 41 prefix, which I think I remembered from reading about airplanes as a kid meant it had been funded by Congress in 1941. I couldn't tell for sure, but was fairly certain it was an early vintage Mustang. Perhaps the most famous American fighter of World War II, on this plane the canopy was intact, a flat sided early version of the Mustang rather than the bulbous all Plexiglas canopy of later versions that looked like a bug eye. Stopping where I was, with my birds-eye view, I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a picture. Somehow the canopy hadn't been knocked loose in the crash, and with it being pushed back, I wondered if the pilot had perhaps parachuted out, or maybe even survived the crash?
It puzzled me that the plane didn't appear more weathered. It had to have been here for at least half a century, but as I drew closer, I was more and more amazed at the lack of fading of what little paint there was, most of the plane had shiny aluminum surfaces and just had the "feel" that it hadn't been here for long.
I dropped my pack on a rock near the open canopy before clambering onto the remaining stub of the right wing. Green corrosion preventive paint covered the inside surfaces of the wing; spars and strings full of holes appeared like the skeleton of an animal. Some type of purple fluid was still visible against the wing root where it was attached to what remained of the fuselage, making me wonder how it could have been there after all those years, let alone after the torrential downpour of the previous day. Grabbing the edge of the cockpit to steady myself, I peered into the cockpit, amazed at how small it was. My remembrance of peering into a cockpit like this at an air show when I was just a youngster was that it was huge; this -- I would have a hard time being comfortable in.
Inside the cockpit the leather seat, now exposed totally to the elements, appeared to be brand new. The smell of airplane -- aviation fuel, oil, leather, whatever it is that makes an airplane smell like it does, was still present. The instruments, what few there were, had gleaming white stripes and numbers, totally unlike the yellowed markings of older instruments. On the dash, stuck behind the bezel of the air speed indicator was a black and white photograph of a pretty young girl. I snapped another picture before leaning in to check it out. It was one of those old fashioned photos with the white trim and serrated cut edge; I recognized the style of photo as similar to what my mother had in her scrapbook when I was a kid. I thought it most likely had come from one of those old Kodak Brownie small black box cameras that it seemed like everyone had at one time or another. Flipping it over, on the back in pencil was "To Jimmy, with all my love, Liz." It had obviously gotten wet recently, but the picture itself didn't appear to be that old. A corner had been bent, the crinkled white line through the corner showing, but other than that it appeared in virtually new condition.
From my perch on the wing of the plane, I looked around at the surrounding terrain. By now, I'd become convinced that this was no World War II relic; it had to have crashed fairly recently. No parachute was visible, no footsteps in the mud at the edge of the lake -- nothing to indicate that someone was near -- or had been. I swung my leg up and into the seat, realizing that although I could sit down, it would be a tight squeeze. Regardless, the thought of sitting in a P-51, my ultimate boyhood fantasy, was too great and I managed to slide in. The fantasy fulfilled wasn't quite as great as I expect it would have been on the end of a runway with the propeller spinning and the full throated roar of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine pulling me into the air, but still -- it was a thrill. Standing again on the seat, I stepped out onto the much larger stub of the second wing, seeing something brown and streaked on the leading edge as I did. From here there was a slight drop to the ground off the front edge; going to the back would have put me into the water. Even further down the mountain the stream water had been extremely cold; there was no way I wanted to go swimming here in this snow and ice fed pond.
I stepped forward and jumped two footed, landing on the exposed rock beside the fuselage. Stepping forward I examined the front of the plane, the exhaust tubes extending from the side, the broken and bent propeller blades. I stooped and peered under the nose looking for an air intake, forgetting that the mustang had a large scoop further back on the fuselage. I'd turned and looking back from the front snapped another picture, when I saw something that caused a chill to run up my spine.
Barely visible in the small space under the wing stub that I'd just walked on was a man -- or at least the body of a man. It didn't take me long to get back to him, crawling into the tiny space under the wing. I wasn't sure if he was dead or alive until I gently reached for his neck to check for a pulse. As soon as I slipped my hand under the fur around his leather flight jacket, his eyes fluttered open.
"You found me..." his voice cracked, barely audible but distinct; a vaguely southern accent immediately recognizable.
"How are you doing?" I asked, not quite sure where to start in helping him.
"Water," he whispered, which I more deciphered from watching his lips than actually heard.
"Hold on, I'll be right back." Crawling back out from under the wing, this time I went around the front, and returned with my entire backpack. Pulling my aluminum water bottle out I started back, but then stopped and returned to fish more ibuprofen out first. Returning to the pilot, I knelt beside him, and assisted him in taking a drink.
"Not too fast," I urged as he started to drink. He didn't listen, taking too much. He choked and coughed and spit up the first sip, then took the second a little smaller, followed moments later by a third. "Here," I said, passing him four ibuprofen; "take these."
"What is it?" He asked, looking at the little brown pills.
"Pain reliever? You know, like aspirin." It wasn't much, but it was all I had.
"Oh," he painfully put the pills in his mouth, taking another swallow of water, larger this time.
For the first time I looked to assess what kind of condition he might be in. He'd obviously crawled under head first, his legs extended nearly out from under the wing. He'd managed to get his parachute off; his head was pillowed on the pack, the silk pushed for the moment off to one side. I wondered if he'd tried to use it as a blanket last night. His left leg -- no, I corrected myself -- that's his right, my left, was very obviously broken. A large bruise was visible above his eye.
"Can you tell me where it hurts?" I asked, deciding that crammed under the wing remains like we were I really couldn't do a head to toe assessment at this point in time.
He looked at me and attempted a smile before he said "Everywhere?" His grimace told me as much as his answer.
"Yeah, I can imagine. It looks like you've got a broken leg?" I questioned.
"Yeah, maybe both."
"I may have broke some ribs, it hurts to breathe."
"Yeah, that sounds like ribs. Anything else?"
"Isn't that enough?" He attempted to smile, but it collapsed into another grimace.
"Well at least you haven't lost your sense of humor," I said, "but perhaps you'd better just take it easy. Sit still for a moment, I'll be right back." I pulled my cellphone back out and turned it on. I was pretty sure I'd have no service, but occasionally when I'd least expected it, I had found spots that would seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but had enough of a straight shot to some cell tower in the valley below that they'd worked. Here however, there was nothing. "What's that?" he asked as I turned the phone back off to save the battery and clipped the holster to my belt.