I had an…interesting experience…on the morning of Day 10 of my photo trip to the West Coast, which served as a sobering reminder that not everything revolves around photography. I’ll resume the chronology of the photographic experience–Day 10–in my next post. Now, however, I’d like to relate what happened on the morning of Wednesday, May 13.
[As a side note, I’ve kept the number of images to a minimum with this post, as its substance has nothing directly to do with photography.]
The story really starts the previous night (Tuesday, May 12). As I related in my previous post, I photorgraphed at Wilson Creek Beach, which is about 12 miles south of Crescent City, California. on Tuesday evening. The route there passes the trailhead for the Damnation Creek Trail, which dives deep into the redwood forest of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and when I drove past that trailhead on US 101 at roughly 6:30 PM I noticed that there was a car in the parking pullout, thought I didn’t think much about it at the time. On the return trip, close to 9 PM (and quite dark), I noticed that there was still a car in the parking area (I couldn’t be sure it was the same one, but I figured it was) and thought to myself “I hope those people have a headlamp or a flashlight.”
So on Wednesday morning I shot sunrise at Battery Point Lighthouse and then jumped in the car and headed straight to Damnation Creek. I got there a bit before 7 AM (sunrise was at 6). There was a car parked in the pullout—just one—but, again, I didn’t think much of it. No reason that there shouldn’t be a car there in broad daylight. I got my rhododendron/redwood shots at a spot I’d been eyeing as one of the very few in the entire area that had an appreciable number of blooms since first scouting there on Sunday afternoon and then proceeded down the trail to the point where it intersects the Coast Trail. I had planned to shoot along that trail until I lost the light but just before I came to the junction I saw someone coming towards me from below. I figured he was the guy who belonged to the car I’d seen. He was pretty sweaty and breathing hard, so I figured that he’d already been down to the beach on the Damnation Creek Trail.
As a note, the Damnation Creek Trail is an out and back 4.2 mile roundtrip with 1100 feet of elevation change each way. I’d guess that at least ¾ of that change comes in the final 2/3 of the outbound hike (meaning after it intersects the Coast Trail). This is why I assumed that the oncoming hiker had been all the way down to the beach—he looked like someone who had just completed a very long, steep uphill slog. The beach at the end of the trail, I’d read—I’d never been down to it myself at this point—was supposedly very rocky and very narrow.
“Did you go all the way down to the beach?” I asked, once it was clear he was well within earshot.
“Yes,” he said.
“That’s a pretty steep trail,” I said.
“Yeah, it is.”
By this point we were pretty much face-to-face and it didn’t appear to me that he wanted to chat, so I just continued past him and he walked by in the direction of the trailhead. After a few seconds, with him out of sight around a bend in the trail, I heard: “Could you do me a favor?”
I stopped. I assumed he was talking to me, even though I couldn’t see him.
“What is it?” I asked, with a somewhat raised voice.
He came running back down the trail towards me.
“Can you do me a favor?”
“What do you need?”
“My girlfriend and I were stranded here last night. She’s still down there, out on a cliff, about a quarter of a mile to the right of the spot where the trail meets the beach. Could you tell her that you talked to me and that help is on the way? Just to comfort her? Her name is Steph.”
This all came tumbling out. I was a bit astonished, to put it mildly.
“She’s been up there all night?”
“Yes. We both were.”
It was dawning on me at this point that this was something of an emergency and, rather than asking him a lot of “curiosity” questions and delaying him, I’d better decide what I was going to do, pronto. I hadn’t planned on going down to the beach, or taking the second leg of the Damnation Creek Trail at all, for that matter. After dealing with the rhododendrons, which I’d already done, I was simply using the top of the trail as a way of accessing the Coast Trail, where I intended to resume shooting. Descending on the very steep part of the Damnation Creek Trail—with my full photo pack and tripod, I hasten to add, hadn’t been in the cards. But this sounded pretty desperate and I quickly thought to myself about what I’d hope someone else might do if I was in this guy’s predicament.
Time to ask some pertinent questions, I thought. First, clarify the location. And her name. Then I asked his name—it was John. He asked mine and I told him. And one more thing.
“You were stranded because of the tide last night, I’m guessing.”
“Exactly,” he said.
“So what’s the story with the tide now?” I asked. I hadn’t been checking the tide tables since wrapping up on the Oregon Coast days earlier, because I hadn’t planned to do anymore beach hiking.
“Right now it’s passable,” he said. “That’s how I was able to get down from the cliff and get up here. But if you can’t get over there when you get down to the beach, you can’t. Don’t do anything crazy.”
“Okay, I said…I’m on my way.”
“Thanks very much,” he said, and started running towards the trailhead.
I double-timed it down the trail, with my heavy pack and tripod in tow. I’d have moved much more quickly and adroitly without them, but that would have meant a 1.5 mile roundtrip to the car from this point, which would have been a copious waste of time. All sorts of thoughts swirling through my head. One thing that popped into my mind was that I’d neglected to ask why, if he’d been able to get down, she hadn’t.
So, I made my way down the trail, which descended steeply through a mixed redwood forest. Since it was all downhill, it didn’t take me too long to approach the beach. The trail reaches a large rocky/grassy area about 20 feet above beach level, and then you have to descend a narrow, precarious “stairway” that’s cut into the rock face. I looked this over and decided that it was time to abandon my pack and tripod up on the rock…they’d just slow me down unnecessarily. I could see the beach to the right—it was rock strewn and very narrow. At some spots, there was less than 10 feet between the cliff face and the surf. If this was low tide (it wasn’t; I later checked and low tide wasn’t until after 2 PM; I was down on that beach by, probably, something like 9 or 9:30 AM; the first high tide of the day was around 8 AM), I figured that at high tide parts of that beach were utterly impassable—the surf would have been pounding directly against the side of the cliff. This, I reasoned, was what must have stranded them in the first place.
Looking North, Damnation Creek Beach, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California
[The above image shows the view to the north–the direction I headed on the beach after descending from the trail. The headland peaking into the frame from the right was the first choke point–it would have been impassable at high tide.]
I set down my pack, my tripod and my jacket, as I was now quite warm. I then climbed down to the beach. Damnation Creek empties into the Pacific Ocean here and I needed to cross the stream. It was shallow, but I managed to rock hop my way to the other side without too much difficulty and then started working my way across the rocky beach, while regularly scanning the cliffs above me, and occasionally calling out. There was no response and I didn’t see anyone, either. I reached a bit of a choke point, where the waves were nearly hitting a protruding part of the cliff. By timing them, I got by, but since I wasn’t sure at that time whether the tide was coming in or going out, I was concerned about getting back. I kept going and finally I could see, not that far in front of me, another headland which absolutely couldn’t be rounded—the surf was pounding the cliff face directly. If I had to round that headland to find Steph, it wasn’t going to happen. As I was pondering this and moving closer, I heard something from above. I looked up and saw a woman perched far above me—well over 100 feet, probably more (I later found it was roughly 200 feet above the beach).
She waved at me. I waved back.
“Are you Steph?” I shouted. I figured it had to be….who else could this possibly be?
“Yes!” she shouted. It was very hard to hear her, given the ceaseless roar of the surf, just 20 or so feet from where I stood.
I shouted up to her that I’d met John on the trail and that he’d asked me to come and tell her that help was on the way. It took a couple of tries, given the difficulty communicating over the ocean’s sounds, but the message finally got through.
I then scanned the situation. I saw a route that I could probably take to get up to her, or near her, but I didn’t see how I’d be able to get back down if I did get up.
I yelled up and asked her how they’d gotten up there…and how John had made it down this morning. I couldn’t make out everything she said, but I did get the part where she said it had been via the other side of the now impassable headland. That was out, for the moment, at least until the tide receded to the point where it could be approached. I didn’t know it at the time, but that wouldn’t be for hours. I looked and I looked but I didn’t see any route I could take that would allow me to get up and back down safely. At one point she called down and asked if I was with search & rescue and I explained that, no, I was simply photographing along the trail when I met her boyfriend and he briefly told me their story.
After a minute or two of surveying the situation, I called up to her with my conclusion, apologetically. It took some doing, again, to overcome the noise, but she understood. I told her that I would have to retreat to the point where the trail met the beach because I was afraid that I might not be able to get back there if I didn’t go now. (As it turns out, that wasn’t a real concern, but I didn’t know it at the time.) I told her that if I could clearly see that the tide was receding, I would be back and that, in any case, I wouldn’t leave the beach area until help arrived—that I would be nearby. She seemed grateful—she thanked me profusely numerous times—and reassured me that she’d be okay until help arrived. I was really impressed with how well she was handling the situation, under the circumstances.
Looking South, Damnation Creek Beach Black & White, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California
I made my way back to the rock where I’d left my pack and waited. After 10 or 15 minutes, a couple of hikers approached and said hello. I asked if they’d seen anyone else on the trail down. They said no and asked why. I explained the situation. They were a bit distraught, but there was nothing any of us could do. After another 30 minutes or so, John arrived, with four Cal-Fire search and rescue personnel, a park ranger and a Del Norte County Sheriff’s deputy. We pointed the way for the rescue personnel who began to descend to the beach and John asked me if I’d made it over to Steph. I told him the story I related above and he, again, thanked me sincerely for my efforts. I handed him a card with my e-mail address on it and asked if he’d drop me a note when it was convenient and tell me how it all turned out. I figured that the best thing I could do at this point would be to stay out of the way.
(I’ll digress here momentarily to note that, in reality, I didn’t really do much of anything. Yes, I’d gone through some physical inconvenience, but in the end, if I hadn’t made it down to Steph, the S&R folks would have reached the spot in another 40-45 minutes anyway.)
One of the fire and rescue officers returned on his way back to the trailhead before I packed up completely and I asked if they’d been able to get Steph down. He shook his head.
“No, we can’t. They’re going to call for a helicopter.”
He apologized, saying he had to get back up topside as quickly as possible so he couldn’t chat. I told him I completely understood. But I was stunned at what he said. This was turning into a real production.
Another fire and rescue officer came back as I was just finishing up—he turned out to be the crew chief, a very nice guy whose last name was Estevez (it was on his jacket)—and I hiked out part way with him. He told me that a Coast Guard helicopter had been summoned and hopefully they’d be able to conduct the rescue. (The issue was whether it would be possible to position a helicopter so that they could lower someone to the outcropping Steph was perched on without crashing the chopper into the cliff.) If not, they’d have to send in a full S&R team from above, with ropes and repelling equipment. He said that the copter would be on site within 15 minutes and within five more they’d know whether they could safely attempt the rescue. I said “Geez,” or something to that effect.
He gave me a wan smile.
“It happens,” he said, referring to these search and rescue situations.
“Does it happen a lot?” I asked.
“Around here, more than you’d think,” he said. “This is our nightmare scenario, Damnation Creek. It’s steep, it’s really hard to communicate because of all the rocks. There’s almost no access by any other means. You really can’t get in here by boat because of the rocky shoreline.”
“Has something like this situation happened before?” I asked.
“Oh sure,” he said. “Maybe not exactly like this, but this kind of thing, absolutely. What makes this really tough is that they got caught by the tide last night and they climbed way too high. Here, the tide won’t even reach 20 feet. Maybe it’s 4-5 feet up the cliff face, but they didn’t know that and they wanted to be sure they were safe, so they ended up climbing up 200 feet, probably mostly, if not entirely, in the dark. And today, in the light, she takes a look down and says, no way I’m going down there. There were a couple of places that were much more accessible lower down but they obviously didn’t feel safe last night so they kept going up.”
I was going to ask how John got down, but I gathered that he at least partially slid down the cliff face because someone had to get down there and go for help. Someone had mentioned earlier that his hands were pretty scuffed up. I hadn’t noticed, I must confess.
We could hear the chopper coming in and as we ascended the trail Mr. Estevez was in radio contact with various other members of the rescue team. They were able to conduct the helicopter rescue and successfully removed Steph from the cliff. She was taken, I later found out, to the airport in Crescent City and from there to a local hospital where she was treated for dehydration and exposure. She was released later that day.
It was a sobering experience, and gave much to think about as I slogged my way back to the trailhead with that anchor (approximately 35 lbs.) of a photo pack on my back.
If this story wasn’t dramatic enough, check out the link below and be sure to watch the brief video of the helicopter rescue itself.