June 1, 2012

101 Critical Days of Summer: Prepare for the worst case scenario

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

by Capt Ashley P.W. Norris
452d AMW public affairs

We had digital and hard copy maps, detailed driving and hiking directions, two GPS devices, two compasses, four cell phones, three camelbacks, walking sticks, two first aid kits, two handguns, sunscreen, lunch, snacks and a cooler full of extra drinks and ice. Despite all of our preparations, we were still confronted with a situation where we almost had to dial 911 for help. Luckily, with some ingenuity and sheer willpower we were able to save ourselves and avert a potential crisis.

Hiking in the desert, mountains, trails, or wilderness, requires that you focus on the “what if’s” of a worst case scenario. Injury, dehydration, getting lost, dangerous wildlife, bad weather, or car troubles are a few possibilities to consider when making preparations. I had a close call and learned a valuable lesson that coincides with the start of 101 Critical Days of Summer.

On Mother’s Day morning, my husband, friends and I, set out on a four and one-half mile hike through the Nevada wilderness. We were following a mapped route with multiple waypoints to Mt. Potosi. This was the site of the 1942 plane crash that took the lives of 22 people, to include Clark Gable’s wife, Carole Lombard and 15 Army Air Corp pilots. Her death caused the “Gone with the Wind” star to join the U.S. Army Air Force where he served for three years in Europe.

We planned and packed accordingly for the hike, in which we estimated would take about four to five hours for the entire excursion. While under way, we encountered unpaved and somewhat treacherous roads, which added an unexpected hour and one-half to our trip. Prior to reaching our proposed starting point, we decided to take the easiest trail to the site, but due to a missed the turn, we were forced to hike the steeper, more challenging trail.

After trekking through fields of arroyos and brush for almost three hours, we finally reached 3,373 feet above sea level. The mid-day heat began to take a toll, as the sun glared down on us. Feeling weathered and fatigued, we somehow lost the trail and began disagreeing about which canyon the crash site was located on.

I was nursing a tender ankle (a prior injury and not figured into our trip plan) which hindered me from scaling the rocky hillsides at a pace to keep up with the rest of my party. When the pain became too great, I told the others to continue on and collect me on the way back down. Like a good military team, they refused to leave me behind, so we decided to discontinue our hike and grab a bite to eat.

After eating, we started our decent and lucked up by finding a low grade trail that took us the entire way down with minimal effort. We had a brief scare when my husband stepped on a concealed dead log and slid four feet down the hill. Luckily his pack and long-sleeve shirt took the brunt of the damage.

We celebrated our arrival to the vehicle by drinking some ice cold soft drinks and tea from the cooler. While shedding our gear, we laughed and talked about re-attacking the hike, but not today. We packed up our belongings and started for home with plans of using the same rocky road that brought us here.

By now, our trip had exceeded four hours and we were all tired, hot and slightly dehydrated. We didn’t concentrate on the present situation and assumed that the drive home would be as uneventful as the drive to the trailhead, which was our critical mistake.

On the way to the main road, under the watchful eyes of my gentlemen navigators, we managed to drive right into a steep grade and immediately got stuck. The opposing wheels of my vehicle were spinning in the air and the front bumper was lodged in the dirt; long story short, we weren’t going anywhere!

We tried rocking the car backward and forward, we shoved dirt and rocks under the tires and we put weight in the bed of the truck but nothing worked. After about thirty intense minutes, we began feeling extremely fatigued, were sunburnt and dehydration was slowly becoming evident. At that point, we wondered if we needed to call for help. However, we figured it would take a rescue team at least two hours to find to our location and we were quickly running out of time before sunset. We were 10 miles from the closest paved road and 12 miles from the outskirts of Las Vegas.

So, with cell phones in hand, we climbed the closest hill for better reception and were able to get enough bars to make a call. After talking with roadside assistance for more than an hour, they were still unable to find our location on the map. Since that didn’t work, they wrote down the driving directions and forwarded to a local towing company for action. They recommended several times that we call 911 because at this point, we were starting to panic and I thought we were going to have to save ourselves and hike out.

Luckily, during my phone call, the guys were finally able to move the truck back six inches and dig out the front end of the bumper with their hands. Also, they used sticks to move several big rocks from the road. They moved enough earth to drive the truck forward and through the ditch after almost two hours of frantic digging.

We were lucky that everything turned out alright and that we didn’t have to hike out of the desert. If we had, we assuredly would have run out of water after another hour or two of hiking. If we hadn’t packed the ice chest full of extra drinks, we surely would have been even more stressed, pondering the thought of dehydration during the two hours we spent digging out the truck.

Regardless of the food and water we packed, the sunscreen and the essential hiking supplies, we still weren’t fully prepared. We never packed any supplies to help if we had problems with the truck. A towing strap or rope and a small shovel would have been very useful tools to have. While we can laugh about it now, we were lucky. The only scars suffered from that day were on the front and rear bumper of my vehicle.

I can guarantee that on our next trip to Mt. Potosi, and there will be a next trip, we’ll prepare properly for both the hiking and the road trip to ensure that neither the wilderness nor the rocky roads makes us a casualty.

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U.S. Air Force photos by Darnell Gardner

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