The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 15: A Winter Storm Warning, part 1

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

An early snow storm stranded four fair weather hikers. How did they stay safe? Listen next, to part one of A Winter Storm Warning, on the WildeBeat.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number fifteen.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: We've all heard warnings that weather in the mountains can change quickly. But how would you handle the most extreme of these changes? What if your mild autumn campout turned into a winter survival exercise?

One year ago, in October two thousand four, Mike Bargetto, his father, his uncle, and his cousin, set out for a casual, late-season, three-day backpacking trip in the John Muir Wilderness, near Fresno, California. [0:26]

MIKE BARGETTO: We took sleeping bags that were good to twenty; not a whole lot of extra clothes; we brought, like two pairs of pants amongst the four of us; not really thinking we were going to have to use them, a couple long sleeved shirts, and I think we had one jacket on board. And that's all you really need when you go hiking in the summertime. Food is a pretty essential item to have, so we always pack a couple extra days -- just in case we decide to stay out for a couple extra days. We had a Coleman camp stove that we brought, and we had enough fuel for probably a week and a half of cooking. [0:32.5]

STEVE: They had two tents between the four of them. One was a backpacking tent from a well-known manufacturer, and the other was a twenty-five dollar tent from a discount sporting goods store. [0:10]

MIKE BARGETTO: It was a nice time of the year to go hiking. You didn't have the June and July heat, mosquitoes weren't around; it was starting to cool off; everything was fairly dry and warm. Blue skys -- not a cloud in the sky -- it was great, beautiful, probably mid-seventies. [0:14.1]

STEVE: They arrived at the Courtright Reservoir trailhead in the late morning. That afternoon, they hiked six miles without much elevation gain, camping at Post Corral Meadows. The next morning, they began a seven-mile, sixteen hundred foot climb to their next camp site. [0:15]

MIKE BARGETTO: The second day was probably the hardest part because that's when it got the steepest. Your hiking on straight granite, the sun's beating down on you. We just wanted to get there as soon as possible because we knew we only had that afternoon to spend there. The next day we were coming back. So at 2:00 in the afternoon we ended up going to Fleming Lake, which is a quarter mile right before Rae Lake. We were so tired we decided to hang out at Fleming Lake. My uncle and dad ended up going on a little day hike to Rae Lakes to see what it was like. It was so beautiful that they decided to come back and get us and move our whole camp to Rae Lake. The hike from Fleming to Rae Lake was so short that we didn't even break down our tents at all. We just picked them up and started trucking. We made it there in probably like ten minutes. [0:46.5]

STEVE: Beside Rae Lake, they enjoyed the rest of the day at their camp. They were thirteen miles from the trailhead, where they were going to return after a good night's sleep. [0:08]

MIKE BARGETTO: We had mac and cheese that night for dinner, and right after that we saw some clouds coming through the sky. And it was getting dark. It was just some faint clouds floating by. They were going pretty fast. We didn't really think much of it. We knew a storm was coming in on Tuesday, but we were fine with that because we were going to be out Sunday afternoon. We put the fire out and we went to sleep, and I got woken up by my dad around midnight or 1:00 in the morning, and he said "It's raining pretty hard outside." So we opened the door, and we look out, and there was nothing but white. We went to sleep, and everything was green, brown and blue, and we woke up and everything was just white -- flurries everywhere -- it wasn't snowing too hard, but it was definitely coming down. So we woke my uncle and my cousin up in the tent about ten feet away. They checked it out, and we wanted to hike out then, just because it wasn't too bad. There was only two or three inches on the ground. It wouldn't have really made sense. It wouldn't have been safe. So we tried to get more sleep and we just woke up as soon as there was light, at like 6:00 in the morning. At that point there were a couple more inches on the ground -- four or five inches. That's when we had to start thinking on strategies and tactics on what we were going to do to stay safe. So, uh, my uncle, dad, and myself -- we went on a little hike without our packs, just to see how far we could go without losing the trail. And we got right before Fleming Lake, and that's where the trail ended. So we hiked back up the hill; made it to Rae Lake, and just decided at that point, that was gonna be our home until someone came and got us, or until the snow melted. [1:58.3]

STEVE: They stayed in their tents to keep as warm and dry as possible. The wet snow continued to pile up. In the afternoon, Mike's uncle and cousin realized that inside their tent, they were lying in two inches of water. [0:13]

MIKE BARGETTO: We had decided that it would've been best if they were to come into our tent. That way we could all stay dry and keep each other warm. So, next thing you know, there's four of us in the three-person, $25 tent. [0:11.0]

STEVE: That evening, news of the storm was on radio and television. Mike's family called to report that he and his companions were missing.

Many other parties were caught in this storm. Two Japanese rock climbers on the face of El Capitan in Yosemite died of exposure that day. They were climbing fast, and were not equipped for the storm. Other climbers on the same mountain carried adequate shelter and clothing, and survived to be rescued.

I found postings on the web by parties of experienced and well equipped backpackers, who used their navigation skills to get out of the mountains that Sunday, before the snow got too deep.

One solo hiker, a seasonal Park Service employee, returned to the trailhead mid-day Monday. He was less than a day overdue, but a rescue team was there, preparing to search for him.

Many other parties were well equipped, and waited comfortably, if anxiously, until their rescue. [1:04]

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Next time - in part two of A Winter Storm Warning, the rest of Mike's story, and some lessons learned.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to ensure future editions of The WildeBeat. Send your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net.

This has been The Wildebeat, program number fifteen. Thank you for listening.

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