There were many things I did wrong that day. They will all become apparent as the story unfolds. What I want anyone who reads this to get out of it is a lesson. Do not make the same mistakes I made.
Saturday March 28th, 5:30 AM
It’s a two and a half hour drive from my apartment in San Diego to the Mt. Baldy trailhead, so I wanted to get an early start. I put together all the food and water for the day for myself and my dog Walter, who accompanies me on all my hikes, should whatever mountain on which I am hiking allow him to do so. He’s not a fan of car rides, but I knew he would love being outside all day. I was on the road just after six.
We arrive at Manker Flats, and hit the trail after about 15 minutes of double checking I had everything. We would be hiking the Devil’s Backbone Loop trail, which looks as follows:
I didn’t quite start at the actual trailhead, I started to the right of it further up Baldy Rd. by the ski lifts, which would make it about a 10 mile roundtrip hike. This is a map I had looked at on my computer a hundred times, as I have been planning on hiking Baldy for quite some time now. All I needed was good weather and a Saturday where I had nothing going on, and this day qualified. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. As I had looked at that map online a lot, I did not grab the map that was available at the trailhead.
We (all “we” references are myself and my dog) made it to the Baldy Notch around this time, and we had a look around. There were two other dogs roaming the grounds whom I was told belong to the Notch manager, and Walter played with them for a bit while I looked around. I always try to drink in as much of a place to which I have never been. After that we started again.
There were some steep sections of the Devil’s Backbone trail, which is aptly named. Very narrow in some parts and riding along the ridge, there wasn’t much room to let those coming down this direction pass.
It was a very enjoyable hike to the top. Walter made it seem like he had somewhere else to be, as he was tugging me up the whole way. He kept looking back as if to say, “C’mon man, pick up the pace, I want to be home in time to watch the Wisconsin game tonight.” But since we had just come from sea level and were now above 8,000 feet, I had to take my time.
Just after 1 PM
We ascend the final grade to the summit, and wow was it worth the effort. Clear blue sky for hundreds of miles in every direction meant pristine views that act like a B12 shot when you make the summit; suddenly you are full of life and energy. There must have been 50 people on the summit, but there was plenty of room. I poured Walter a bowl of water and gave him his lunch, as I sat down to eat mine and absorb my surroundings. I let Walter wander and introduce himself to everyone, and they all loved him. He’s so friendly and calm, people love to pet him and be around him. After about 30 minutes I decide it’s time to head down.
I was unsure of which path to take. I ask someone and they say, “Stay to the left.” A couple of dogs were playing in a pile of snow, and I let Walter have his last little bit of fun before the hike down. I planned on being back to the car no later than four.
Approximately 2 PM
As I said there were a lot of people on the mountain, and the hike down was a bit of slow going. It was at this point that I for some reason felt bogged down by all the people, and moved past them. Looking back on it, I realized that I had blinders on; tunnel vision if you will. I was just walking along, staring at my feet, not really paying attention to where I was going. It wasn’t much longer before I realized I lost the trail, and had no knowledge or ability to retrace my steps.
When I say “no ability,” that means that we had descended some very steep (I’d say 45 or 50 degree grade) slope and couldn’t climb back up. The only way to go was down. I would spend the next three hours sliding down the mountain on my backside, with Walter diligently following behind. I realized I needed all four limbs in order to control myself, so I took Walter off his leash and put it in my backpack.
I heard the sound of the San Antonio Falls, and I thought to myself, “If we can make it to the water we can just follow that down to the trailhead.”
Approximately 5 PM
We made it down to the falls. All that stood in our way was one last rock face to clamber down, and then we could follow the stream down the rest of the way. It was very difficult to get down this face, but I made it. I thought Walter could too. But I turned around and saw that he was not following.
This scene is very difficult to describe. Part of me wishes I had taken a picture so that everyone could see what we were faced with. But Walter sat on top of the rock face, and he couldn’t move. Not that he was injured or caught on something, he was just stuck. The rock was too slippery and he was scared. For 30 minutes I stood there, begging for him to follow me. “Walter come on buddy, I’ll catch you! Just jump on down and we’ll go home!” But it wasn’t working. The more I begged, the more he wanted to get to me, but couldn’t. He started yelping and whining. It was at this point I realized I soon had a decision to make.
I was out of food, and had very little water left. Not to mention another hour long hike to get to my car, and nightfall would soon be upon us. I had extra clothing – a sweatshirt, athletic pants, stocking hat and thin runner’s gloves – and I might have been able to survive the night, but then what? We were next to the falls, but that snow runoff is not good to drink. All the while I’m thinking this and trying to figure out how to get Walter down to me. After trying to no avail, I made a choice I had to make: I left my dog there.
Nearly completely dark, and I made it back to my car much worse for the wear. It was very steep, and I realized how much of a mistake it was to think that we could follow a waterfall back to the trailhead. I drove down to the Baldy Village, found a motel room for the night, ate a little food and filled my car with gas, as it was about a half gallon from being empty.
I drive back up to the trailhead, and start walking the road to try and get closer to where I had to leave Walter. But I had to leave him in a spot well above where the end of the falls meets the road back to the trailhead.
I’m yelling his name, clapping, whistling, anything I can think to do. But anyone who has stood next to a waterfall knows it is very loud. The person you’re talking to could be three feet away and you’d still have to shout. I was also worried about coyotes or mountain lions hearing me. I spent almost 45 minutes out there, but knew there wasn’t much I could do.
I got back to the hotel room and called home. I knew my mother wouldn’t answer a strange phone number (I couldn’t use my phone because there was no cell service) calling her at close to midnight central time, so it took a while to reach her. But when I did, the gravity of the situation hit me, and I cried like a baby. Just uncontrollable tears and sadness; I had to leave Walter on the mountain, and it was all my fault that we ended up in that situation. It was all my fault and there was nothing I could do to go back and change it.
I talked to her for a while about what I should do next, and then showered. It was like taking a salt bath. The cuts I had accumulated all over my legs, arms and hands stung like a nest of wasps.
I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. What have I done? I kept thinking to myself.
Sunday March 29th, 7:00 AM
Morning light eventually came and the first thing I did was head to the visitor’s center to let them know the situation. My legs were in bad shape from the previous day, but I couldn’t leave without trying to find Walter. I got back to the trailhead, and headed up the actual route I should have come down from the previous day. I told everyone I saw to keep an eye out for Walter, and if they found him to take him to the visitor’s center, as they’d have no way to contact me because of the lack of cell service.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back to the spot where I left him, but hiking up the trail, I was able to get to a ridge that overlooks that exact spot where I last saw him.
And he wasn’t there. In fact, I saw no movement down there of any kind. I stood and I stared, I looked around the whole area to try and spot him. But he was not there.
At this point I’m lucky to be walking. My legs are just completely gone. I was fortunate to run into a couple of search and rescue guys, and they said they would put out a call. Running on maybe two hours worth of sleep and bum legs, I didn’t know what to do, so I called my dad. He said I had to go home. All the way back to San Diego.
The guilt and sadness I felt as I drove away from the mountain is impossible to describe in words.
End of Day, Monday, March 30th
By this point I had put ads on Craigslist, LostMyDoggie, Facebook, Twitter and had contacted numerous shelters in the area. But it didn’t feel like enough. I was an emotional and physical wreck. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have made so many mistakes to allow this to happen?
Thursday, April 2nd, 6:00 AM
I never thought I’d have to do this again so soon. I was taking today and Friday off work to go and look for Walter. When I got to the mountain, I stopped in the Baldy Lodge to ask if anyone had seen a dog who fit his description.
No one had, but it was at this point I realized that his missing was already well known among the locals on the mountain. They’re all part of an online message board, and someone had put up a notice. It wasn’t just I who was looking for Walter.
Saturday, April 4th, 8:30 AM
The kindness of everyone on that mountain is the only reason I was able to keep together while searching for my dog. Missy, the manager of the Lodge, personally made almost two dozen calls to people who lived in houses near the trailheads. A man named Rich, who worked for the Forest Service, drove me around in his truck and together we covered as much of the mountain as we could in one hour what it would have taken me six to do the same. We talked to everyone. I handed out flyers and had even bought binoculars to try and see as much space as possible.
I realized a lot of things in being back on the mountain and searching for Walter, but most of all I saw how lucky I was to make it down in the first place. We were so far off trail, and in such a dangerous situation. It would have been very easy for me to sprain my ankle or tear my ACL and make it difficult or impossible to walk. In talking to some of the locals, I heard that hikers lose the trail once a week. One woman I talked to said she’s lived on the mountain for 45 years and had just lost the trail on a hike a couple of months prior. This did not make me feel better, as Walter was still missing.
After 48 hours of hiking an untold number of miles on the mountain, visiting animal shelters and hospitals in the towns just below the mountain and having no luck, I decided there was nothing more I could do. I once again drove back to San Diego dejected and filled with sorrow.
Wednesday Night, April 8th
I had completely given up hope. Everyone kept telling me to stay positive, but I couldn’t. Everyone kept telling me not to feel guilty, but I felt nothing else. It was all my fault. My mother had scheduled a flight to San Diego that would land tomorrow night, and we would spend the weekend looking for Walter.
When all the flyers had been posted, all the calls to the shelters had been made and all the personal searching up to this point had not returned my dog, I did the only thing left to do: I prayed. Anyone who knows me is aware that I am not a religious man, but when all logic and earthly attempts to solve a problem have been made, what else is there to do?
I went to sleep for the 11th consecutive night without Walter by my side.
Thursday, April 9th, 6:00 AM
My phone ringing wakes me up. “Hello?”
“Is this Brian?”
Still half asleep. “This is he.”
“I think I found your dog.”
Now I’m awake. “Is he wearing a Kansas Jayhawks collar?”
“Yes. I found your information on the tags.”
At 6:05 I called my parents. At 6:10 I was in my car. The man who found him lived in the last house one could possibly live in on that mountain, way up by the ski lifts. This is about 7,000 feet up.
I was so excited to see him. And then I saw him. He looked awful. He had lost 15 pounds, which is a lot when he only weighed 65 to begin with. I examined his paws and legs and saw that he had quite a few cuts; no surprise considering where he had been for the last 12 days. Looking at him I knew the story was not over; I had to get him down to the nearest animal hospital immediately. I hugged the man who found him and drove down the mountain.
We are now back in my apartment in San Diego. The vet I took him to was a very knowledgeable and nice man. He gave Walter a couple of shots, prescribed him a pain med and antibiotic, as his skin had been exposed to the elements for so long we had to make sure there weren’t any tick bites. He gave him a check up, and told me that despite being in the elements for so long, he was healthy.
Upon returning home, I went to get him more food, and it was like Ghandi after the fast. I knew he was starving, but as his stomach had shrunk, I couldn’t give him too much too soon.
He got on the couch and curled up in his familiar spot. He slept for the next eight hours. He was finally home.
Since then, Walter continues to get better everyday. The cuts on his legs and paws are almost healed, and his personality remains unchanged; he is his normal happy, loving self, and he has gained some of the weight he lost back. He lies next to me as I type these words.
I still think about that day a lot. If you were to ask me what I was thinking, I would tell you I wasn’t. There are so many things I could have and should have done differently to prevent all of this from happening. Bottom line, I underestimated the mountain. And as any experienced hiker will tell you, as soon as you underestimate the mountain, that’s when it wins.
Learn from me. No matter how experienced you are, have a map with you or on your phone. However, don’t rely on that phone. Have a compass with you as well. Tell people where you are going. Always be prepared; have extra food, water and clothes. If you are unsure of the trail, always be looking around. Look back to where you have come from, as even if you are following the same trail down that you are coming up, surroundings can change. If you are unsure of where to go, follow other people on the mountain. If you do lose the trail, don’t do what I did. Stay up along the ridge, use your sense of direction and find your way down safely.
The most important thing: if you find yourself undersupplied, it is taking longer than expected to reach the top, or weather is closing in, turn around. You can try to summit another time. Don’t tempt fate by pushing yourself too far. Always know your limits, and always keep an eye on the sky for impending rain or storms, as weather can change quickly at high altitude.
It is nothing short of a miracle that my boy found his way home. He survived cold nights of 25 degree temperatures with 40 mph winds, and 60 degree days with a harsh sun up above. I don’t know what he did or how he did it to survive on that mountain for 12 days, but he did it. If only dogs could talk.
We’ll go hiking again some time soon. He’s only two years old, and I imagine a 14,000 foot peak or two are in our future. He loves being outdoors and he loves going on hikes. But what happened on Mt. Baldy will never repeat itself. Perhaps we will even go back to that mountain one day. It is a beautiful place, and I honestly cannot overstate how nice everyone is there. But I will have a map, and I will ensure that we get down safely.
You never think something like this will happen to you until it does happen to you. I and my dog were both incredibly lucky. Learn from me. Don’t let what happened to me and my dog happen to you and yours. Hiking should be a fun and liberating thing, so long as you are prepared and aware. Enjoy yourselves out there, and remember what Morpheus said; there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.