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On a January afternoon in 2008, 19-year-old college student Adena Rivera-Dundas went for a hike at Chantry Flat. She took a wrong turn and hiked several miles in the wrong direction; with daylight fading she hurried to make it to the parking lot before dark. She and her mother, Heather, tell what happened next...

Heather:  My cellphone rang at 5:20, while I was standing in line at Trader Joe’s. I needed to get a few groceries for an early dinner, before going with my fifteen-year-old son, Teo, and my boyfriend, Rob, to a jazz concert.  
I’m forty-eight, a mother of two.  I work as a consultant and am a part-time student, and I was focused on enjoying my last week of vacation. 
“I don’t want you to worry,” was the first thing Adena said.

Adena:  I tell her I'm fine; I just made a little mistake and won't be home before eight. 

Heather: By this time, of course, it was already dark out.  The mountains get cold at night in January, even here in Southern California.  She was wearing jeans and a sweater, she said, and in her pack had some food and water, a cellphone, and her journal. But I shouldn’t worry, because she would be fine.

Adena:  She sounds anxious, but I feel better and so continue, cheerily noticing how well the sky is retaining light from the now-sunken sun.

Heather:  I forgot the groceries and headed home.   The first thing I saw was a note on the kitchen table. 
“Dear Mom, I am hiking to Sturtevant Falls on the Chantry Flats trail.  I should be home by 6.”
Note in hand, I went online to find the trail.  I traced the route from my house:  a short drive on the freeway, a straight mile north, several snaky miles of mountain road…and then nothing for miles and miles north, east, and west. 
I am a single parent, and money is never far from my mind. To stay within my budget I’ve learned to avoid calling for help—most things, I’ve found, I can eventually figure out how to do myself.   I put on my sneakers, posted Teo on the landline, and got in my car to drive to the trailhead.
 
Adena:  As I descend deeper into the canyon, it gets darker and colder.  Trees completely cover the sky, squashing any hope that I might rely on moonlight.  I hold my cellphone in front of me, using the LED screen as a flashlight -- and I use my trusty walking stick to make sure the path is still there.  I get to the stream and very very slowly make my way across, and I find myself in Hoegees Campground.   I find picnic benches, toilets, and an ‘in case of emergency call 911’ sign.  The only thing I can't find is the trail out. 

Heather:  I decided I didn’t need to rescue her, exactly, but I would wait by her car in the parking lot, just to make sure she didn’t get locked in overnight. Four miles, for a teenager in good shape, shouldn’t take too long.  And, though I would probably miss dinner, we could still make it to the concert.

Adena:   It’s pitch black at the campground.  I stumble around blindly and keep ending up back at the stream, but I can't see across it.  I tiptoe across anyway and end up in brush, completely incapable of getting any footing. I march back into the camp, falling over small fire pits.  I check my cellphone:  no signal.  That’s when I give up.  I start screaming for help, ripping my throat.  Nothing.  Finally, I stagger back up the trail to where I got reception, speed-dialing my mom a million times until I finally get through and then I tell her I can’t do it, I can’t get out. 

Heather:   She sounded terrified. The nightmare Mom trifecta of hungry-scared-cold blasted through the phone.  “I’m coming to get you!”  I said, and aimed my Volvo up the mountain road to the trailhead.  
I am terrified of heights in the best of circumstances, and my cellphone reception was getting wavery as I inched around the switchbacks in the dark.  I stopped the car in the middle of the road, hazard lights flashing, and tried to hold the cellphone with my shoulder.  Adena dictated while I wrote down the name of the campground and the trail with shaking hands. The wind blew, I lost Adena’s call, and then my brother rang to see what was happening.  
“Don’t do that,” he said, when I outlined my rescue plan.  (Which was…I don’t know really…run four miles in and find her with mother magic, I guess.)  “Then there will be two people lost instead of one.”
I called repeatedly until I got through to Adena’s phone, and she and I agreed she would stay where she was and wait for help.  We also agreed to hang up to conserve our phone batteries. 
“Be brave,” I said. 
“I love you,” she replied.
I turned around and drove back down the mountain.  I called 911.

Adena:  I sit down and start shivering after running around and sweating so much, so I curl up in the dirt and try to make a nest out of leaves. 

Heather: Within ten minutes, a Sierra Madre Police Department squad car was parked next to me and the officer was taking my statement.  Within twenty minutes, two more squad cars from the Sierra Madre PD, two squad cars from the LA County Sheriff’s Department, and a Sheriff’s Department van had joined us on the little cul-de-sac where I had parked. I told the story over and over.  I kept dropping my keys, my pen, my glasses, the note, because I was trying to hold them all in my right hand.  In my left hand I maintained a death grip on the cellphone.
I was trying not to think of the expense, but as each new vehicle arrived my mental calculations went up.  Each officer represented how much per hour?  Each vehicle?
I found out later that the Chantry Flats trail traverses four different jurisdictions.  Where you are on the trail determines who is responsible for responding to your 911 call.  Since no one knew exactly where Adena was we had several different agencies represented at all times.
A van from the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team arrived.  After I told him about the trail and the campground, the driver said he knew exactly where Adena was and he would have her out in a few hours.  I offered him the fleece jacket I had brought for her.  No thanks, he said; they had their own supplies.  Of course they did, I thought; they are professionals.  I was just an irresponsible mother who couldn’t even hold her keys, let alone keep track of her child.  I was the sort of mother who would lose her child in the woods.  They write fairy tales about mothers like me, I thought.

Adena:  The police call me; I tell them exactly where I am, because I know, because I have a hiking book with me.  The police officer tells me to stay where I am, don't panic, they WILL find me. 

Heather:  The search and rescue guy drove up the mountain, followed by four more competent professionals in their SUVs.  I felt relieved at their confidence.  Still, my financial calculations shot from the hundreds into the thousands. 

Adena:  Then the search and rescue team call to get my location and assure me that they will find me in forty-five minutes.  I calm down, eat a cheese stick, drink some water after spilling some on myself, do jumping jacks to stay warm and mentally berate myself for being such a moron. 

Heather:  I was talking to the officer who had been communicating with Adena.  Why had he put his cellphone away?
“How is she doing?”  I asked.  Fine, just fine, was the answer, except that her phone had just run out of battery power.

Adena:  I do more jumping jacks, chase away a skunk and sing very loudly. 

Heather:  I can get another job.  I can finish school later.  It wasn’t quite a prayer, but it was certainly a bargain:  whatever it costs, I’ll pay it, just get her down. 
I stood shivering in the street, and for a long time nothing happened.  The stars were bright and precise in the quiet moonless night.  The mountain hulked in front of me.  I glared at it, trying to see where on its dark flank my cold and frightened daughter was hidden.  What hubris Adena had shown, to think she could blithely cover this immensity in an afternoon’s walk.    How stupid I was to let her try. 

Adena:  I eventually hear something on the path below me.  I start shouting and for a little while we have a call and response thing going.  Soon two men with head lamps come upon me.  The first man shakes my hand warmly and asks me if I need anything, saying "I have a jacket."  I smile through my embarrassment and decline the offer.  The second man also shakes my hand and again I am offered a jacket.  I giggle a bit; feel more at ease; and the two men tease each other about whose jacket I would choose if I were forced to.  We decide I would just have to suck it up and wear them both all the way back.  They say they had been tracking my footprints and demand to see my shoes because they had put bets on what kind I was wearing. 

Heather:  The search team reached her about 9:15, and radioed that she was okay. I called home.  Teo was disappointed to hear that she didn’t get pulled off the mountain by a helicopter.

Adena:  As we hike down to the parking lot, our numbers grow until we reach a total group of five search and rescue workers, four men and one woman, and one dumb lost hiker (me).  The rescue team members are jovial, laughing, incredibly nice and assure me if they didn't have lost souls to rescue they would just be sitting at home watching Final Jeopardy. 

Heather:  The Sheriff’s Department sergeant came over to say goodbye.  “I’m going to leave my guys here until your daughter comes down,” she said.  “It’s good for them to see a happy ending every now and then.”  
“Her guys” – three of them in Sheriff’s Department green -- stood chatting in the street with the police officers, who wore black. One was very tall, one looked like a former brother-in-law, one stood in shirtsleeves in the chilly night air.  How many unhappy endings had each of them seen, I wondered.  I realized that I had never thought about it, but a night like this was probably why they became law officers in the first place:  a night when their efforts were successful and the danger was overcome, when no lives were irrevocably damaged, when everyone got to go home and sleep in their own beds.   A night when the lost girl walks down off the mountain unharmed.  I wondered if they knew when they started out that a night like this would be so rare that their sergeant would make a point of having them see it through to the end.
 
Adena:   After the four-mile hike through the incredible leafy darkness we reach a small parking lot with a big SUV.  I thank everyone before hopping into the front seat.  The rescue team treat me as if I've just survived something incredible and say things like, "stay in the car, we don't want you to get cold." 

Heather:   When she got out of the squad car, she was wearing the apple-green cashmere sweater I gave her for Christmas. She looked embarrassed but composed and -- just fine, really.

Adena:  I spy my mom and quickly try to assess how angry she is.  It's then that the host of police surrounding her becomes visible to me.  There are, what, seven?  Seven policemen that have been standing there for at least three hours with my mom waiting for what?  Not … for me? 

Heather:  The next day we delivered thank you notes and baskets of sweets to all of the various agencies involved in Adena’s rescue. (I made her carry the baskets and do most of the talking.  I am not unaware that there was a punishment aspect to this.)  We met the chief of police of Sierra Madre, who had heard all about Adena. From her, we found out that the search and rescue team is an entirely volunteer operation.  Volunteers?  I was flabbergasted.  I don’t know what amazed me more:  that people will head up the mountain to rescue strangers, on call, year-round, or that they do it for free.  She gets rescued, and we both get to finish school?  How miraculous. 
Later that afternoon Adena and I sat in adjacent whirlpool tubs in Burke Williams (a pre-scheduled treat we had saved up gift coupons for), and rehashed the experience, realizing how amazingly lucky we were throughout the whole thing.   Most of all, I said, I will be grateful for the bravery of the police, the sheriff’s deputies, and the search and rescue squad.  

Adena:  Things I learned:
Never leave the house without a flashlight
A cellphone is not a flashlight
Start all hikes at six in the morning

Heather:  I hope Adena learns from her blisters. I hope she never again takes a hike alone without a flashlight, never again puts other people at risk through carelessness, never again embarks on an adult journey with the impetuousness of a child. But will this keep her safe?   Three weeks after Adena’s rescue, a young woman fell off the Chantry Flats trail to her death.  She was with a group of experienced hikers, and it was 11:30 in the morning.  She did nothing wrong, and yet her story ended so tragically that no call for help could have saved her. 
How I feel for this poor girl, and for her mother.  How I fear this random crushing destruction. 
Adena needs to be more independent than she even realizes yet. She has many mountains ahead, and how she tackles them is up to her, and up to luck.  All I can do is stand at the foot of the mountain and hope. And keep my phone charged, just for now.

Adena:  When in an impossible situation, call your mom.  Then sing.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 09 February 2011 )