Friday, December 18, 2009


-348 days ago I almost died. No exaggeration. Right there, in the middle of this parking lot in the mountains.
--As you look at this photo, picture the parking lot as being empty, with only one car: a 1995 Jeep with a Hungarian flag sticker and an American Birding Association sticker in the back window. My death would have been the product of my stupidity and recklessness.
---I went hiking in the mountains.
-----In the winter.
------Here’s what happened: I was too tired to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count held by the local Audubon Society chapter on the previous weekend, so I went birding on the same trail, a week later. Some good birds had been reported, and I wanted to see them. Trouble was that previous weekend was before the big storm that dumped rain & snow all over Southern California, including the place in this picture, Ice House Canyon. The canyon has a hiking trail that goes from 5,120 feet up to Icehouse Saddle, at 7580 feet. From the saddle, you can hike up higher to places like Telegraph Peak which is a dozen feet short of 9,000 feet in altitude.
------Allow me to state the obvious: it’s no accident that the place is named Ice House Canyon. Its steepness and orientation keep it cold and dark to the point that while the snow and ice have melted elsewhere at higher altitudes, Ice House Canyon is icy and slippery. The trail runs along a year-round stream, and one of the target birds for any hike along the trail is American Dipper , a thrush whose idea of a good time is to swim in cold, icy streams to hunt for its favorite prey: insects and other invertebrates that live underwater. The bird literally flies underwater in-between bouts of sitting on a rock, pumping its tail up and down, and bouncing around like a heroin addict who needs a fix.
-------The problem with this bird is that it doesn’t like people, so you need to get there early in the morning, to be the first hiker along the trail, so that you can see Dippers before they hide from all of the loud Boy Scouts and other hikers. This is where things went terribly wrong.
--------I drove the Jeep up to the Ice House Canyon parking lot, and parked in the spot where you see the Lexus in the photo. It was a weekday, and the day before New Year’s Eve. My car was the only one there. I stayed inside the car, and looked around. Hm…looks kind of snowy and icy. Maybe I shouldn’t do this, today. The problem, of course, was that I was on my annual 10 day vacation from USC, when they close down the University. Imagine that: forced to go on vacation! So, I felt the urgency of needing to get in my fabulous birding hike while I had free days off from work. The rest of the year is too hectic, with my schedule of working the weekends in a local hospital, and weekdays at SC.
---------Okay, so I lived in Hungary for years, and have traveled all over Europe in the winter. I have negotiated icy sidewalks in various European capitals, and crunched snow underfoot in the countryside. I’m an old pro. I am experienced. I know what I am doing.
-----------I decide that I will get out of the car, and walk to the edge of the parking lot, where I will decide whether or not it’s safe. I have firmly decided that if the trail appears icy or slippery, I’m not going to risk it. Uh, uh. Not worth it. After all, I have a wife and kids. I open the Jeep door, and climb out. I put on a thick hat, and warm gloves. I extract my mountain-climbing poles, and grip them firmly. Good. I now have four legs. I am safe. I start walking across the clean, dry parking lot.
------------I woke up, and realized that I couldn’t breathe. Words cannot describe the horror. Imagine being awake, and aware of the fact that you are unable to push air in and out of your lungs. As I lied there, I realized that I could not move my arms and legs. I had gone deaf, and could only hear the rush of blood circulating in my ears. I am paralyzed, and I will lie here, awake, while I die from the lack of oxygen. The one thing that I can feel is the back of my head, and it hurts like a mother. Imagine somebody that you really don’t like. This somebody has big arm muscles, and he smacks you in the back of the head with a cast iron frying pan. This might bring you close to what I felt. Maybe.
-------------After 20 seconds of this living hell, my lungs started working. I still couldn’t move, but at least I wasn’t going to die. My arms and legs were still functionless decorations. I realize that I will lie here in the freezing cold for hours, until someone discovers me. I will most likely be taken by ambulance to a hospital, and I will live the rest of my life depending on strangers who will change my diapers and Foley catheter on a regular basis. Oh, wait, that’s not going to happen: a bear or coyotes will find me first, and tear me from limb to limb. Oh My God.
--------------I suck in some air, ready to shout “HELP” at the top of my lungs. A feeble, timid ‘help’ hisses from my lips. Fuck. Nobody can hear me. After a couple of minutes—it may have been less time than that, but it felt like forever—my arms and legs came back to life. I sat up, and the headache just about blinded me. I wanted to stand up and return to my car, but I feared falling—and re-injuring my head—again. I played it safe, and crawled on my hands and knees to the Jeep, where I held on to it while standing up. I sat in the car, and assessed myself. I stared at my own face in the rear-view mirror for asymmetry of facial expression. I looked at my pupils. I ruminated over whether or not I was nauseous or dizzy (a bad sign that would mean it was unsafe to drive down into Baldy Village for help). The answer to all of these was ‘no’. But the headache, oh the headache. That couldn’t be good. I decided “fuck it” I need to be among other people, in case I lose consciousness. I need to tell another human being that I have fallen, hit my head hard, lost consciousness, and need to go to the hospital. I am flashing back to the 14 year old knucklehead who crashed his skateboard (no helmet) and literally couldn’t tell me what I had just shown him, if I hid it behind me. I had just done his head CT, and he had a subdural bleed. He couldn’t tell me if that was a pen, or a coin that I had just shown him. This could become me, and I need to get to a hospital as soon as possible.
--------------So, like all stupid men, I drove the Jeep down into Baldy Village, and realizing that I still wasn’t nauseous or dizzy, drove all the way down to my house in Claremont, where I parked in my driveway. I walked inside, and told the wife what had happened, but of course I downplayed it, with instructions that I start acting weird, or saying strange things, haul my ass to the hospital. I mean—what the hell—if I made it this far, it’s probably just a minor concussion, right?
---------------So what did I do next? I called up my friends who work as x-ray techs in hospitals, and discussed my head injury. Did I call up my doctor? No. Did I go to an urgent care? No. Well, going to an urgent care would have been pointless: they would have sent me to a hospital to get a head CT. Well, after 24 hours of interminable pain, I finally went to the hospital where I work part-time, and turned myself in to the proper authorities. They were nice about it. The ER doc said that the temporary paralysis concerned him more than the headache, and he ordered one CT of my head (my brain) and one of my c-spine (my neck bones). No brain bleed, no broken neck.
----------------I got lucky. It could have turned out very differently. There were consequences, though: I became very fearful of going to the mountains, especially Mount Baldy and Ice House Canyon. Now that, my friends, is a problem, because tomorrow is the Christmas Bird Count. I got a phone call a week ago from N.G. asking me to count birds on Ice House Canyon Trail with L.S. I didn’t tell N.G. about what happened a year ago; I just said yes. Since saying ‘yes’ a week ago, I have been freaking out. I can’t describe the fear. When I leave my house for the train station each morning, I see all of that snow up in the mountains, and I picture a repeat of last year’s head injury. I have been beating myself up for the fact that I am thinking of canceling out, and letting L.S., a retired school teacher, hike it alone. Why is it okay to expose him to danger? I can’t do that.
-----------------I devise a plan: I will go to a sporting goods store, and buy a skateboarding helmet. It will be green. With the helmet and the hiking poles, people will think that I am a professional mountaineer. A really fat, breathless professional mountaineer. Okay, Okay: I got it: I will wear a backpack, and if it is dry and safe, I will hide the helmet in the backpack, to avoid embarrassment. After all, with that helmet on, a 43 year old fat guy will be assumed to be epileptic or to have cerebral palsy. They’ll think I ride the special bus. We can’t have that.
------------------Because of the hectic Christmas shopping season, among other things, I can’t get out of the house to buy a skateboard helmet without my wife finding out (I don’t want to embarrass myself by letting her know how afraid I am of falling, and getting hurt). Last night, I called up Big 5, and they told me that they were closing at 10:00 p.m. The wife went out grocery shopping, and it was too late for me to sneak off. Okay, I decided that I’ll go this morning, and get to work late. The guy in the skateboard section of Big 5 told me last night that they were opening at 8:00 a.m. You gotta love Christmas shopping hours. I left the house this morning, and realized that as warm as it has been this last week—combined with the fact that the last two storms dropped a lot of warm water—in the mountains, Ice House Canyon might be very different from last year. Instead of driving to Upland, I drove straight up the mountain, and didn’t stop until I got to the Ice House Canyon parking lot. It looked very dry everywhere. The nearest snow appeared to be thousands of feet higher up the mountain. Still, I cannot describe the fear that I felt when I climbed out of the Jeep. I was terrified. There were a bunch of cars in the parking lot: the ones you see in the photo; and their owners must have beeen up, hiking the trail. Hence, it must be safe. I made myself do it. I stood outside the Jeep, and walked around. A sudden feeling of calm washed over me. I drove down to Claremont, parked at the train station, and went to work. I just got off the phone with L.S. I look forward to meeting him in the parking lot at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.


Bill said...

Backpacking in the Sierra 30 years ago I nearly died in a late October blizzard. Went back to that remote canyon the following summer in stomach churning fear. Camped and hiked all over the mountains since, but will always view that area as a gray, icy, snowy, crypt, and have no desire to return again.

Thomas Geza Miko said...

Lee Swanberg and I did the Christmas Bird Count the next day, on Saturday morning, and the weather was wonderful. The trail was dry, and it was so warm that we took off our gloves. We saw lots of really good birds, like Pygmy Nuthatches, White-headed Woodpeckers, and 4 Townsend's Solitaires. I'm glad that I took back possession of Ice House Canyon.