My week in the Sequoia National Park began with a trek up a long and windy road up into the Sierra Mountain Range. In a caravan of vans and trucks filled with soon-to-be best friends and enough powdered food to feed us for the week, we climbed higher and higher to see some of the biggest and oldest trees in the country. Mixed in with the trees were visitors from dozens of nations, a gigantic cave deep into the mountains (filled with animals that have never seen sunlight and only one heart beat a day), bear cubs a couple of yards away from us, and more marmites than Boston has rats.
The first few days of the trip were filled with some amazing views, strenuous but rewarding climbs, and conversations with intellectuals from all over the country who challenged the way I thought about the intricate system of our National Parks. These were some amazing experiences, but the trip elevated to a whole new level of crazy when Friday hit.
On our way down from Sawtooth Pass, a nearly 12,000 foot ridge that looks out of the Mineral King Canyon, we were taking careful to find footing in the small rocks that covered the incredible steep decline. Walking single-file with 40 pound packs on our backs, we dug our heels into the mountainside in an attempt to keep us from plummeting into the sharp boulders beneath us.
About a third of the way down, we were met by a young Park Ranger adorned with handcuffs, radio, binoculars, and a whole pile of papers. She stopped to talk to us, unusual in this national wilderness. After a week of chatting with nobody except for the students and professors in our group, it was unusual to hear a new voice. The Ranger asked if any of us had seen a female hiker in her early 60s by herself. One of our professors, a film and English professor at a small liberal arts college in Iowa, talked with the Ranger first. Having seen a woman two days before, he described her attire and demeanor as the Ranger scribbled notes on a small yellow pad of paper. She asked more questions and having seen the same woman myself, I did the best to answer them. The professor and I looked at some pictures the Rangers had in an attempted to identify the missing person, but soon she had gathered all the information she could and we parted ways.
Fast forward a few hours, our group was down at Lower Monarch Lake, where we were planning on spending our last night. There, we were greeted by a five-person rescue team, accompanied by a gorgeous golden retriever rescue dog named Chipped . As a helicopter searched over the mountainside we had just descended, these rescue officers taught me about the wilderness search and recovery process. I learned that all these men and come from different walks of life, as firefighters, sheriffs, park rangers, computer engineers. While we were talking, the head rescuer’s radio buzzed. The helicopter had spotted the women about 200 yards up the mountainside from where we were camped out. Quickly, two of these men set off with Chipper to ascend the mountain as they took directions from spotters with binoculars on the ground. They located the woman within an hour of that radio call.
The story took an incredibly sad turn at this point. The woman had been found, but she was no longer alive. The rescuers covered her body for the night that was quickly coming and she would be removed by helicopter in the morning. Not the happy ending that stories deserve, but it was a learning experience for so many. The mark that this tragedy has left on me is as larger as the ancient Sequoias we saw on the first day in the park. It taught me that people from all different backgrounds have something to offer to a difficult situation, and it has made me very interested in joining the rescue service for a future career.
I wish I would change the outcome of this event in a heartbeat, but I would not want to change any of the other experiences me and my group was blessed with while spending a week backpacking in Sequoia National Park with Partners in the Park.
MacKenzie Bartz, Psychology