This is more of a confession than a trip report. There were plenty of lessons learned today, and our cautionary tale starts with the weather. The weather in the Sierras had been volatile. A high-pressure system over Colorado forced massive amounts of moisture up along the eastern Sierras. As a result, lightning storms in the Sierras were a daily occurrence. I hate lightning. Rather than push my luck, I decided that hiking locally would have to do. I chose Iron Mountain. This is a pretty challenging hike for Southern California, but it felt appropriate given our fitness goals.
Poor Planning and Fatigue Got the Best of Me
I worked out hard that week. Every day I did endurance training, weight training, and HIIT workouts. The evening before we hiked, I did a hard set of deadlifts after a day of meetings with clients in Irvine. I felt fatigued but still up for the challenge in the morning. I checked the weather earlier, and Mount Baldy was supposed to be 55 degrees at the summit that day. It was hot at lower elevations, but we may only experience temps in the upper 70’s toward the end of our descent.
I picked up Manny at 5:00 AM, and we headed to the mountains above Azusa. The weather was perfect at 65 degrees. As we climbed toward the first ridge, we felt the temps drop five more degrees. It was going to be a perfect day for hiking.
About four miles in, a low saddle connects the ridge to Iron Mountain. The rest of the trail gains elevation steeply all the way to the summit. On this steep section, I began to feel fatigued from all those workouts during the week. It was also getting warmer quickly—warmer than I was ready for. It seemed to hit me all at once. “I don’t think I’ve got enough gas in the tank to do this,” I told Manny. Manny had not summited Iron Mountain previously as I had, so I told him I’d wait if he wanted to bag the summit and meet up in an hour.
“I don’t think I’ve got enough gas in the tank…”
I took a nap under some trees. I was out cold. I woke up shortly before Manny came back, about two hours later. It felt like 100+ degrees when I left the shade of the trees. Manny returned from the summit completely deflated. It was sweltering, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Manny and I discussed the possibility of staying where we were in the shade and waiting out the heat of the day, but we had a lot of daylight left. So we opted to descend and get to the safety of the car as soon as possible. We had a little over five miles to go.
As we descended, the temperature rose to 106 degrees within 15 minutes. It was so hot it felt like I was burning. My aluminum trekking poles were so hot I could not touch the shafts. My anxiety rose as the miles dragged on. Finally, we stopped for water, and I told Manny that I felt like we were in a very unsafe situation. We agreed to stay close together in case one of us showed signs of heat exhaustion.
At four miles out from the car, we both ran out of water. We hiked on. Burning.
Heat Exhaustion, or Worse, Is a Possibility
Typically, my heartrate should be about 100 bpm during a descent like this. It was near 170. I didn’t feel the telltale signs of heat exhaustion yet, but it was evident that my heart was struggling to try to cool my body and it was losing. I was praying.
I never thought we’d die from heat stroke, although that was a possibility. The week after our hike, someone died locally under strikingly similar circumstances. Both of us had strong fitness. We were both used to heat. After all, we’re from Riverside. Heat is our superpower. I was more worried that we’d get so dehydrated that we would end up very sick by the time we got off trail. On one occasion, I was so dehydrated that I vomited all night – a terrible dehydration death spiral.
To Safety! No, Not Really
I finally got to the car 10 minutes before Manny. All of the energy he expended getting to the summit put him at an energy disadvantage. I pushed my clicker to unlock the door, and nothing happened. I panicked inside. There is no one anywhere, and I had no cell service. AAA was worthless to me here.
I pushed my clicker to unlock the door, and nothing happened. I panicked inside.
I sat down to collect my thoughts. There was a stream running down a nearby canyon. Manny and I could sit in it to cool off and drink from it. We’d probably get giardia, but that would take three weeks. This wasn’t today’s problem.
I tried my key again. I clicked and clicked and clicked at the white Subaru in front of me. I heard faint beeps about 30 feet away. At that moment, I realized I was trying to open the wrong white Subaru!
I got in the car and ran the air conditioner to cool things down for Manny. Stupidly, I didn’t have any water in the car. I usually have water in the car for emergencies just like this. Unfortunately, the one time I needed it, I didn’t have it.
As we drove out, I saw a guy who worked for the forest service doing some roadside work. I rolled down the window and asked if he had any water. He didn’t, but he was kind enough to drive back to his office, where he had cold bottles of water and Gatorade. I don’t think I’ve ever been more thankful for a bottle of water.
Manny mentioned that the last time he peed, he thought about whether or not he should pee into his water bottle, just in case he needed to reuse it.
On the way home, Manny mentioned that the last time he peed, he thought about whether or not he should pee into his water bottle, just in case he needed to reuse it. Let’s hope we never have to ask ourselves questions like this again.