We heard the helicopter long before we saw it. We were climbing a rough path in the eastern Sierra that qualified as something between a hiking trail and a rock climb. It was tough, rocky, strewn with slippery slabs of granite and loose gravel. My wife, Andrea, swore she could stand upright and reach out and touch the slope in front of her. Maybe a bit of an exaggeration; still this mountain trail was a tough one, ranking right up with the Bloody Canyon trail out of Walker Lake.
The helicopter came into view then, sweeping its way up valley from the town of Independence thousands of feet below us.
We were headed for Golden Trout Lake, out of Onion Valley. We’d climbed to Kearsarge Pass two days before, and then to Matlock Lakes. On that hike we’d met up with a forest ranger and chatting with him, Andrea mentioned our plans. “We’re going to Golden Trout Lake tomorrow and then on to Dragon Peak.”
He gave us a look—think of the look your mother would give you if you said you were going to take up big wave surfing with Laird Hamilton.
“You can get to Golden Trout Lake—might not even be that hard—but are you both experienced climbers?”
“Not especially. We’ve both hiked all over the High Sierra, though.”
“Do you have a topo map of this area?”
We told him we did; I got it out of my day pack and handed it to him.
“Here’s the trail to Kearsarge,” he said, pointing it out on the map. “Golden Trout is here, off to the north. There is a trail, not maintained, in poor repair, and in places you can’t even follow it. What else do you notice? The trail to Golden Trout is not on the map. There’s a reason for that. You might find your way to Golden Trout Lake. But don’t go any farther than that. Look at contour lines above Golden Trout. That’s nasty stuff. Don’t even try for Dragon Peak. It’s only a class 3 climb, but for a day hike, I think it’s off your list. Even good climbers sometimes anchor and rope up to do it.”
So, as I said, we were making our way up this trail that was not on the map. The trail was so steep that Andrea was down on her hands and knees at times; her trekking poles useless, she’d toss them up the slope to me and I’d hold them until she reached me and then I’d climb ahead and she’d repeat the process.
We climbed in a growth of pine and fir and the air smelled of wild mint and sage.
I carried a simple day pack with four water bottles, ham and turkey sandwiches, a bag of trail mix, and a Nelson DeMille murder mystery—a little light reading for our lunch stop.
The trouble with murder mysteries is eventually you start thinking like the detective, or at least the way you believe he’s thinking. And then you suspect everybody of something, even if you have no clue what it might be.
We met up with a couple of hikers making their way down. One of them, a pretty young woman of 25 or so and carrying a full pack asked where we were headed and I told her. “Oh, Golden Trout,” she said. “The trail gives out before that. But somebody tied a red bandana to a bush. Look for that. It marks a good place to do a stream crossing. After you’re across, you can pick up the trail again. It gets pretty easy after that.”
It was lucky we met her. I saw the red bandana from high on a ridge and we worked our way down to it and crossed the stream on a couple of small logs that were laid across it.
The sound of the helo’s rotors grew louder and it passed over us and flew up the mountain toward Golden Trout Lake and then farther up the mountain toward Dragon Peak.
“That’s a forest service helo out of Lone Pine,” I said. “Search and Rescue calls on them when somebody’s hurt or lost. Sometimes they call in a Navy chopper. But that’s forest service. Something’s going on up there.” My fictional detective’s brain was spinning.
The helo circled and came back over us again and then turned and went upslope and west to Dragon Peak. We watched. It hovered over a spot up high on the mountain then back over us again.
Andrea and I reached a beautiful high meadow, with tall soft grass and marsh and a mountain stream running through. It was the exit stream from Golden Trout Lake. We sat on flat rocks close the water and dug trail mix, ham and cheese, apples and oranges out of my pack. The helo went low over our heads and then the rotors slowed and it landed among tall pines only a few hundred yards away, up high on a ridge close to Dragon Peak.
“They’ve found what they were looking for.” In only a couple of minutes, the chopper took off in thin warm mountain air and headed down toward the town of Independence.
We heard the voices of men and boys coming down from the high ridge above us a short time later. “I can see them,” Andrea said. “I make out six.” And soon I could see them too, appearing then disappearing amongst the trees. When they reached the clearing of our meadow, Andrea waved to them, but they didn’t see us. From a little over half a football field away I could make out the light tan uniform of county search and rescue—SAR for those in the know—followed by 4 young boys and last a middle aged man in the dark green shirt of a Boy Scout leader. But the boys didn’t wear uniforms of any kind. They were in T-shirts– covered with varying amounts of dirt—jeans and hiking boots. A scout leader and a few boys from his troop or just a guy with some neighborhood kids? The public assumes, a detective deduces. I learned that from the paperback I had with me. So I thought I’d just watch and listen.
They came closer and Andrea waved again. The SAR guy waved and walked toward us. His uniform was clean. He carried a VHF two-way radio on a chest strap, a GPS, and he had a pistol holstered on his belt. He was tall, about 35, good looking and had an air of solid confidence.
“Hi,” Andrea called out to him. “You must have had quite an adventure.”
“Adventure? Well, I didn’t, but I guess these guys did. There was an injury and we airlifted one guy out. I flew up on the helicopter but I’m going to hike down. I’m helping this group find their way out.”
That seemed odd. They must have come this way to get here. “They need that?”
He looked a bit annoyed at the question. “Seems that way. Maybe you should ask them.”
The scout leader—that’s what I called him even if it wasn’t what he was—and three of the boys must have packed their backpacks in a hurry. They had all manner of stuff, the sleeves of shirts and jackets, pant legs, pieces of rope, white kitchen garbage bags, protruding out from flaps and front and side pockets. Not the neat, well packed look of experienced hikers’ packs.
Mr. Scout leader tried to put on a friendly smile for us but I could see it was forced. He had the look of a man who’d screwed up and was only too well aware that everyone around him knew it.
Sensing a break in the action, the boys plopped down in the tall grass for a rest. I sat down next to a kid who looked about 11. “What happened up there?”
“Oh, one of the guys got hurt. He got up to—um, you know—go to the bathroom about three in the morning, stubbed his toe, stepped on something sharp, cut his foot pretty bad. We knew he couldn’t hike out. And besides that we were lost anyway.We were going to climb Dragon Peak, but we never even found it.”
“Was this an adult leader who got hurt?”
“No. One of us boys.”
Really. I didn’t say anything, but when I was 11 or 12 I slept through the night whether in my own bed or on a cot on my aunt’s front porch or out here in the mountains. I didn’t start getting up at night until I was 50.
“And you were lost, you say?”
“Yeah. Mr. G—that’s short for German, anyway we call him Mr. G– well he led us into this ravine and we couldn’t get out. We set up tents where we were and then he found out he could get cell reception and called 9-1-1.”
“Tell me something: I’ll bet you don’t get up a three in the morning to use the bathroom. Am I right?”
He squirmed a little. “Well, no.”
“I’ll bet none of you guys do.”
“I donno. Maybe not.”
“So this kid, what was his name?”
“So, this kid Freddy. What do you think he was really doing?”
“You don’t think he had to, um, you know?”
“Not for a minute.”
He paused, pondering his next move.
“Well if there’s something else, what if Freddy’s mom and dad find out and they’re really p—I mean mad. You couldn’t tell anybody…”
“Okay.” Just for a moment I thought of the some of the nighttime pranks and practical jokes from my Boy Scout days. I waited for him to go on.
“So, it’s like I said. Freddy got up to go to the bathroom, tripped over something in the dark and hurt himself. James came running to my tent in the dark yelling, ‘Hey, Freddy cut himself bad. Come and see.’ He woke everybody up.”
The SAR guy whistled and told the boys it was time to get a move on. “You’re welcome to come down with us if you like,” he said to me.
“We’ll finish lunch and I’m going to filter some water for our bottles and then I’m sure we’ll catch up with you.”
We started down the trail after them ten or fifteen minutes later. I wondered what Andrea thought of everything–the boy’s story, the very fact that they were even up here on an unmapped trail. “What do you think of all that? I mean a scout leader who’d bring 11 and 12 year-olds up here has got to be out of his mind.”
“Definitely. He’s going to get an earful from some parents when they get back. And who’s paying the bill for air evacuation and the search and rescue guy to lead them down? Think they’ve got insurance for that?”
“Beats me. I’m sure someone will have to pay. And the kid sneaking around at night, doing who knows what? Well, to tell you the truth, that kind of stuff did go on when I was in scouts. Boyish pranks. One of our favorites was pulling up another guy’s tent stakes so the first breeze would make the tent collapse. We thought that was pretty funny at the time. Didn’t actually hurt anybody and nobody had to get airlifted out. ‘Course, our scout leader would never have led us into a place like this.”
“Maybe they’re not scouts. Maybe just group of kids with a knucklehead neighborhood dad.”
I pondered that for a minute while we followed trail markers down toward the valley. We were gaining on the kids and the guy leading them out.
“You, know, there are just too many things that don’t add up here.”
“You’ve been reading your mystery too long.”
We caught up with the group then and followed them down. One of the boys lost the sleeping bag off his pack and even with the adult leader trying to help, couldn’t get it to stay on. Andrea insisted we help. She strapped it to my day pack and I carried it down. I used one of Andrea’s trekking poles on the steepest part of the descent.
An hour or so later, at the bottom of the trail, one of the smallest boys stopped and waited for us. “That’s my sleeping bag,” he told us. “Thanks for carrying it for me.” He sat on a steel bear locker and waited while I untied it and got it off my pack.
On a hunch Andrea asked the boy,” Is that your dad, the one they call Mr. G?”
“Yes. He just went to get the car.”
“Are you a Boy Scout troop?”
“No, just some friends. Dad used to be a scout leader but he’s not anymore. I’m not sure why he quit, but he’s not with them anymore. Hey, thanks again for my sleeping bag. I’ll want to use it again.”
Once out of earshot, Andrea said, “I’m glad I didn’t say anything about the guy being a knucklehead in front of the boys. I mean, he’s that kid’s dad!”
“Sure. He just got in over his head. Trouble is he should have seen it coming.”
“Yes. We should all see it coming—whenever we get in over our heads, I mean.” She gave me one of her knowing smiles and we took the short walk to our campsite.
A thunder storm blew in that afternoon from the mountains to the west. You could see that it was raining hard in the high country towards Kearsage Pass and Dragon Peak well before the storm reached Onion Valley. We ducked into our tent when the rain came; the patter of raindrops on the tent and rainfly was actually quite pleasant.