This is a story about a near-death experience. Hopefully, I have
learned something by nearly killing myself with stupidity.
Early this year (1995) I went to one of my favorite local spots for a day
hike. Mt. Waterman is one of the higher peaks in the Angeles Crest
area, at just over 8,000 ft. It also has one of the best local ski areas.
The top of Mt. Waterman is a horseshoe-shaped plateau with small
crags of granite poking out periodically. There is a very relaxed,
non-wilderness atmosphere on top, augmented by the lazy, quiet
groups of tourist hikers and bikers that visit the top in a continuous
stream while the sun is up.
This year the mountains have a great snow pack, so I was hiking in
about two to three feet of snow. Nothing unusual. I do it all the time.
I made it to the top of Waterman early, so I decided to do the extra
jaunt south to Twin Peaks. This "extra jaunt" involves a 1500ft
descent to a saddle at 6,500 ft, followed by a 1000ft climb up mostly
trailless 50 degree snow and talus between whitebark pines.
Getting down to the saddle was the easy part. I boot-skied most of
the way. I took a breather at the saddle and started up Twin. This was
a rather enjoyable snow climb, with some sections that were
somewhat technical. I mixed it up a little and did some bouldering
between streches of snow.
The weather was perfect, and I was having a great time! This is
probably what tempted me to linger far too long on the summit. When
I noticed that the sun was very close to the horizon, I looked at my
watch and learned to my dismay that it was 5:00 pm. I immediately
packed up and started down. Too late! The snow, which had been
melting quickly in the hot sun, had now frozen to a boilerplate shield
of ice! I experimentally took a few steps, and on the last I lost my
footing. I dropped the only ski pole I was carrying, and slid a scary 40
ft into a melt cup at the base of a tree. I watched as my ski pole
skittered down the 50 degree ice and dissappeared. I was really
My heart rate was back to normal (almost), so I started down again.
This time, I was moving at a snail's pace, terrified of the possibility of
another fall. The only reason I stopped falling last time is that there
happened to be a tree in my way. If it happened again, I wouldn't bee
Delicately step kicking (not kick-stepping), I connected a series of
tree-melt- cups, and managed to find my ski pole. A few trees later, I
slipped again, this time only falling for twenty feet or so. I broke my fall
in the branches of the next tree. Whew! This is getting really scary! It
is also getting really dark!
For the next three hours, I carefully kicked steps down the shield of
ice. Even near the saddle, where the angle lessened, the ice was still
treacherous. I finally reached the dry portion of the saddle at about
9:00 pm. Since I was faced with a climb of 1500ft over roughly the
same kind of ice, I decided to bivouack. I put on all my clothes and set
about finding a good place. Finally, I settled on a nice, soft spot in the
lee of a big oak tree.
I built a fire and tended it all night. I didn't get much sleep, but at least
I was alive. In the morning, I started early and didn't stop until I was
back at my car.