Once upon a time I found a dying bird outside my home. The bird was in the last stage of its prematurely ending existence and so hungry, thirsty and exhausted that it let me, a human kind, to gently grab it and take it home. I was the last hope of saving and prolonging this bird's life...
Tuesday - 25 of July, 2017 - Clear Creek Trailed, Mt Shasta, California
I parked my car across the actual trail starting the Clear Creek route and leading up the mountain. I slept practically a whole day in my car after my longest ever one-day-attempt (almost 27 hours) of the least technical, or as some incorrectly say misleading prospective endeavors, the easiest route on Mt Shasta, Clear Creek. It's about only 5 miles long but 7,600 foot elevation gain to the top of the 14,162 foot mountain via, for most who attempted, very unpleasant terrain such as scree, loose rocks, and even snow. In the last few years, I climbed this route more than 20 times in various conditions. As I remember correctly I turned around only two times due to the safety concerns of my team members, but never while attempting it alone. However, around 50% of people who attempted this route were not able to reach the summit. Even a couple fatalities occurred on the Clear Creek route in the past few years.
While having my second nap in the early afternoon, I heard a car approaching. For a couple of hours or so I heard indistinct voices of women preparing for the hike. I got out of my car and set in my chair next to it. On the other end of the parking lot, behind a few trees, I noticed a van and two women getting ready for their adventure. There was no one else. Minutes later they were passing me walking down the road. The first woman had only a small day-pack and the second woman carried a full size giant backpack. It was a mystery to me because normally people share the weight of their gear. That was the first red light for me. Well, I heard some people hired porters on Mt Shasta so did not worry too much. However, when they overlooked the actual trail, which was well marked, I immediately recognized they had no idea what they were doing and curiously asked, "Where are you going?" The first women gave me her facial expression with the "how dare you talking to me" attitude. The second woman, however, immediately realized my positive intention coming from being concerned about two inexperienced hikers and responded, "Oh here is the trail," pointing in the right direction. The first woman then reacted, "Oh, I understand now..."
Then they told me they were going to the Clear Creek Springs base camp area only, so my red light alert changed to green. I informed them the whole area was practically covered with snow, including springs and the creek; otherwise, it was beautiful. The second woman assured me they were prepared; they had a water filter and stove. They left.
Wednesday - 26 of July, 2017 - Clear Creek Route
Before I departed the trailhead (TH), I checked the women's wilderness passes at the register if there was any indication of their intent going above base camp, particularly to the top. (Hikers were supposed to write the camping locations and the intended route and farthest destination on their Wilderness Passes; the original white page stays in the register box and the hiker should carry the green copy. Additional Climbing Permit for $25 is required for any attempts above 10,000 feet.) There was none.
I started hiking up around 7am and reached the summit around 5pm. No one signed the summit register that day. On my way up I tried to locate the women's tent or anyone hiking up but did not spot anything. The tent could be easily seen from above regardless of the location (even in bushes) so I made a joke to myself that they hid from me well. On the way down I was retracing my previous attempt trajectory to understand my confusion about "getting lost" a couple nights before. Most of the route I glissaded down on the narrow but long snow track leading toward the Mud Creek canyon and then traversed the opposite direction (climber's left) to find the use trail which I followed down, frequently crossing flat snowfields on the lower part before entering the forest. It was already dark before I approached base camp area so I turned my headlamp on. When I was getting closer to the forest, I noticed someone's headlamp. "Who is coming so late to base camp?” I was curious. It was the second woman I met at the trailhead. Her name was Heather.
Heather cried and desperately tried to tell me that her friend, Charity Stevens, left her between 1-3pm for a spiritual mission to the top of the mountain and did not return. I tried to calm her down and direct her focus on facts which would help me to assess Charity's conditions and her chances of surviving the night high on this mountain. Charity did not have relevant experience; she had no headlamp, no gear, improper and inadequate outfit and limited water and food supply. She had Heather's cell-phone though. We immediately called her from my phone but, even with four bars, I got a message, "Not registered on network." I asked Header if she wanted me to call for emergency and on her behavior made the first 911 call at 10:27pm. Unfortunately, all I got was a message, "Out of service." Moving around to find a better spot, over the next hour I tried 6 additional times with no success. I was disappointed and frustrated the 911 phone call could not get through even though I had a reception.
I spent with Heather about two hours calming her down, marking the trail across with a red tape and an arrow made from rocks pointing their tent hidden in the forest (that's why I did not see it) and explaining the strategy what she was supposed to do, or rather what she was not supposed to do, to keep them "both" safe before the rescue was going to come the next morning. I thought about staying there and at first light look for Charity but found more important and obligated to notify the authorities as soon as possible. However, for the night I hanged a headlamp high on a tree pointed out toward the upper part of the mountain to mark the exit location for Charity. Based on my previous experience, I was confident Charity was able to survive the night regardless of the altitude; it was much warmer than two days ago when I got hailed several times on various elevations.
I hiked down to my car, drove out of the forest to the place I was finally able to make an emergency call successfully which happened to be at 1:58am, almost four hours after my first attempt. "911 what's your emergency?" ...I was then transferred to another 911 dispatcher (the Sheriff office, I guessed) and was informed Charity called a few hours ago and the Rangers were scheduled to pick her up in the morning. The dispatcher also asked me if I wanted to help. I said, "Sure!" and she responded the Ranger from Mt Shasta Ranger Station was going to call me at 6:30am. I said I was going to drive there and spend the rest of the night in my car on the Mt Shasta Ranger Station parking lot.
Thursday - 27 of July, 2017
Nick Meyers, the Lead Climbing Ranger at Mt Shasta, called me around 7:30am; he knew me because of my frequent climbs of various routes on Mt Shasta for many years. "Hello Marek. I found a note with your name and phone number on the car of... at the trailhead..." he said. I was a bit disappointed they did not pick me up but obviously explained everything I knew and how to find the women's tent in the forest. He said he was going to call me later.
Soon after the Ranger Station opened, I talked to the personnel inside (they knew me too) expressing my disappointment of not picking me up and my concern about the missing woman. I was assured that the two best Rangers went to meet her and bringing back. That was a convincing argument for me at that time and decided to rest and relax and spent most of the day by Siskiyou lake near the Shasta city. I desperately needed a bath and dry my clothes after two long summit attempts over the last three days, especially because my plan was to continue climbing a few additional routes on North side of the mountain.
Friday - 28 of July, 2017
Worriless, assuming everything ended up happily, although surprised the Ranger Nick Meyers did not call me, I was slowly getting ready to relocate to the North Gate trailhead to continue my climbing journey. Around 10am, however, I got a phone call from Heather. Nervously she was trying to tell me she was in a motel in Weed and... but I immediately interrupted her with a simple question, "Did they found Charity?" "No," she answered. I was shocked. More than one day passed practically for nothing! At that moment anything else became for me irrelevant. How was that possible they could not find a person on a basically vast but flat terrain mostly covered with scree? For me, it was a RED light. The only explanation, I thought of at that time, was she stepped on, slipped and fell down one of the steep snowy slopes toward Wintun Glacier. She did not have any ice axe and crampons. There were many steep slopes covered with snow from the top of the mountain all the way down to Clear Creek springs area and between Clear Creek route and Wintun Ridge and then Wintun Glacier routes. I did not accept that scenario though.
I drove to the Mt Shasta Ranger Station immediately and expressed my disappointment, frustration and concern. I was explained that there was already a huge Search & Rescue operation in progress with 50 people and multiple helicopters looking intensively for Charity from the summit all the way(s) down the mountain. For me that answer simply was not good enough, not a valid argument anymore. I notified them I was going to search for Charity by myself. I still wanted to notify the local Sheriff, Jon Lopey, the commander in charge of the official Search & Rescue team, and asked for the location of his base and rushed there. Sheriff shared some information about the searched area and the last probable Charity's location at which she made the 911 call.
How unbelievable I had to sound to everyone hearing that I was going alone to find Charity even though I explained that in the past I found my friend after two days of a "personal search" while 70 people, dogs and airplanes could not accomplish in two weeks. Unfortunately, my friend was dead. This time, due to proper timing, it was a good chance for me to find an ALIVE person.
The strategy and covered expanded terrain as a consequence of lack of previous positive search results was logical but not really optimistic and I did not like that. I considered as one of the positive options Charity managed getting down to the forest and disappeared in between dense trees trying to reach any forest road but I doubted it. The media reported her phone call was intercepted at around 13,000 feet between Wintun Glacier and Red Banks. If accurate, this info itself had tragic implications to me but I just did not believe an inexperienced hiker with no gear put herself in so extremely dangerous, technical, with huge crevasses terrain such as Konwakiton Glacier, located on one end of the suspected terrain. It was more believable that on the other end of the suspected terrain she tried to cross snowy slope around the upper part of Wintun Ridge and Wintun Glacier and, due to lack of crampons, slipped and, due to lack of an ice axe and self-arrest skill, slid down a few thousand feet. The scree area there, a little above and to the right of the Red Rock (Mushroom Rock, 12,800 feet) but below big ugly looking boulders with an initial noticeable path could be seen as, seemingly, the easiest passage through to the top. I did not accept any of these alternatives, especially knowing what she said while making her 911 call at dark a couple of days before. I did not even believe she went above the Mushroom Rock where the terrain looked confusing to navigate and scary to enter for inexperienced hikers; that's the most dangerous area of the Clear Creek route many hikers and even less experienced mountaineers could not get through in the past. However, knowing the helicopters and the ground troupes were "unsuccessfully" searching certain areas, especially Wintun Ridge and Wintun Glacier slopes, reinforced my hope Charity was still alive somewhere she was supposed to be, somewhere on the Clear Creek route. I assumed she did not leave this area and decided to focus on it as my priority.
I drove to the Clear Creek trailhead. The forest road was quite bumpy with many sharp rocks and sandy patches but I did not really care because "time", in this case, was very important. I had lots of technical gear in my car such as climbing ropes, ice tools, ice screws, snow pickets, etc; however, at the parking lot I calmly prepared for my personal-search. Focusing on optimization and efficiency, I carefully negotiated my gear choices. I took strongly under consideration I was looking for a hiker not a climber. I was prepared to spend nights high on the mountain but still did not take a tent or even a sleeping bag because this extra weight was only going to slow me down. I took my stove, however, to be able to melt plenty of snow to keep hydrated over the next few days. In the Wilderness Pass I stated I was going to stay on the mountain till someone notifies me about Charity being found. While hiking up through the forest, I met two S&R personnel and asked them as well, "Please notify me if you find her to end my suffering on the mountain... because I’m going without sufficient gear." Previously, I asked Sheriff for the same thing. I also pointed out I had an extra battery to charge my phone to keep it on for two-three days. One of the rescuers took my phone number and assured me he was going to text me (and later he did). At various random places on the mountain my phone can receive texts or even calls.
The next few hours I kept climbing up along but off trail searching very carefully the terrain I was going through, every bush, every rock, every dent, and every rocky and snowy slope on my way. I started with inspecting all snowy slopes around springs and toward Wintun Ridge. Before crossing the wide drainage I went through dense trees and bushes up the hill to have a good look at the area below. Then I went down, crossed the drainage and continued up the slope on the other side. I was not in hurry anymore; I did not want to miss anything. I found many items hidden or just dropped by previous hikers of which took pictures, one close-up and another exposing the location, just in case as evidence for Heather to identify later. The sun was slowly setting down and it started getting chilly. The sky became clear of any objects. Helicopters returned to their base and the S&R personnel disappeared down back in the forest. The official search efforts on the mountain were concluded for that day and the silence monopolized this giant mountain. I still kept searching.
...A few hundred vertical feet above base camp area (above 9,000feet), it was another rocky section with steep slope (on climber's right) I was thoroughly examining by crossing the area from the left to the right side, then from the right to the left repeatedly over and over and over while slowly moving up. Progressing, I frequently looked down to the right to examine the steep snowy slope for any possible signs of previously fallen objects to be sure I did not miss any clue. As I was approaching the end of this section, suddenly and shockingly, I noticed a tent on its upper end. I did not recall any civilian car at the TH (except the women's and mine, the other cars had the "Search & Rescue" banners) but also, as far as I was concerned, the official rescuers did not camp in the mountains during searches. They only searched during the day and in reasonable weather as a part of the safety protocol procedures.
Seconds later but still quite away from the tent, while passing a consecutive boulder on its left and then glancing to its right side I noticed a girl, dressed rather for the city than this big volcano, seating on the dusty ground with her legs stretched out but one crossed over the other to keep them warm, and resting her back on a piece of 90 deg curved, vertically oriented flat rock with a little comfort. Shivering, she stared at me with disbelief but hope. Although I did not really remember her face from our short interaction four days ago, I had no doubt it was Charity. "Are you one of the rescuers?" with a fragile voice she asked. "No. But I'm here to find you," I responded gently but with confidence. And she started crying. I found Charity still alive. I felt emotional but relieved. At that point the worst was over I though. The worries and suffering of all people engaged, involved or associated in any way with Charity's current unknown situation and the search for her was practically over. Although it was hard for me to hide my emotional feeling, I stayed strong and focused on taking care of her.
She was exhausted, cold, and shaking. She was thirsty and hungry. First I gave her an energy drink I carried just for her for a quick recovery. Then I gave her all my jackets (down jacket, flees, and Gore-Tex wind jacket) and gloves to keep her warm. She was so weak and fragile I had to gently help her to put them on. I made her a sandwich. Seeing a Gouda cheese, she said she was a vegan. "Now you are fighting for your life... You can be a vegan again later," I responded. Then I set down on the rock next to her to transfer my body's heat warming her up and called 911. She did not want to be lifted off the mountain by a helicopter; she wanted to walk down with me. I explained this was not up to her anymore and had to call 911. Magically and to my surprise, I was able to make this successful 911 call in the first attempt at 7:06pm.
"911 what's your emergency?" "My name is Marek Damm. I found Charity..." I reported. They asked for our location and then put me on hold to connect with a person who was supposed to be familiar with this route. Unluckily, after a couple of minutes or so my phone died. Fortunately, I had plenty of time to explain them our precise position (which was obviously recorded) and also was aware they were probably tracking my phone. I connected my phone to the portable charger and continued taking care of Charity. I gave her a protein bar and made her Hot Chocolate. She liked anything I gave her to drink, to eat and to keep her warm. At that point she was very cooperative. She for sure wanted to leave this place and go home.
30-40 minutes later two military helicopters appeared in the sky and started circling around in various directions. I waved to the nearby helicopter to confirm it was us but got no feedback at all. I had an impression they were just furiously flying around us like "yellow jackets" around food, or perhaps were confused. Maybe these rocks was not a good place for them to pick up Charity, I concluded. But why I could not see anyone in the helicopter even though the door was widely opened? After minutes of senseless to me helicopter's behavior, I helped Charity to stand up and while holding her we tried to walk off the rocks down to the nearby trail on the flatter slope with less obstacles for the helicopter. The helicopter then got closer and the air pressure started pushing us off balance. At that point walking down became extremely difficult and dangerous. Charity was still weak and at high risk of losing balance, falling on the rocky ground and possibly getting injured. I held her hand firmly to prevent that.
All dust and tiny rocks picked up by the air force from the ground vigorously danced around us aiming at our vulnerable faces and eyes and causing pain. (Due to getting dark, we had no sun glasses on.) I waved to the helicopter to give us some distance because we were on a steep, slippery, dusty, rocky and unsafe terrain. I really was not sure what was going on; what the intentions of military personnel in the helicopter were. Risking injury to my eyes I still glanced frequently to see any signs of communication. Suddenly the helicopter got so low near us, it basically knocked us to the ground. Unable to move, we were holding each other with our eyes closed resisting the air pressure and trying not to be blown out of this slope. At that moment I felt like the helicopter was simply attacking us. I just could not understand why. I was really confused.
After a while of the turbulence forces and the deafening noise produced by the helicopter I finally noticed a soldier approaching us. He got next to us, took Charity day-pack from me and asked her to go with him. Charity responded she did not want to. He looked at me and then asked her again and after her reservation looked at the helicopter. It was so noisy we had to practically yell to each other ears to communicate. I told him Charity had my all clothes but it seemed like he was only concerned about her. He grabbed her arm and together walked away toward the helicopter and left the mountain.
I felt like this was more a kidnapping approach than a rescue attempt. I tried to find any rational explanation what just happened but could not. Therefore, later I assumed they were so embarrassed of such a massive but still ineffective Search & Rescue implementation they just wanted to hide the truth from the public that in the end a one-person-team, a mountaineer, whose everyone disbelieved or disregarded, found Charity Stevens, a lost hiker on Mt Shasta's Clear Creek, in just a few hours.
Obviously, Charity Stevens was lifted off the mountain by a military helicopter around 7:45pm. See video below.
As can be seen in the video, once they made their minds, the helicopter operation was smooth and effective. To be able to hold my camera blindly pointed at the helicopter, however, I had to first crawl on my back away from the center of the aggressive dusty air pressure. My face and hands (my clothes too) were completely covered with dust and tiny rocks glued to the sunscreen on my skin.
26th of August, 2017
Copyright © 2017 Marek Rudolf Damm
* * *
Either Sheriff or Rangers never even called or emailed me to simply say, "Thank you Marek."
Although tired after the whole experience, on the way down I picked up the women's tent with sleeping backs and other belongings. I thought, going back to that place would be too emotional experience for them. As I learned later, Charity was not transported to any hospital; their car was transferred to the Sheriff's base where both women were reunited and drove to a motel in Weed.
Heather, called me the next morning at 6:38am and soon after I recovered my clothes.
The tent near the location I found Charity belonged to an unrelated to this search hiker who came to summit Mt Shasta and went to the top that day.
Telling this story I left out many details and emotional aspects to primarily focus on the most important facts, points and keeping it reasonably short.
Bellow, however, I included a few pictures and links if anyone wants to learn more about the Clear Creek route, certain locations and elevations, or simply compare the media statements against factual numbers and places, or just figure out rational reasons of my personal search strategy:
Topographic map of Mt Shasta:
Topographic map of Clear Creek route:
3-D Image Map: created by USFS cartographer Annette Sun:
Mt Shasta Avalanche Center - General Route Description:
SummitPost.org - Clear Creek Trail:
SummitPost.org - Clear Creek:
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - ClimbingMt Shasta:
Google search for “charity stevens Shasta”:
Here is my previous personal search for my friend and climbing partner:
The Search for John Zazzara A Mountaineer Lost on Mt. McLoughlin