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Two California hikers found a family's message in a bottle and helped save them (cnn.com)
137 points by curtis 33 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 96 comments

This reminded me of this real life story of trying to find a German family that got lost in Death Valley. It's a tragic story but I found very interesting how this person tries to piece together what happened. It's a long but worthwhile read.


It is a fascinating story and the persistance of the author in trying to find the family is remarkable but its totally different than this story. The Germans were completely unprepared for their adventure without the correct clothing, not enough water, and apparently little or no knowledge of where they were going or where they were. The family in this story were prepared, knew exactly where they were going and where they were. They just ran into some bad luck but kept calm and did precisely the correct thing. The Germans were responsible for their own situation and paid the ultimate price.

I think this is almost a phenomenon. Europeans have trouble imagining the vastness and untouchedness of American national parks.

In Europe almost all hiking trails are close to civilization and well-marked. If you expect the same in America you're in for a surprise.

I just returned from a three week RV trip to some of the national parks out west, including Death Valley. Two of the things I noticed were (1) Europeans outnumbered Americans in the RV parks and (2) Europeans seemed far more inclined to break the national park rules. At one point we were in a guided jeep tour in Canyonlands which is some seriously treacherous driving on cliffside switchbacks. An Escalade sped by us at one point and we were all like WTF these people are insane...it's a cliff!! We caught up to them at an overlook (the Thelma and Louise Overlook) and our guide got out to scold them. He came back and was like, "No surprise, they're Italian." He went on to explain that 90% of the issues they see with people acting recklessly were Europeans who didn't seem to comprehend how dangerous these places can be.

I've been visiting Parks throughout the west for decades and have noticed the same thing. Its a virtual United Nations when you go into the Visitor's Center, gift shop, or restaurant. Personally, I think its great and love to show off what the US has that no other nation does. But, things like abusing the wildlife, putting themselves or others a risk because of stupid (and illegal) behaviors, and generally disrespecting the Park push me close to the edge. That kind of behavior isn't tolerated in the monuments and cathedrals in Europe; don't do it here.

Well before you pay yourself on the back too much, we have similar issues with American tourists in Europe. Almost like assholes are noticeable everywhere and this is independent of their nationality.

There were multiple times when we were either in a park visitor center or the RV park's pool and I realized I was the only American. It was all (in order) German, Dutch, and French. Everyone was really friendly and we made some good friends at the pools. But we kept noticing all the people doing dumb stuff at the national parks weren't Americans. Feeding squirrels, flying drones, climbing on stuff that wasn't safe, etc. It kinda became a running joke.

If as you said Americans are outnumbered by European people it is not very surprising that most people spot doing silly things are European and not American ...

Most of the stupid things I've seen done in parks are by Americans. I encountered one European flying a drone in a national park. I told them the law and he stopped flying it and thanked me. That said I tend to avoid popular parks during tourist season because I hate crowds in outdoor places.

I've spent a decent amount of time in the parks in South Africa and the people doing stupid and dangerous things were either American or Chinese.

The locals were well known for drink driving and driving too fast (they treat it like the British treat the Spanish islands and Amsterdam).

In fairness, Italians have a reputation for driving dangerously when they know the territory, too.

I remember being 18, in Italy, driving my crappy Fiat as fast as I can down an Italian highway. Fifth gear, gas pedal to the max. And I was still getting passed by faster cars. Italians just drive faster. :)

This kind of road is reasonably common in Italy:


I'm not ashamed to admit that it scared the crap out of me, and my wife (who I completely trust) was driving.

What's wrong with that road? Seems just like your standard mountain pass road to me. :) Those switchbacks are tight, so trucks are probably not allowed on that road.

I lived somewhat close to there, but not close enough to know that exact area. I am now an avid road cyclist that loves to do big climbs. That road is not even that bad https://veloviewer.com/segments/4090708

I do similar climbs here in California.

It's super tight and super cliffy, and it would be excellent on a road bike if you don't mind heights. I do, though.

I don't think I've seen anything in California quite that sketchy. Maybe this one because it's really narrow:


That would also make for a great ride.

”Europeans outnumbered Americans in the RV parks”

I don’t find that _that_ surprising.

Air travel is dirt-cheap, there are more Europeans than Americans (taking the relatively richer north: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK combined already have 295M. That doesn’t include the 60M Italians, 45M Spaniards, 38M Poles, 10M Portuguese, etc.), Europeans have more holidays, and many of them cannot run out of sick days, so that they don’t have to use their holidays when sick.

I also would _guess_ the lower wealth inequality makes more European than American pensioners wealthy enough to make such a trip.

That’s offset by Americans having a higher average income than Europeans (but income inequality being higher, it wouldn’t surprise me if more Europeans can afford to make the journey), and those parks being closer to where American live than to where Europeans live (but the USA being large and air travel being cheap, I doubt that matters much)

yep, confirming all my biases here.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a Europe thing, it’s just as likely a tourist thing. When you’re a city-dwelling tourist, you don’t know danger and certainly not the local dangers. Dangers at home are considered part of your upbringing, overgeneralized as absolute facts of the world, while dangers elsewhere are unknown and unexpected.

I’ve seen the same in Norway; tourists from all over the world getting lost in the mountains, caught out in bad weather or early nightfall with poor clothing and footwear, lost at sea in quickly-changing weather, fall off unexpected cliffs, hit by falling glacier ice, swept into the freezing ocean by waves, killed by avalanche, snowed in on the road etc.

I think its mostly just a "not a local" thing - I've met quite a few people in the Scottish mountains who had got quite a shock at weather conditions even though our hills are tiny compared to the Alps or elsewhere.

A 1000m hill can't be dangerous, right?

I will second this. I hike and pretty much I can divide the stupidity into two classes:

1) People who are utterly ill-equipped and know nothing. Almost all of these are within a mile of the trailhead. They are very unlikely to experience worse than an unpleasant time.

2) People who are underequipped and know little of the local situation. These are almost all tourists. (To date I have encountered only one exception--two guys 4 miles and ~2,500' in, water bottles and big, heavy sticks that were worse than useless as trekking poles. Fortunately I got them turned around, had they continued they would have been out of water, risking hypothermia and have had no chance of getting back to civilization before dark--and they had no light.) The ultimate example was a guy from Florida. He was asking me for navigation advice, attempting to reach the highest local summit. It was his 4th attempt, the previous three were blocked by snow. By unreliable reporting there were several feet of snow on the summit at that time, it certainly wasn't considered passable. He was asking me about a third trail shown on his map. Really now, an arrow-straight trail in steep mountains?? That's the boundary line for the ski resort! No GPS, no poles, if he by some miracle summitted he would have had no chance of getting down before nightfall.

Smart observation. Relatedly, I've wandered around dodgy neighborhoods late at night while visiting foreign capitals much more than I'd do in the city where I live.

Is there any data related Parks injuries/deaths that includes nationality? If not, this thread is all anecdote.

I couldn't find any, but I think it would be an interesting hypothesis to study.


This is a really similar one. REALLY SAD.

I actually found the trails in Norway to be surprisingly UN-marked, natural, and, frankly, more difficult than advertised. They'd tend to just go straight up a cliff face rather than being curated, built, and maintained.

I've been hiking in a few places in Europe but not Norway, that may well be

Boy are you in for a surprise if you go by that assumption in parts of Europe.

A lot of it is the uniqueness of the American west. I think that Europeans are infatuated with the John Wayne westerns and Louis L'Amour books and think of the parks as just more remote Disneylands where nothing can hurt you. I understand that it's a popular thing to visit DVNP in friggin' August when the temps reach 125 degrees or higher. And then, like the German family, go off to remote regions of the park unprepared and with no reasonable hope of rescue if something bad happens. There have been several books written about deaths that have occurred in the Parks, most of which happen because those involved did not respect nor understand the environment into which they were going.

Four years ago, I made a huge mistake that maybe almost costed my life. I went to California's Palm Desert desert - the weather was about 125ºF. I went out walking, unprepared.

It was one of my first experience outdoors in the wild and pristine nature (besides some guided visits to Brazilian forests I guess). The only other meaningful experience back then was going to major attractions in Yosemite a couple of days before.

I dropped off a friend at Palm Springs airport as she had to go back to her life in NYC earlier, and continued the trip by myself. Afterward driving for a little bit, I arrived in a spot in Joshua Tree where the parking lot closes during the summer, and you have to park along the road, but there were quite a few people out there.

There were two trails at that spot. One was close, but the other was far away. I made the first quite fast. There was an oasis there — a wonderful place. I figured [wrongly] that I could make the second trail as well. The trail signs didn't indicate that the second was quite far away. Something like 5mi, I guess. Also, there was a small sign saying the trail was closed due to hazard conditions (heat). I missed it and only saw it on my way back (the sign was not in place due to wind... I guess).

I had bought plenty of water but was stupid enough to leave it in the car and started walking the second trail.

I always knew where I was. I wasn't lost at all. However, it was really hot, and I was afraid I'd pass out anytime after a while, and decided it was time to head back. I believed I could return to safety really fast, as the trail seemed to be almost parallel to the road I parked my car, but there were large rock fragments, and I couldn't safely reach the road. I almost became desperate and started crying a little thinking I was minutes away from death. There weren't even any bushes to protect me from the elements. I tried to call 911 to share my location and ask them to send someone over if I pass out or don't return their call soon, but it was to no avail as there was no cellphone coverage.

Once I finally found a spot I could safely climb, I did so and started walking in the side of the road as I wanted to be seen by anyone, in case I collapsed. A car passed by me as I was 100m away from mine. I decided not to bother. I regret it.

I spent a whole day recovering in the hotel room afterwards.

Looking in retrospective, I should have never gone on a hike without knowing exactly what would be expected and with no water. If I ever go out to the middle of nowhere, I'm bringing a radio, satellite phone, or both. Plus, letting someone else know about my plans and location.

In the afternoon of the following day, I went to Joshua Tree, and got lost-ish just after sunset. But I was better preppared and found my way back in 10min. Still, it was something I regret a lot. Here is how I found myself: my Sony Experia GPS app failed on me (now, thankfully back to the iPhone), and I couldn't see anyone anymore... so I grabbed my MacBook Pro, fired Lightroom, imported a photo of the parking lot I took with the camera, saw the GPS coordinates, and used my Canon 6D camera as a GPS unit (I'd walk trying to find my latitude, then my longitude, until I got it right - this all while opening/closing the embedded GPS debugging tool that doesn't update the location automatically)...

I'm usually not reckless with anything, and these were exceptions in my whole life. I have revisited them, and some other dangerous places, and I always do my best to keep safe - after these experiences safer than most, perhaps.

I think there is a difference between knowing where you are going and being prepared.

I've read in other articles that the father was expecting a rope to be pre-anchored which makes me dubious of their level of preparedness.

> Typically, he said, there's a rope going through climbing carabiners that have been bolted into the rocks.

> "This time, the rope was gone," Whitson told CNN.

If you know there is a rappel: Bring. Your. Own. Gear. Trusting a rope that is left exposed and potentially not well cared for is dangerous in and of itself, but to be aware of a gear requirement and just walk out in the wilderness expecting gear to be there (and in usable condition) is flabbergasting.

I am glad this mistake wasn't fatal though.

He brought his own rope but the current or something was too strong/high to use it. One thing I didn't understand was, was it impossible to go back the way they came?

They floated down the river/stream. It was too strong to head back the way they came from.

Among other reasons, this is why i have a contingency email draft that I have ready to go whenever I go out on a serious-ish hike, along these lines:

“here’s who is going, this is our license plate, this is our gear, this is how much food we have, here’s a very rough itinerary; if i don’t update this email by such and such a time, contact the following SAR groups...”

My favorite service for this: https://www.deadmansswitch.net

Useless for backcountry safety, it won't trigger for way too long. Off the top of my head there are two apps that are actually useful: Cairn and I believe AllTrails has just added such capability. You can set a notification that will be delivered at a certain time if you don't check in with it. Cairn's capability on Android I find quite limited, I haven't tried AllTrails.

I just have a template saved in my notebook repository that i can export as needed into an email draft.

It's convenient because it makes me shake my gear down, too.

In hotels I leave a note on the table saying where to look if I'm not back (never been needed, but stories like this remind me to keep doing it).

This and a personal locator beacon and you have saved yourself and others a massive set of problems if anything goes wrong.

Yup, I leave a dead-tree version with my wife before going out solo, period. And my gear includes a PLB.

If I were doing things where I didn't expect other hikers around I would upgrade that PLB to an inReach.

Everyone should have a prep checklist, and letting someone know where you are, how long you will be there, and having a plan to survive that duration should be the foundation of it. Great call.

I went backpacking up arroyo seco with 2 friends on the same weekend. On our way into the campgrounds the rangers told us this story, we almost didn't believe them the story was so ridiculous on its face. Crazy to see this article in the news now.

Beautiful place to hike and camp, and if that's not your thing then check out the Tassajara zen center.

I wrote a trip recap here: https://roymurdock.com/blogs/2019/0722ventana.php

the news article left me wanting to know more about the hike, and i discovered this ropewiki article[0] which seems to be related, and link to a more detailed trip report[1]. i'm more of a peakbagger myself, but the photos of the canyons are fascinating (many examples in google images).

i'm guessing satellite locator beacons (such as resqlink, spot or in-reach) don't work very well in canyons. you'd need a much more monster antenna and transmitter.

[0] http://ropewiki.com/Arroyo_Seco_Gorge_(Los_Padres) [1] http://www.teamsk.org/arroyo/seco.html

We use an in-reach for text messaging at our cabin which is in the bottom of a gulch in the rocky mountains.

It does work, but only when a satellite happens to be in the right position. This basically means you have to queue up a message and it will get sent in 5-50 min.

I grew up in Southern Utah, just a few miles from the Zion Narrows, and have read of many tragic situations that didn't end nearly as well as this group's story. (Including my own brother on an overnight scouting event). God bless the two hikers who "left before the rescue without giving their names!" I hope the family can find them so they can give them personal thanks.

I don't mean to be rude but: why is this here? It would be a neat project to map out the changes in the types of stories and comments on HN over time. Over the years, HN has grown more and more in the direction of reddit front page and become less and less like an irc channel where people talk about technology.

>> Over the years, HN has grown more and more in the direction of reddit front page and become less and less like an irc channel where people talk about technology.

Here is HN snapshot from 2008: http://web.archive.org/web/20080105031416/https://news.ycomb...

The top submissions is "Obama's Victory Speech". I don't think it's very technological, at least in common sense.

Probably the only very true HN existed in 2007, for several month. Well, these were good times..

I feel like the comments are becoming more "reddit" than the submissions themselves. Seems like way more ideological up-voting/down-voting than there used to be ~2yr ago. It seems like on every issue there's a side (varies by issue) you can't criticize unless you water down your comment with weasel words.

Sadly I think that is the by product of a larger issue where in almost all things in life have become victim to this stance of us vs. them. People pretend to want to have civil conversations around opposing views, but the reality is it's more of a "i'll listen to your view as long as you know your view is wrong" type thing instead of honestly being open to having your mind or principle changed with the right information. The other side effect is everything becomes a political point of contention at some point. It's almost like a new take on Godwin's law where not only is there a probability of Nazi's being referenced.. it's simpler that a conversation will become Democrat vs. Republican. .. Though we know that will eventually lead to comparisons of Nazis at some point too.

I don't see this in real life though, it's only on hyper exposed platforms like the news, websites, social media. In person I find most people are actually still pretty civil (though It's largely based on who you associate with).

Don't debate me on my opinion or else it's obvious you're a shill of "insert something here" ;D

> Please don't submit comments saying that HN is turning into Reddit. It's a semi-noob illusion, as old as the hills.

(c) https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html, should be in FAQ too ;-)

I agree with you on the turning into the reddit part, but I have to say that the way I read the guidelines, this article fits the description for off-topic more so than it meets the description for on-topic.

I would argue that at least 110 people (as of this comment's posting) disagree with you. Yay democracy!

True, but the lack of a downvote button on posts means we'll never know how many agree. This community is far bigger than 110, so the vast majority (as with every post) abstained from the vote, and we'll never know their reasoning.

> less like an irc channel

How many IRC channels have you hung out in? Every channel I've ever been in with any sort of community has stuff like this pop up pretty regularly (things that may be "off-topic" by some definition, but are interesting, and spark some interesting conversation).

Channels where there are hard and fast rules about keeping the discussion strictly "on-topic" don't tend to be channels I hang out in. The same would be true for HN.


Any IRC channel I've been to that develops into a community spends 90+% time talking about everything else except the topic it's ostensibly about. It's weird from the POV of the newcomers, but for old-timers, most of the on-topic things were talked about to death many times over already.

It's amazing. It's a story that connects us with a more simple life, with an unreliable communication method and involving lots of luck.

Because it was HNers wanted it here?

It reminds the tech afictionados that there exists real value in primitive technology.

If all you have is a cell phone with no battery or no reception, you can't get help, you can't hail rides etc.

Surely you already know the reason it’s here? Someone submitted it and the community upvoted it. Chances are it’s probably interesting.

To be fair, the article mentioned the search team used night vision goggles and FLIR (forward looking infrared) technology :)

This family hacked a terrible situation and innovated a workaround that led to a satisfactory exit.

Why could they not turn around and go back the way they came? I am not a hiker.

From reading http://theory.stanford.edu/~rvg/arroyo/ (warning: nudity) linked from the ropewiki page, when hiking from the top, this journey is a combination of hiking, wading along the river and floating down it. It sounds like lots of fun. Turning around at the waterfall means that they would have to hike back as well as swim upstream, possibly through rapids, to get back to their starting point. It could be next to impossible.

I could see this being an easy trap to be caught out by if you had limited exposure to conditions in the area, or even if you had checked weather conditions and missed a rainfall upstream while out hiking. While they might be ashamed of needing a rescue, they thankfully made a smart choice and this is a cool story rather than a search for bodies.

Just went to that waterfall in July. Even when water isn't flowing too fast that rope is hidden behind the water... you just have to pull it out. Another option is just ride the water down... 3 small waterfalls that end up in a deep pool so not too dangerous. My friend Scott did it without rope just for fun. He did get a bruised leg but otherwise no injuries.

Photos of the camping spot a few hours swim down from waterfall: https://photos.app.goo.gl/kgMRunAAVZ9ogJnP7

I'll add photos of the waterfall to that link later.

> It could be next to impossible.

Do you know this of assumed? Sounds difficult for sure, but is it possible?

I mean, if you had no way forward and had two options:

1) turn around

2) throw a bottle into the waterfall and hope

I would turn around (unless as you said, is actually impossible, but I haven't been able to find anything definitive on this)

This wasn't the most robust crew. They were at a local minimum, both topographically and risk. They were safe where they were for at least a few days. Hiking out might have been beyond their ability. Having read some stories of people who didnt get out of these situations, it's not usually the first mistake that does it. It's the process of trying to get out that results in digging a bigger hole. I think they made the right call to abort rather than increase the risk.

Because descent is usually trickier than ascent. If you've ever climbed down a ladder missing a rung there is that brief moment of free fall where you assume where you're going to land. But if you're on a rain slick, moss covered trail a controlled descent can be difficult even under ideal circumstances.

People also have tendency not to want to backtrack uphill again so will continue downhill way past the point where it stops being a good idea.

Unrelated to the article but damn, that autoplay of the video and that woman's voice scared me.

It surprises me that people can’t bring a PLB along when going to a non-trivial hike.

It’s only $300 and it can transmit SOS both to low orbit satellites and to rescue copters, and it has shelf life of five years (no need to charge).

I think the monthly subscription fees are a turnoff to some people (although I think there are a few brands now that don't require that)

PLBs have no subscription. You must register them with the government but it's free. And mine only cost $250--watch prices on Amazon to get a better deal.

What you are thinking of are the SPOT & inReach units--those have subscription fees but provide you text messaging while off the grid. PLBs are single-shot HELP messages, they can't be customized. (Are you simply stranded like these guys, non-threatening injury that keeps you from getting yourself out, or is it a major issue--say, the guy here last year that keeled over on top of Hell Hill. It probably wouldn't have made a difference but the hour it took to get help certainly wasn't good.)

There is no subscription for PLB, and I have not seen it in the last five years since I noticed those devices.

That autoplay video almost gave me a heart attack.

I would actually love if there were a browser setting that froze video (and motion image sets) until they receive mouse focus; preferably also with a payload size dependent switch to having a play button start the download.

I always bring ham radio equipment when I hike like this. Most people don't realize mobile coverage is very limited.

Nothing really poignant to say about this, other than thanks OP for posting something positive to read today.

I really enjoyed this story. However I did struggle on one part:

> Whitson, his 13-year-old son and girlfriend, Krystal Ramirez, had decided to spend Father's Day weekend backpacking the Arroyo Seco River.

It took me longer to parse this sentence than I should perhaps admit to. The first couple of reads lead me to believe his son and girlfriend were the same person.

Just imagine if he had a daughter instead. I don't know why some linguists are so against the Oxford comma.

Definitely an oxford comma situation, and need to fix those commas around the girlfriend's name. Whitson is the subject, not the son:

> Whitson, his 13-year-old son, and girlfriend Krystal Ramirez had decided to spend Father's Day weekend backpacking...

Nice place for an Oxford comma.

I was thinking this too. I'm generally a big fan of the Oxford comma.

Just an fyi, Oxford comma only applies to lists of 3 or more. I think this is just a dangling modifier.

This is a list of three: Whitson, his son, and his girlfriend.

Girlfriend of the whitson or the his son?

Beats me!

The Oxford comma isn't the issue here. The issue is that "his" binds both son and girlfriend, and therefore needs an "and" in front of it. It's not grammatical as is.

It would still read perplexingly. The Oxford comma isn't a tool for the inept; rather, the ept.

It's interesting how sometimes what appears to be a prefix, isn't.

That is an affront up with which I will not put.

Leaving out the oxford comma is like relying on JavaScript automatic semicolon insertion - it works fine, until it doesn't.

Thankfully we have linters!

I'm still not sure whether it's the dad's girlfriend or the son's.

I love stories like this. But, what if the hikers would just rather not be found?

It's just one sentence mentioning it at the end of the article. Doesn't sound like they're launching a massive campaign.

I really wasn't implying they were. I was just rhetorically asking the question. Just something to think about.

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