Panic Button

Panic Button

Outside Magazine July 2011

Katalina Jimenez was cold. So cold that her fingers were sluggish. So cold that she couldn’t stop crying.

Until now, her strategy for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail had been simple and ­effective: use minimal gear and move fast. On this day—June 3, 2009—her pack weighed less than 20 pounds, and she’d swapped her hiking shoes for sandals and socks. It had taken her only 38 days to pass through the scorching Southern California desert. Jimenez was making great time as she began ascending midsize Sierra peaks inside ­Sequoia National Park, starting with 2,600-foot Sharknose Ridge, about 15 miles south of Mount Whitney.

Jimenez, 36, had made one slight departure from fleet-footed efficiency: she was carrying a small orange emergency-messaging device, made by a company called Spot, that her mother had insisted she take. Though the satellite-linked unit allowed only one-way communication—she used it to trigger a daily ­e-mail that told family and friends in Minne­sota that she was OK—it could save her life if the trip turned dangerous. A Help button would tell her contacts that she was in trouble, while a 911 button would issue a rescue alert in case of life-threatening emergency.

The morning had been perfect, with yellow sun filtering through dense evergreens. By noon clouds had moved in, the temperature had dropped, and there were snow flurries, so Jimenez decided to set up camp and let the front pass by. Her map showed a small pond and a clearing just off the trail, but by the time she reached it the area was blanketed with snow, and she couldn’t tell where the dirt ended and the water began. Her feet splooshed into the cold lake, soaking her socks and sending shivers up her legs.

Jimenez was still shaking when she found a dry patch to set up her tarp and mat. She climbed into her sleeping bag. Wet and alone, she pressed the Spot’s OK button and watched an LED light acknowledge that the message had been sent. It was still only 20 degrees out—not cold enough to put her in any real danger.

Three hours later, the weight of new snow was making the tarp sag and her mind race. This is how people die in the wilderness, Jimenez thought. You get cold and wet, and then you can’t warm up. Then it’s over. She conjured an image of a hiker coming down the trail and discovering her frozen body.

By 3:30, the loneliness and anxiety were overwhelming. She pressed Help. Then she fumbled with her compact camera and recorded a three-minute video, sobbing as she described her predicament. A few minutes later, she pressed 911—an act she would ­regret later, after the weather eased up and she walked to safety under her own steam.

At the time, though, rescuers knew only one thing: somebody was in trouble. Later that day, a California search-and-rescue heli­copter was slicing through the sky.

Read the rest of the article in Outside Magazine

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