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Lost in the Mountains

At eight months shy of 50, Charlie Hench had the happy-go-lucky air of an unfettered younger man. A former Michigan State rugby player, he was six feet tall and could bench-press 315 pounds. In recent years, he'd run with the bulls in Spain, canoed through the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, and hiked the Sierra backcountry in California with a group of friends.

These days, though, Hench wasn't feeling so great. His right knee was hurting from a ligament he'd torn 30 years earlier. His father had recently died. And he and his girlfriend of seven years, Julie McGuigan, were going through another rocky patch. Their relationship was a tumultuous one, Hench admits. She had, he says, "this incredible need I didn't know how to satisfy."

So Hench did what he'd often do when things got tense: He cooked up an adventure to get lost in. This time a solo hike across the Sierra Nevada sounded especially appealing.

Hench is not the first person one would think of to undertake a five-day hike across an imposing mountain range. He often joked that for his group camping trips, he'd sooner pack a case of beer than a sleeping bag. In addition to being a cutup, he was a klutz at work, stumbling on things at job sites as an engineer with the California Department of Transportation in Cambria, on the central coast of California. He was fun but reckless. Many in Hench's tight-knit group of friends found his wild streak endearing; all of them admired him for his generosity.

Hench had plenty of help, in preparing for his solo Sierra quest. His friends supplied rain gear, freeze-dried meals, and a headlamp; one called up Google Earth on his computer to plot Hench's mountain route. If Luchetta and the group had misgivings about the trip, they didn't say so, figuring that if Hench had gotten this far, he could survive anything.

His gear neatly stuffed in a nylon backpack, Hench hitched a ride to the Sierra foothills. On a Monday evening, he made camp at the edge of Lake Edison, 9,200 feet up the western slope of the range. He'd brought five days' worth of food, a portable stove, a sleeping bag, a tent, and a fishing rod. He sat on a log, tending a campfire and gazing at a canopy of stars. He was happy to be there. Life seemed easier in the clear mountain air. He took out a pen and wrote, "Into the Wild. Ramblings of Charlie on a solo trans-Sierra Nevada, Sept. 17-22."

The next morning, a campground employee gave Hench a ride to the trailhead to start his 15-mile hike to Lake Italy. As the truck pulled away, the driver mentioned that a storm was expected to blow through later in the week. "Don't know whether it's going to snow," he told Hench.

For the first ten miles of the trip, the trail was well maintained, with a clear dirt path and markers on the trees. But it petered out above the tree line, and Hench got lost several times, in part because his new compass wasn't working. Late on Wednesday, he pitched his tent on the stark shore of the lake. "Holy moly, I made it," he wrote.

As he lay in his sleeping bag that night, he heard the wind pick up until it was ripping across the lake with 50-mph gusts. By Thursday morning, the snow was coming down sideways. In the journal he kept, Hench wrote, "I was a fool to try this alone."

Early-season storms in the Sierra Nevada are rare, surprising tourists who venture into the backcountry in T-shirts, lulled by Indian summer temperatures down below. On a single day a few years back, more than two dozen hikers were stranded at different points in the mountains when an October storm roared across the range, dropping four feet of snow. Three experienced climbers, blue and frostbitten, were fortunate to have been rescued from the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, 60 miles northwest of Hench's campsite; two others in their party perished.

"Not sure what to do so am hunkering down for a spell," Hench wrote on Thursday after whiteout conditions drove two-foot drifts against his tent. Hikers elsewhere in the range that day reported that the wind was "from another planet," snapping trees with trunks eight feet in diameter. Hench, meanwhile, added a note in his diary: "May hang out here for a day."

When Hench woke up on Friday morning, the sun was out and clouds drifted lazily across the blue sky. He broke camp and began climbing toward Italy Pass, 1,200 feet above the lake. He planned to follow the pass across the Sierra Nevada ridgeline, then drop down to the eastern slope. But now, with the trail buried, Hench was forced to hop from one slippery boulder to the next, over treacherous gullies of deep snow.

Near noon, he reached a ridge. Doesn't look right, he thought. Though he didn't realize it at the time, Hench had made a wrong turn and ended up on a precipitous saddle north of the pass. He was trying to figure out his location when he fell, finding himself sprawled on a boulder, his wrist throbbing and blood trickling down the right side of his face. He looked out blankly at a lake sparkling several hundred feet below.

"Solo trans-Sierra hike!" he said out loud. "You idiot!"

His walking stick, map, and glasses were gone. His right wrist was on fire, broken for sure. Rising slowly to his feet, Hench straightened his backpack, his two-piece fishing pole still attached, but slipped again, scraping an elbow. He tried to steady himself and fell once more, this time skidding down the rock-strewn face and landing on his back on a granite ledge about the size of a grand piano. A sheer cliff dropped all the way to the valley floor, several hundred feet below. There was no going up or down. He was trapped.

Hench's fishing buddy Grant Krueger was a worrier. When Hench didn't show up at the trailhead where they'd planned to meet on day five, he called McGuigan. Soon the cell phones of Hench's friends were buzzing.

Within hours they had a plan. One team would trace Hench's intended route from Lake Edison up the western side of the range. Krueger and another buddy would start at the trailhead near Bishop and track Hench's route backward, up the eastern slope. The teams would meet at the summit. They'd alerted the Fresno and Inyo County police departments, which would each send out a search-and-rescue team on foot and by air first thing Monday morning, 48 hours after Hench failed to show at the trailhead.

"Saturday, Sept. 22. Yesterday was the worst day of my life, save the day I watched my dad die," Hench wrote. Wet, freezing, and exhausted, he had found just enough room on the ledge to set up his tent. Inside, he surveyed the situation: no signal mirror, a broken compass, no cell phone reception. At least he had a few days' worth of food: freeze-dried beef stew, granola bars, trail mix, and a package of pancake mix. Search teams would come for him soon. Until then, he would stay calm. "I was a fool to try this alone," he wrote. "I hope to make it out."

But another 48 hours dragged by, and the only things he felt were pain and fear. His throbbing wrist was swollen to twice its size, and he had a huge scrape near his eye. Though the sky was clear, by early Monday the bitter cold had sunk deep into his bones.

He heard helicopters thumping across Lake Italy that afternoon, and his spirits lifted. It was just a matter of time before he'd see his friends and McGuigan again, he thought as tears rolled down his cheeks. Tying a red stuff sack onto the tip of his fishing pole, he gamely waved the makeshift flag. The sound of the choppers faded.

That night, he wrote in his diary, "I want the nightmare to end." When he pulled aside his tent flap and looked outside, the stars that had seemed so comforting back at Lake Edison were now cold and far away. "I brought along a cheap compass," he wrote, "and I'm paying for it with my life."

On Hench's fifth day on the ledge -- he again heard helicopters, then … nothing. He had lost his most detailed map but had another, which he pored over, trying to discover where he'd made his mistake. Suddenly it was obvious: His wrong turn had taken him at least a half mile from Italy Pass, so the rescue teams were searching a distant area. "I thought they'd given up looking for me," he says.

Determined to make it off the ledge, Hench packed his gear and attempted to crawl over the loose rocks, using his good hand to steady and his right elbow to pull. He needed to get closer to Italy Pass. But after 40 feet, he got stuck. As darkness closed in, he sat on a rock and pulled his sleeping bag around him.

On a piece of cardboard, he began writing a will. A full moon rose over the granite peaks. He was going to die, just like this: a big fool, stranded on a cliff in the Sierra Nevada.

At his home 50 miles away in Bishop, Dave Grah noticed the full moon shining outside his window. He hadn't slept well all week, thinking about Hench. Thirty years earlier, his brother had nearly died in a fall off an icy Sierra cliff while hiking alone. The accident occurred at an altitude of 12,000 feet, on a saddle between peaks northwest of Italy Pass. Grah couldn't shake the feeling that maybe Hench was in the same spot.

At 6:30 the next morning -- the start of a clear, cool day -- he powered up his 1950 Cessna 170 and climbed up the range's eastern flank and over Italy Pass. Most pilots allow at least a thousand feet of clearance when crossing the Sierra to avoid sudden updrafts and downdrafts; wrecked planes can be found here and there across the range. But Grah knew there was no way he could spot Hench from well above the peaks. He would be cautious but fly low, scouring every square mile of the granite wilderness.

He soared past the saddle, straining to see anything that would suggest a human form among the rocks. Nothing. Grah felt deflated. It was probably silly to have come, he thought. He banked the Cessna around Lake Edison, then skirted the cliffs once more.

Suddenly, level with the passenger window and about a football field away, Grah spotted a man standing on a snow-covered ledge -- in almost the exact same place where his brother had fallen. The man was waving a stick with a bit of red fabric on the end.

Hench saw the silver Cessna dip its wings. It was so close, it looked like it was flying straight into the mountain. He shouted. He danced. A few minutes later, the plane reappeared, this time trailed by a California Highway Patrol helicopter. The chopper crew dropped a message on a line attached to a weight. "If you're Charlie Hench," read the message, "raise one arm. If you're hurt, raise the other." Hench raised both arms.

The mountainside was almost vertical, and shifting wind currents made it difficult for the chopper to hover in place. But pilot Bill Dixon managed to ease the aircraft into a horizontal gap in the rock and to rest one set of skids on the narrow ledge. Flight officer Andrea Brown leaned out and motioned for Hench to step forward. He shook his head no. "I could tell he was scared to death," Brown says. "It was slippery, and if he fell, it was hundreds of feet down."

Dixon maneuvered the chopper a few feet closer. "You need to come now," Brown mouthed to Hench. He lifted his wrist to indicate it was fractured; as he stepped on the skid, Brown grabbed him by the belt, pulling him inside. The Fresno County Sheriff's Department would later report that on a scale of difficulty ranging from 1 to 10, the rescue of Charlie Hench was a 9.9.

Hench now bears a two-inch scar next to his right eye, and he will always have pins in his wrist. Occasionally, while walking a construction site or mowing his back lawn, he flashes back to his time on the icy ledge and a current shoots through his body. He remembers the friends who kept up their search for him. Maybe, he now thinks, a man doesn't find himself by running with the bulls or hiking solo across the mountains. Maybe getting lost in the clouds isn't the only way to dream. Maybe a man can find himself warm at home, surrounded by the people who love him.

(Text:  Lynn Rosellini - from Reader's Digest - September 2008)


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