I’m going to be straight forward and honest here. Our first time camping and a weekend we were really looking forward too turned into a complete nightmare and one I’ve yet to shake from my bones.
If you follow along on IG, then you already know the bits and pieces of the nightmare that became my reality. Even now, as I am writing this, I’m crying. I only hope that I can share our story in hopes that others educate themselves and realize the real possibilities of what can happen when you least expect it.
I’d much rather continue my regular posting schedule and habits with the fun and exciting pictures we took before the nightmare happened. And to be honest with you, I had every intention of doing that and pretending what happened- didn’t. Keeping it a private incident that only Joey, myself, Brian (Joey’s best friend), and Camille (Brian’s girlfriend) shared. It wasn’t until the day after, Sunday morning, as we were getting breakfast, that I really realized that this isn’t something we should keep to ourselves. As we were eating, Brian asked Joey if this was something we were all going to talk about or if he wanted to keep it private. And something I really respect about this man I’m about to marry is he’s REAL and just authentic AF. This incident really hurt him because it humanized him and all of us quite frankly. He wanted to use the situation to bring awareness to something that we’d only heard of in passing, something we didn’t think could actually happen– altitude sickness and a condition called HACE (high altitude cerebral edema). He said he was fine with all of us sharing whatever we wanted and he planned to do the same.
So because of his honesty and bravery, I’m going to follow suite and come out from that social media facade and share every raw emotion in hopes that it helps someone else out there, teaches someone something, makes you hold your loved ones closer, or just helps you realize that we’re all human and shit happens. I’m also hoping that by sharing our experience, I’ll be able to get past the horror of what happened and finally move on by getting it all out of my head. Also, I know some points are going to get dark- because they are, but the photos you’re going to see are the real happy, excited photos we took along the way. In the photos you’re going to see smiling faces because those were the real feelings we had the ENTIRE day. It’s hard for me to see these photos because it almost feels fake. How am I smiling in this photo when 5 hours later I had a mental breakdown and was shivering in fear? Why even post any photos of this trip at all, when nothing but sadness and hurt came from it? Well, I’m choosing and trying to live in the NOW and realize that we survived this horrific event. We took photos for a reason, because we wanted to remember the scenery or whatever it was, the madness that ensued doesn’t take away from the happiness that we felt throughout the entirety of the day (I’m at least trying to believe that). So here goes nothing.
Friday, August 10th at around 9:30 pm, Joey and I met our friends and arrived at our campsite in Mammoth Mountain. We left Orange County when I got off work at 1:30 pm and went straight there, stopping for food at around 6:00 pm. When we got there, Brian helped Joey set up our tent (in the dark) and then we spent the next 2.5 hours sitting around the campfire catching up, talking, and making the most delicious camp fire smore’s. It was like 34* outside that night and we were cold as s**t sleeping in our tent! The next morning, Joey and Brian made the four of us egg burritos and potatoes- which for campsite cooking, was pretty damn good. We loaded up our backpacks with snacks, water, cameras, bug spray, sunblock, etc and hit the road.
We set up camp at Reds Meadow Campground and started hiking the John Muir Trail up to Minaret Lake. The hike took us about 4.5 hours to go up 9,800 feet in elevation. Of course, we stopped to enjoy the views along the way, snap pictures, snack, and drink water. The hike was absolutely beautiful and we really enjoyed each other’s company, talking and laughing the entire way up. When we finally got to the top, we stopped for lunch and enjoyed the lake view. We stayed for probably 30 minutes up there resting before deciding to head back down the mountain.
As you can imagine, going down is a hell of a lot faster than going up (something I’ll talk about later), and about 2 hours in we were already more than half way back to base camp. About 2 miles from the very start of the hike, there is a river that you have to remove your shoes to walk across- the most shallow parts go about shin deep, while the middle of the lake is about waist deep. It was when we got to this point on the way back, that we stopped hiking for the very first time since leaving the high elevation. When we stopped to take our shoes off, Joey looked at me and said “Babe, I think I’m going to pass out.” These words will never leave my head. I looked at him and said okay, kneel down and put your head between your knees and breathe, I ran and got a handkerchief I had around my neck and drenched in the cold lake water, wrapping it around his neck and wrists (this is something we do in surgery, at work, when patients feel lightheaded and like they might pass out). It helped him for a minute but then when he looked back up at me, he said “I’m going to pass out, I’m going to go.” That was when Camille and Brian ran closer to us. I told Brian to call 911 and Camille helped me lay Joey down slowly. There were about 20 seconds where there was absolutely nothing coming from him. I watched his eyes roll back and all responsiveness was gone. Once he was on his side, I started breathing into his mouth, which eventually woke him up. For the next two hours, we laid on the ground next to him, sliding our backpacks underneath him to keep him above the rocky ground. We all removed every layer of clothing we had to wrap him in to keep him warm as he laid on the ground shaking. He was cold and exhausted but FOUGHT EVERY SECOND TO STAY AWAKE. I periodically would breath into his mouth to make him open his eyes wider and answer some stupid question I was asking him to just get him to focus on me. And for real, some were pretty dumb questions, like “What’s my sister’s name, what kind of animal do we have? What’s her name? What’s my favorite color?” Just to solicit one word responses from him.
Luckily, two hikers who had already crossed the river before us, saw us in trouble and crossed back to our side, removed their jackets and layers and immediately got down on the ground with us to wrap Joey up. They stayed with us the entire time and I’ll forever be grateful for that. Backpackers passing us offered their sleeping bags and emergency blankets to help, some even started boiling water for us to set next to Joey to help heat him up as well. It was absolutely amazing the help complete strangers gave. It was one hiker who actually had the exact longitude and latitude points of our location, he gave them to Brian who was able to give them to the 911 operator.
As the sun started to go down, with the air getting colder, Joey began to worry about us. He was worried that we were all cold and needed to go down the mountain (what an asshole, am I right?) It was then that Brian decided to run down the mountain to find the Search and Rescue team and lead them directly to us. Right when they got to us, they hoisted Joey into a sleeping bag and onto a gurney, immediately connecting him to an oxygen tank and taking some vital signs.
I knew we were going to go down the mountain very quickly once the Search & Rescue team got to us, so as soon as they started taking over and surrounding Joey, I grabbed everything we’d thrown all over the floor- our shoes, extra clothes, water bottles, etc and shoved everything into mine and Joey’s backpack to carry them down the mountain. It was at this point, where I stepped away, that I immediately started crying and I just couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, as all of this was happening, my body went into total survival mode and all I did was focus on getting Joey through this and keeping him awake. To be honest, I know it was 30* out and I had barely any clothing on- I could see the goosebumps all over my body but I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel anything. I was getting attacked by mosquitos (we all were) but I didn’t feel a single bite (until the next morning when I was changing my shirt and felt about 50 of them on my shoulder).
I think once the SAR were with us, a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I finally felt support in keeping him alive, it was then that all the emotion just overcame me. Brian quickly grabbed me and hugged me- quite honestly supporting my entire body from hitting the floor. After about 5 minutes of that, it was time to begin our descent. A few of the Search and Rescue workers gave me their jackets to keep me warm and we started down the mountain.
They had an ambulance waiting for us at the bottom of the mountain and he was quickly ushered in the back. They began taking vital signs and gave him some water- which immediately made him throw up. Because he had stabilized, they told me we had three options: 1. they take him in the back of the ambulance to the ER to get checked there by ER physicians. 2. If he could walk, he could get in our own car and I could take him to the ER myself. 3. He could go back to the campsite, carry on as normal and if anything else happened, we could drive him to the ER then.
The thing about altitude sickness is, the only “cure” is to lower your elevation. Once we were down the mountain, he started to feel better, although still exhausted, cold, and had a huge headache. When I asked the paramedic what he would do, he said let him go back to the campsite and see how it goes. The two hikers who had stopped to help us stayed with us the entire 6 hours and were obviously quite far from the trailhead and also just as cold as we all were. We decided we were going to drive them back up to their car and Joey decided that he wanted to try to walk and go back to the campsite. Some of the SAR team members drove Brian and Camille back to our campsite to get our cars (we needed both to drive us all). Brian drove my car right up to the back of the ambulance and Joey slowly walked to the front seat as our new friends and I got in the back. We drove up to downtown Mammoth, dropped them off, and sat in the gas station parking lot.
I wanted to take Joey to the ER and then wanted to get a hotel room to avoid sleeping down in the cold tent. Joey is a very stubborn man and because he said he was feeling a lot better, did not want to go to the ER. He didn’t think it was necessary (I wanted peace of mind but obviously lost). We got Domino’s pizza- the only thing in town that was open at 11:30 pm and sat in the car eating. I wanted to also watch how he did with food just in case he started throwing up again- then without doubt it would have been straight to the ER.
He kept the food down and was chugging water like nobody’s business. He said he felt tired but that sleeping in the tent would be fine. So that’s what we did. We went back down to the campsite- the big PRO here was that the campsite was literally the lowest elevation we could get to within Mammoth. Joey changed his clothes, we shook up some hand and feet warmers, and he got in bed. Luckily, I had downloaded movies on my tablet and brought it with me. So instead of sleeping, I stayed up all night watching movies as he slept. I was too paranoid and worried that something would happen in his sleep, so I stayed awake, watching and checking his pulse and breathing literally every 10 minutes. It was a loonggg night for me but something I felt ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.
As the sun came up, I was so relieved that we had made it through the night without any problems. Once Joey woke up, he still had a bit of a headache but felt a lot better. I wanted him to rest as much as possible so I forced him to stay in the warm tent, all bundled up as I packed everything up and loaded the car up.
From there everything was a gradual uphill. He continued to feel better and the headaches lessened. Once we were all packed up, we went back into town for a BIG breakfast (the paramedic also said the best thing to do would be for him to eat and drink A LOT of water, so that’s what we focused on). After breakfast, it was time to head back home. Again, I wanted Joey to rest as much as possible, so I drove the entire drive back from Mammoth as he slept in the passenger seat behind me.
Once we got back home on Sunday, around 7 pm, we jumped into bed and both immediately fell asleep- although, again, I wanted to watch him sleep so I woke up like every 2 hours throughout the night to check on him. Monday morning we went straight to Urgent Care to get him checked out.
The Urgent Care doctor let us know (and confirmed my worst fear) that Joey had a near death experience and was very lucky to have made it out alive. He said if there was a doctor at the bottom of the mountain, that without a doubt they would have forced us to go straight to the ER. He said paramedics don’t know anything medically necessarily and will say anything to get you to sign the release and exit their ambulance. Nice thing to think about right? He put Joey on Prednisone to help with any remaining swelling and said that the headaches would be normal for the next couple days.
Well, it officially took 5 days for the headaches to cease and on Friday, he finally felt 100% like himself. Now I won’t lie to you, we both are dealing with some PTSD from the whole thing, but we’re praying and working through it with lots of help from friends and family.
I know this is quite the post, so I’m going to break down the rest of the information in the following posts. Theres A LOT of ground I want to cover and A LOT of people who deserve my thanks. I’m also going to break down altitude sickness and HACE so that I can bring more awareness to it.
Thank you everyone for the thoughts and prayers we’ve received this past week. We’ve appreciated it so much. Thank you to anyone reading our story and I hope to give out even more information in the coming posts.