Pregnant With Danger
How two hikers got lost in Big Sur backwoods – when one was two months from giving birth.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
On the most southern edges of Big Sur awaits a Pacific Valley trail called Pruitt Loop. The 12-mile horseshoe-shaped ramble climbs to a grand elevation of 1,950 feet, weaves in and out of trophy redwood forests and snakes along streams with drink-ready waterfalls, providing adventurists with backstage passes into the South Coast’s scenic solitude. For Oakland’s Roger Sunday and Syd Long, it also provided a meeting with their own mortality.
Earlier this month the couple ventured to Treebones Resort in Big Sur, which I help my family run, to enjoy their nearing birthdays. Upon arriving, the couple assessed their hiking options. From a map they estimated Prewitt Loop to be five to seven miles start to finish, an ideal day’s distance for the experienced hikers, even given the baby-on-board belly Long lugged with her. Armed with a backpack equipped with limited supplies – including trail mix, a lighter and a knife – the two began their expedition the next day from the South Coast Ranger Station, declining to inform anyone of their plans and unaware that the hike is closer to 12 miles.
“Everything was going really, really good – tons of waterfalls, beautiful redwood forests, amazing views, it was really cool,” Sunday says. “I was having a really good birthday.”
By 3pm, though, he noticed they had likely covered more than seven miles.
“I hike all the time, so I know what a seven-mile hike feels like,” he says. “Things weren’t adding up.” Across the huge valley to the north they could make out the near end of the trail, but even after five hours, they say, they were still on the south side and quickly losing their bearings, as animal paths lured them off the marked trail. Increasingly exhausted, seven-months-pregnant Long began to accept they’d have to spend the night in the wild.
Dark clouds and a sinking sun provided little light as they came across a section of the trail washed out by a previous storm. “We were really high up on the edge of a steep cliff with crumbling rocks beneath our feet,” Long recalls. “It was one of the scariest moments.”
After completing the sketchy ledge crossing, Long and Sunday chose to climb above the unreliable trail to a plot of clear land under some bay trees. Rain and harsh wind harassed them as they began to build a shelter using their camera’s flash as a light. Sunday used some handkerchiefs to tie a log to one of the trees and then piled branches to make a roof. After layering mud on top of themselves for warmth, the couple huddled together in the darkening cold.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, the rain ceased and they arose, deciding to head the way they came. Starting at dawn meant the couple had the day to backtrack, which felt feasible.
But the night’s nasty weather had provoked more landslides, and, after hours of traversing washed out trails, Long and Sunday determined they had gone in circles. A lack of food and direction, meanwhile, started to deepen their desperation. With the sun again heading for the horizon the couple decided to slip a few hundred feet down a landslide area into a creek they planned to follow to Highway 1.
They helped each other over felled trees and boulders, wading through the creek and tempting the slippery banks.
“We were running on pure adrenaline,” Long says. “If we stopped we would feel our pain and lose motivation… so we couldn’t stop.”
Long knew she didn’t want to spend another night out there. Both she and Sunday also knew their electronic devices had been fried by the rain, so the existence of any cell signal was irrelevant. At the same time, the dwindling light renewed the need to find shelter. As another wave of rain arrived, the two say they were too tired to worry about potential flash floods, taking up position on the muddy bank; this time Roger was able to start a fire that likely spared the couple from hypothermia, something Long, as an ER nurse at Alameda County Medical Center, anticipated.
Their fears for the unborn baby chased away any hope for sleep. When they rose, hunger had left as well.
Soaking wet, extremely cold and now brutally sore, they launched a last attempt at escaping the wilderness. The morning stumbled past in a blur – and before long the sun was hitting its highpoint. Then, just as it started to sink in that the light was challenging them to one last race to the horizon, they spotted the roof of a barn.
It proved no hallucination: In the distance, up a steep bank, the barn was just yards from the highway. Soon they were hailing a passing car.
At Treebones, unaware of the ill-advised hike, we had grown concerned.
“Where have you guys been?” became the question of the day.
The answer: The birthday hike we took almost took us.