*Tar Creek Adventure*
By: Fred Heiser
18 September 2003

This is a story about how even an afternoon day hike in perfect weather can turn into a real survival test. All it takes is failure to engage a perfectly good brain before launch.

Within 40 miles of Los Angeles lay several wilderness areas in the rugged San Gabriel mountains. I'd explored several of these on foot. This particular day I decided to check out the Sespe Wilderness, To get there you travel about about ten miles north of the town of Fillmore on a dirt road cut into the side of the mountains originally to give access to the oil fields. The road goes from paved to gravel to dirt to poorly maintained dirt. A couple miles past the ranger station you reach a fork. The road I wanted to the Sespe split to the right and proceeded through a locked gate. Here is an informal parking area.

The parking area was fairly crowded with a half dozen vehicles. Some were using an informal shooting range immediately adjacent to the fork while others had gone on foot up the gated road to hike. The main dirt road goes on straight 3 more miles to what was once a public condor observation point. The trail started out along a gated fire road. Spectacular views along the way gave a hint as to the depth of the wilderness I was about to enter.

The road proceeded first up and then DOWN, DOWN, DOWN for about a mile and ended next to a clearing that is sometimes used for bee hives. There were cars parked here as well. (Obviously keys to the forest service gate had seen wide distribution.) After that it became just a dirt path.

I continued to follow the trail DOWN, DOWN, DOWN to where it reached Tar Creek. (Eventually I'll drop 2000 ft. in 3.5 miles that I'd have to gain again on my way out.) First I wandered upstream a while and saw some nice deep, clear pools, then back to where the trail crossed the creek. Tar Creek is named for the tar that seeps into it and accumulates on rocks. It was this tar that led to oil exploration long ago which led to the road being built that enable me to take this hike.

You can boulder hop this creek downstream until you come to a waterfall and need rappelling gear to go any further. It was here I met a rather surprised young couple who laughed nervously at first but soon were engaged in conversation with me about trail conditions up ahead. Their clothes were soaked. We talked about the trail. They had gone down stream about a half mile but had to stop at the top of the waterfall. They were the only two hikers I met on the entire trip. Don't know who all the cars belonged to back at the trail head.

Now I followed the path up the far side of Tar Creek into the Sespe Wilderness. Only a fool wanders off into wilderness without food, first aid kit, tools and water. My feet were protected by hiking shoes and thick wool socks. My fanny pack contained a snack, Swiss army knife, a first aid kit, matches in a waterproof container. Slung over one shoulder was a camera ad over the other was a water bottle with a built in filter. A broad brimmed cotton hat keeps my head cool on hot days (esp. when soaked in water) and warm if it gets chilly. Pants and shirt with zip-off legs and sleeves complete the ensemble. It was hot that Sunday so the zipped off parts were also stored in the fanny pack.

En route you'll continue to catch glimpses of the grandeur you are entering into. This is no trip for the faint of heart.

The route I'd specified to my wife was to visit the Sespe, so Tar Creek Falls would have to wait for another day. I crossed over and followed a rarely used trail which eventually intersected with Sespe Creek just downstream of Tar Creek. I expected to spend some time on the river and then take about 4 hours to hike back.

It takes about two hours to reach the Sespe along a trail that is hardly there at times. Best to allow 2 hours down and three hours back. Regaining that 2000 ft. of elevation is an effort, even with a light load and at sea level. The last few hundred feet to the Sespe weren't marked on the map. The trail was steep, treacherous - and sometimes simply not there. Lots of poison oak.

I expected to spend mid day on the river and then take my time hiking back. Once I got to the bottom I stashed my gear and proceeded downstream. Eventually I could see the previously mentioned Tar Creek Falls about 1000 ft. above me but it was difficult to see and would be very difficult to access. Keeping the limited time I had left in mind, I decided not to go there but instead headed back up stream until I came to the intersection of Tar and Sespe Creeks.

There is no trail paralleling the creek, so I had to boulder hop and wade quite a lot since I was hauling my camera around with me. Interesting rock formations abound as testament to the power of rushing water. Swimming would have made the trip a lot easier. Throughout the length of the creek there are lovely spots to cool the weary feet and refresh the spirit. Not wanting to get my stuff wet and there being nobody around for miles, soon I had removed everything and was carrying it above my head while I waded through the deep spots.

Note to self: Buy a waterproof container for the camera.

Returning from the falls, I eventually came to a place I didn't recognize. Here the rocks were much steeper and taller. It wasn't possible to go any further without some very serious rock climbing. In my haste to get back, I had missed my hidden gear and gone right past the trail out.

Note to self: Brightly colored tape for marking difficult to see trail intersections. Also; Slow down!

I'd wasted time, it was getting later in the afternoon and I'd have to double back and go more slowly so I didn't miss my mark again. Fortunately I'd allowed a hour's extra time just in case. One last rock next to a waterfall looked exceptionally interesting to climb. It was very smooth and at a 45 degree slope. I thought I'd try out my friction climbing techniques on it and maybe get a photo from the top. At the base of the waterfall was a large, deep pool of crystal clear water that looked perfect for jumping into and I wanted to investigate. Many swimming spots are way over your head and the clarity of the water can be deceptive.

During winter rains the Sespe can be an unapproachable torrent while in the late summer it can almost dry up completely. In May it is just perfect.

"Friction climbing" is where you flatten your entire body against the slab to maximize the friction between you and the rock. You move slowly, one limb at a time, trying never to break your bond with the rock. Friction climbing feels really good when the air is starting to cool but the rock is still warm!

I'd almost made it to the top of the rock when I started to slip. Once you start to slip, it is very difficult to stop. The first thing to go were my toe nails where I'd instinctlvely tried to jam them into the rock to slow my descent. Other delicate areas were starting to object to the abuse they were getting and I rolled over onto my back.

The texture of the rock was about the same as very coarse sand paper. I continued the slide down the rock on my back with my butt and the bottoms of my feet taking the worst of it. My feet left behind a pait of streaks lubricated by blood and peeled off skin. Then I went off the bottom edge of the slab and into the water.

The water was over my head here but somehow I still managed to land feet first on the one rock that wasn't really deep (6 ft. +/-) and bruised/tweaked my ankles on it. I swam across the pool and climbed out on a sand bar to examine the damage.

My camera beeped madly at me and then died. No more function at all from it. I never got a picture of the rock that got me.

Note to self: No more barefoot rock climbing!!!

Oh shit! I'd lost five toe nails including both big toes. The balls and heels of my feet and the undersides of my big toes were raw and bleeding. My ankles were sore. My butt had suffered some pretty significant scraping. Otherwise there were only some very minor scratches and bruises on my arms, chest and thighs.

I carefully applied Neosporin and bandaged up my feet as best I could, slipped on my socks and then my shoes over them and laced them up snugly. It's important to do this quickly, before swelling sets in or you won't get your shoes on at all. (No shoes in this state would soon mean immobility.) The snug (Not tight enough to cut off circulation!) lacing gives support to any damaged foot structures and slows the seepage of blood from damaged skin.

Note to self: Include a roll of gauze and an ace bandage in the 1st aid kit.

Time was passing. (Duh!) Injured like this, there was no way I was getting out of there before dark. This was not going to be fun.

I retreived my ball of clothes and carefully worked my way back downstream and almost missed my gear again. The place I hid them didn't look at all like it did when I'd first come down and I had hidden it very well indeed. Somehow the shifting shadows and reduced light made everything look different. But I knew it HAD to be there so I persevered and found them.

Note to self: Make that plastic marker ribbon bright orange!

My estimated time out was now up from 4 hours to probably 6 or more. Some of that would be in the dark on a trail that was often trecherous and on weak ankles. I'd left a map and a detailed explanation of my route with my wife and told her to call search and rescue if I wasn't back by dark, so I decided to spend the night. I could have started up the trail and met up with potential rescuers en route (assuming they got called) but the pain in my feet dissuaded me from that course of action. 20 years ago I'd have done it without hesitation. I could still have done it if someone's life depended on it. Dammit, I just didn't want to deal with the pain and I wasn't sure my ankles would take it. Might end up crawling the distance.

(As an aside, a friend of mine had gone on a weekend hike to a remote location. He had asked his friends at work to call search and rescue if he didn't make it in on time on Monday morning and left them detailed instructions. He came in very late Monday to learn his co-workers had completely forgotten about him. Make sure your "friends" are reliable and take you seriously!)

I began to think about how to spend the night. There were lots of small caves and overhangs in the boulders piled up along the edge of the creek. The rocks would hold the warmth of the sun and keep the wind off me. Originally I'd planned to scoop a trench in the dry sandy floor of a cave and then bury myself in leaves and grass for insulation. But at every place I looked I found camping gear left behind by previous occupants, so I wasn't going to need to practice many wilderness survival skills.

I'd said before that this is not a trip for the weak. The return hike and 2000 ft. elevation gain had encouraged previous campers to leave their excess bagage behind. Before long I'd found 2 5x7 blue plastic tarps, a torn up red tent filled with empty beer cans and a queen size white synthetic blanket. Thank God for litterbugs!

Along with all the beer cans I found unopened cans of beef stew, creamed corn and Cheeze Whiz. I spread one of the tarps out nearby in an open area as a marker for any searchers to see and went to bed with all my new found gear.

BTW, I might mention water. It is not a good idea to drink directly from any creeks in the southern California area. Even the clearest of them often harbor giardia and e-coli is contributed by folks who do their business too close to the water's edge. One such "dump" can slowly seep contaminants all summer. I'd brought along my water filter bottle which filters out the large bugs and particulates while killing viruses with an iodine matrix, so water was no problem. (If you can't purify, carrying enough water (1 gallon/person/day) can become quite a burden and stopping to boil is very time consuming.)

I had brought matches. I had brought a waterproof container to put them in. Stupidly they weren't in the container. Equaly stupidly, the matches were in a pouch right next to the water bottle. Just enough water had squeezed out of the water bottle and onto the adjacent matches to render them worthless. Not having dry firemaking materials was a real "pisser" and I was too tired to try making fire the "old fashioned" way, with a bow and a drill or flint and steel. (It can be done, but without practice it takes a long time.) It later occured to me - after it was too dark to do it - that I might have looked through the litter to find a discarded lighter. With all the discarded gear I'd found I was quite snug and fire wasn't a "survival" issue. I also thought about taking all those beer cans (hundreds!) and laying them out in an arrow or spelling SOS with them but I was too tired for that as well. I think my injuries were starting to affect me.

Note to self: Forget matches. Bring my butane camping lighter. (I have one with a compass built into it.)

That night was beautiful. As the sun set, the mountains opposite went red, then blue-grey. White noise from the river was very relaxing. I could hear the calls of evening birds coming out. There was even the sound of ducks. Bats came out of their caves and the coyotes serenaded me. Very peaceful feeling and I enjoyed it for everything it was worth. No point in letting a little bad luck get me down.

I'd left a map and detailed description of where I was going with my wife and told her to call search and rescue if I wasn't back by sunset. Sometime after I'd gone to sleep, I was wakened by a helicopter flying overhead. I climbed out of my tent and waved the white blanket around above me. The chopper flew overhead, maybe 200 feet away, and shone a spotlight directly on me. I could read the numbers on its side and see the guy looking out the window but they didn't see me and kept on going.

This happened twice more. I said "To hell with it!" after the third time they missed me and just stayed in bed. The next moring I woke up to the sound of the chopper again. This time they saw me immediately and landed about 50 yards away on a sand bar near the blue tarp. Five minutes later a guy comes walking down the creek to where I was.

He said that once they'd landed, it was easy to follow the trail of blood I'd left on the rocks... Ow!

They'd had search parties out all night looking for me. He couldn't figure out how they'd missed me since I was right next to where the trail met the river. Looking back, maybe I should have stayed awake all night. If people came down that trail making any kind of noise at all I'd have heard them. Of course they'd also missed the bright blue plastic tarp I'd spread out in the open, from both the air and the ground. Either they'd missed it or dismissed it. If I'd brought one of my one oz. aluminized mylar space blankets with me they'd surely have seen that.

Note to self: Carry one of those LED warning lights like trick-or-treaters and bicyclists wear. They are visible for great distances at night and double as an emergency flashlight. (Red LEDs also have the advantage of not affecting your night vision.)

I managed to limp over to the chopper. Except for my feet feeling like they'd been beaten with a baseball bat, then burnt with a torch, I was in pretty good shape. My ankles no longer hurt - or maybe my feet hurt so much I didn't notice them. They'd expected me to be hypothermic and probably crippled.

The neatest thing about it was that I got a free helicopter ride out. The view was incredible, even better than anything I'd seen on foot. Damned camera was still dead.

They'd set up the emergency rescue center right next to where I'd parked my car. They took off my socks and washed my feet and then wrapped them up in gauze. Figured I was probably in mild shock. It was quite an effort to convince them I didn't need immediate emergency medical attention and I had to sign very many papers to that effect. They gave me a new pair of oversized cotton socks to fit over the bandaging and wouldn't let me keep my old ones. They had blood on them and had already been disposed of in a biohazard container. Those were brand new $15 Merino wool socks and a wash in cold water & Woollite would have left them once again as good as new. Rats!

I drove home after that and then my wife drove me to the Kaiser emergency room. The folks at the Kaiser ER are well meaning but don't know how to bandage up damaged feet that still have to be walked on. The guys from the search and rescue team had done it correctly, so well that it hardly hurt at all and I could still get my shoes on.

The folks at Kaiser treated my feet like they had burns. Loosely applied gauze pads was not what I needed, I needed modest compression. My feet almost immediately swelled up like watermelons. I walked in with significant discomfort but after they'd rebandaged me, every step was agony and I really was a cripple. I couldn't put shoes on afterward, not even shoes that were two sizes larger then normal. Ended up buying a pair of size 12 sandals just to get around. (I'm normally a size 9.)

For 5 days afterwards I used a walker to get around. The next five days after I stopped with the walker I still wore the sandals with double thicknesses of socks. Three days after that I no longer needed any bandaging and could wear my regular shoes.

21 days after my little mishap and I was walking okay with just a little tenderness where the toe nails had been lost. They gave me problems with ingrown toenails for several months afterwards. The advice given by the doctors didn't help much but I eventually figured out how to help my toe nails grow in properly. You have to periodically pry the ingrowing edge up so that it rides on top of the skin instead of digging into it. Hurts a little now but saves having surgery later on.

All in all, I really enjoyed the trip but I'd have enjoyed it a lot better if I'd not tried boulder climbing in bare feet. When I went back to the gymn for the first time since the hike. I used their "eliptical trainer" for my cardio excercice and discovered that amazingly I had neither put on weight nor lost cardiovascular conditioning.
Fred Heiser



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