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Mill Valley Man Recounts New Year's Eve Rescue on Mount Tam

Three weeks after he was rescued on the west side of Mount Tam, Dennis Klein lauds his rescuers and gives his own account of what happened.

A New Year’s Eve to Remember: A Rescue on Mt. Tamalpias from the viewpoint of victim Dennis H. Klein - 2013FreeWillPress (c)2013

On New Year’s Eve 2012, after 41 years of running the Marin Headlands without mishap, I messed up. Rapid nightfall made it too dangerous to move and I had to be evacuated from the base of Mt Tam by a rescue team.

I promised the 30 wonderful men and women from all over Bay Area that I would repay them for so willingly blowing off their New Year’s Eve to make sure it was not my last that I would submit a recap from my point of view of what happened that cold dark night as affirmation of the amazing performance and inspiring attitude of these most special Americans.

Having returned early from an East Coast holiday with our kids and with an 8 p.m. New Year’s dinner invite ahead, I drove to Pantoll to do a run to Stinson I had contemplated for years but had never done. Because the only afternoon Marin Transit bus back up to my car was at 5 p.m., I started down a few minutes after 3 p.m. with the last part being a 1,500-foot ‘schuss’ leaping down a drop‐dead gorgeous, wide open, thick duff, high canopy redwood forest ridge line.

Things went so smooth, I hit bottom at 4:20 p.m. with 40 minutes left to go and less than a half mile to the bus. Just as I figured, the last leg was a stream bed. However, up until now, this close to the bottom, be it Muir Woods, Four Corners, Cascade Canyon, Blithedale Canyon or Big Rock Ridge, every stream I had ever encountered was an easy meandering thing between broad banks. Instead, this was a raging torrent squeezed between two tall near vertical cliff faces – not what I signed up for.

Anxious to stay dry on that unseasonal cold night, I went back up slope to go around the stream only to use up valuable time as it became too dark for that to work. So I returned to the stream as the one sure way to get out without getting lost. Trying to step along ledges, I was soon wet to the knees. Then it got so dark that when I put my hand out to steady myself, there was nothing there as I fell face first into the water. Knowing better now, I doubled my efforts to not do that again as I watched my hand pass to only touch anything so densely dark it just had to be solid.

This time I tumbled head over heels down a 15-foot cataract with thoughts that the next step could be a 20-foot drop to a lights-out cracked skull. Game Over. I pulled myself out of the water, sat down next to the roaring stream and decided that being stranded soaking wet, shivering violently all through one of the longest nights of the year until enough light made it possible to walk out was a better option than running the risk of packing it in altogether and really pissing off a whole bunch of people.

Rescue?

No way, with my iPhone underwater at least twice. (Without this device, none of what followed would have been possible. I pulled it out of my jeans (runner's body armor) just to make sure. Thank you Steve Jobs! It was still working with 30 percent battery left, kicking off a whole new chapter in this saga presented next blow by blow.   

I called 911. I heard a flat voice seemingly impervious to my plight. I was referred to another jurisdiction. When no one picked up, I called 911 again. This time a different flat voice tells me they have absolutely no knowledge of the earlier call as we start all over again. After a protracted discourse, I am referred an agency who has no idea where Mt. Tam is.

After hearing some three minutes of my story, saying, 'Uh huh, uh huh," the person suddenly blurted, "ARE YOU IN A CAR?" I repeatedly tried telling everyone to look at any online map, zoom to Stinson Beach to see two residential areas east of the highway. I tell them repeatedly I am up a stream that outfalls into the upper north east corner of the southern residential area. I am not able to reference street names since none are present, this being THE last day of Apple Maps. The very next day, the roads are back on the phone, thanks to Apple and Google deciding to make nice again. [Death by AppleMap?!] Disappointingly, no one I talked to all night seemed to have any interactive mapping of any kind, at all.  

I was asked where my car was. Later, when told they had a coordinate for my location, I find out it’s at my car, five miles away, as though returning to your car on foot is the only allowed option. I am put on hold again with another wait too long. With the phone at 12 percent and the air getting colder, I called 911 again, got someone else entirely new, again with no record of prior calls. I hung up and call 411 and get Stinson Beach Fire Department on the line. A friendly voice of Fire Captain Toby Bisson comes on the line and immediately knows I am along a high volume stream not far upslope from the houses.

He asks the name of the steam. I could think of none. Nearly every creek in all of the Marin Headlands has a name except the ones down slope from the Bolinas ridge. Soon a helicopter was overhead. I climbed up some 60 feet from the deep trough of the stream bed to be better seen. I flashed my Search Light App up but was apparently not seen. In seconds the phone was dead. I sat down. It was so dark that one second I am shifting my weight to get more comfortable and the next I am falling uncontrollably and blindly down a 60-foot cliff face to the stream, this time lacerating my hand and other bodily bumps and grinds. Game ends again.  

I pull my soaked sweatshirt over my head and made like a tent to trap my breath. Shortly my upper body was becoming comfortable but my lower body was shaking violently. It got colder. Concerned about losing a toe, I warmed my hands in my armpits, took off my soaked shoes and socks and massaged my toes, or at least an assembly of dead nerve endings at the far end of my foot. I repeatedly warmed my hands and massaged my feet until my toes came back to life. I continued to shake violently my upper and lower body with an occasional respite.  

It got colder. I repeated the hand-foot cycle every 15 minutes for six hours, capable of only two thoughts: ‘Will I make it through the night?’ mixed with ‘Is anyone coming to get me?’ and this latter I was able to even invoke reason as long as it was the same argument that went like this: I had told them on the phone before the big fall that I was old and that I was not hurt, so when no one came, my thinking was that with or without seeing me from the helicopter, I could last until morning and walk out on my own, and if not, since there was so little shelf life left, I did not matter all that much if I did not walk out.

One more round of this comforting self pity is interrupted right in the middle by tiny wiggly head lights coming toward me up the stream. It was Ken and Kevin and Charles and Teal, the sweetest, toughest medevac team just in from the center of a perfect world. Teal, a certified teacher who could not find work, opted for a paramedic career, unlike two of my certified teacher children who had to leave the state to find work. Education is always tyranny’s first target, but something that had too many friends to get chopped, the Roman tenant that ‘The safety of the People is the highest law’ remained sacred enough that from where I sat, there was enough funding to keep our security apparatus in top condition.

Everyone was excited. I was not going to die and, and FINALLY the rescue party has a live body to save rather than training dummies. This was not a drill. Stinson Beach Fire Protection District’s few and finest were joined by volunteers answering this New Years Eve call to action from Sonoma, Contra Costa and Solano counties. Teal soon had my pulse retreating from a shaking-induced high of 65 vs my 41 runners pulse. Soon I am in the stretcher on my way out assisted by of all manner of zip lines and lanyards competing for the real‐time proven best practice award.

All around me relationships enriched, networks tightened and leadership tested and perfected, giving them strength they did not have before to handle something much worse much better. With the average carry or slide being about 6 feet a minute, the 250 yards to the road was crossed in around four hours of relentless competent toil. For all of my days, memory of their energy, physical fitness, gentleness, patience (with me and each other), intelligence and humility will make them the one group on earth with whom I would rather spend New Year’s Eve, ever.

Four hours later I am in a ultra warm ambulance ready to take me to Kaiser for my lacerated hand.Thanks to my amazing rescuers, I felt so good that a fully staffed ambulance ride to Kaiser at the other end of the county for a hand that had long stopped bleeding should best be saved for a more worthy enterprises. After being driven up to the top of the ridge to my car, I signed a release waiving the ambulance and drove myself to Kaiser.  

So why this attempt to immortalize a debacle? It’s to thank the volunteers. I learned that night how the survival of just one single person is somewhat the same as the survival of an entire culture Without enough committed to 'We are all in this together,' neither is possible. On New Year’s Eve ’12, I got to meet some of ‘in this together’ priesthood. Since the stretcher work was done in shifts, I got a good look at nearly every face. What I saw in each was … 'I gave up my New Year’s Eve plans just to keep someone from dying and all I get in return is this euphoric feeling lighting up my body that may never end.'

My praise for these 30 Californians who made sure I did not perish from this earth cannot be enough. And if it is too over the top, give the rest of the praise to the millions of volunteers everywhere who continuously commit their time and talent, with near no recognition or thanks, to not considering anything okay until the whole thing is okay.

Also, perhaps that night was pay‐back for some volunteering I did once, in ’68, on the Korean DMZ as an Engineer Officer in a ground war between the Pueblo's seizure and the crew’s return. With the Tet Offensive so deep in the crapper, a news blackout prevented this second front from being known at home. So in return for the 2nd Infantry Division's clear victory in preventing a North Korean invading Seoul, there was no thanks, no appreciation, not even any recognition.

Perhaps some of the praise overflow for my rescuers is better directed at the 12,500 GIs of the 2nd Infantry Division for their rescue of this nation from still one more embarrassing Nam-era defeat. While near a hundred GIs did not make it home, I did not get hurt out there for only one reason on this green earth – just like NewYear’s Eve ’12, the person next to me was that good!  

LESSONS LEARNED

I have no suggestion for the rescue squad. They were perfect in every way, an accolade I cannot assign to the run‐up of their arrival. Subsequent to the rescue, I have learned that all 911 calls from a cell phone are randomly assigned to CHP dispatch centers all over the state. Worse, they have no protocol or systems for logging in a call. Perhaps each call needs a incident number tied to the name of the caller as a simple means of avoiding starting all over again.

Meanwhile, for all calls going out of the Bay Area, to assure they go to “our” command post, instead of 911, dial 415-472-0911. This is the fastest way to get your plight known to the Marin County Sheriff, in my case, Lt. Doug Pittman who oversaw the entire operation.

Online GIS. Mapping system implementation should be by simply training every call center to use the popular commodity systems offered free such as Google Maps, Bing Maps and Yahoo Maps.

Upon the caller citing their mapping system, dispatch selects the same so all are looking at the same thing. Even without a match system, zooming in on Stinson Beach returns the same basic display everywhere, no wiggle room.

Location Coordinate. I was asked for a coordinate repeatedly. Try as I may, I could not get the blue dot on the map do that. Out of remaining phone time worries, a visit to the App store was sidelined. Later, an intuitive query, GPS Coordinate, returned GPS Data in a matter of seconds that reports not only your latitude longitude but your elevation as well. Having said that, no one should venture out into the natural world ('going out is going in,' according to John Muir) without something like this on their phone. And if you do not have a phone, do not go out at all.

What did happen, in my call to the Stinson Fire Department, they were able get the reasonable coordinate on my phone before it went dead. That and knowing I was beside a stream, together enabled them to find me.  

Clothing. I was given socks for gloves. Better a pairs of gloves are packed in. I was given warm up jackets that were great but my legs were wrapped only in thermal blankets. Perhaps pairs of pants be packed in as well.

Naming Streams. All over the Marin Headlands, every little trickle has a name until you get to the ocean side of the Bolinas Ridge. I urge that between the Fire Department, County sheriff and State Parks, names are assigned where needed and add all creek names to all maps so that they become well known and useful reference in times of emergencies.

A lesson offered that night is how can the natural world so benign and friendly and full of grace in daylight so quickly become a murky, damp, near freezing hell hole gorge riddled with precipices and pitfalls quite ready to cause my death. The answer is still rattling around in my head. More certain, the 8 hours of bone rattling shivering was a terrifying, painful ordeal and a judicious punishment for not being more careful. That brings us back to the 30-person Search and Rescue crew who relentlessly waded up creeks until they found the right one, who bandaged my wounds, monitored my vital signs, warmed me up and carried me out. This California 30 were dead‐on validation of a 'patience‐of‐Job' obsession that America is a successful country.

 

"[Your recap] was great reading. I've been involved in Search and Rescue for nearly 20 years and it's uncommon for us to have such a thorough narrative with constructive feedback we can put to good use. Thank you very much! I'm now a deputy sheriff over in Napa County. I coordinate our volunteer SAR team here... I'm glad you're well and will pass on your feedback to the team." --Bryan Sardoch, Deputy Sheriff, Search and Rescue Coordinator, Napa Sheriff's Department

Paula Neese January 21, 2013 at 10:44 PM
As a Mt Tam hiker I also would like to thank you for sharing your story. Sometimes we forget just how fast nature can change. It's alarming to hear about that first call. Maybe that dispatcher isn't in the right job. So lucky that your cel still worked to call again or things could have been so much worse. Shout out to all your rescuers! This is one new years you will never forget I am sure. Cheers!
Carol X January 21, 2013 at 11:14 PM
Thanks for the story. This can happen to anyone. Another lesson: Don't get cocky! My husband once decided to take a deer path on his hike and ended up clawing his way through bushes at sundown, coming home covered in blood. Also, thanks to the search and rescue people who are so often unsung heroes.
Kevin Moore January 22, 2013 at 12:08 AM
I am glad you were rescued with minimal pain and suffering. Your story has made me think more about my self rescue supplies. Good tip on the county sheriff number. Runner: o Plastic sandwich bags weigh nothing and will keep your phone dry. o Whistle. You can blow a whistle long after your voice gives out. o Smart Phone - Flashlight mode app. Just makes the phone white. Good for putting keys in doors. These are too heavy for a runner, but hikers might invest. o SPOT GPS: Sends signals to satellite systems. Might not work in trees or canyons, but will send your last coordinates and an SOS. o CREE LED flashlight: Some have a strobe mode, which might make it easier for rescue workers to see from a helicopter. They weigh a few ounces.
John Stillman January 22, 2013 at 12:13 AM
Thanks for the cautionary tale and kudos to the rescuers! FWIW, the Compass app on recent iPhones shows your GPS coordinates. Good to know in an emergency!
Cindi Bunten January 22, 2013 at 12:37 AM
Thanks for sharing your story. While I stay on fire roads, anything can happen and I just downloaded a GPS coordinates app, which I never even knew existed before reading your recommendation.
CB January 22, 2013 at 01:16 AM
I have just added the Marin County Sheriff number to my cell. That is excellent advice. Thank you for sharing your story, the 911 calls were unbelievable!
Michael Smith January 22, 2013 at 03:17 AM
Instead of "assigning" blame to others, why not try to account for your own actions that lead you there in the first place. Unfortunately even law enforcement cant fix stupid, which in your case seems abundant. Why not give a "thank you" to everyone involved, rather than a select few. Everyone involved in your "lack of common sense" rescue is one team. Next time, find some humility and take responsibility for your own retardedness. Perhaps they should've just left you up there......your final lesson would've been a good one.
MJ January 22, 2013 at 03:19 AM
Your an idiot!
John Ferguson January 22, 2013 at 03:23 AM
I'm glad you made it out safe. The two takeaways of installing coordinate software and loading the Marin Co. sheriff's number will hopefully spread far and wide enough to make a difference in the next scenario of this kind. Thanks for thinking it through after the fact and making recommendations - truly valuable!
MJ January 22, 2013 at 03:51 AM
Perhaps the "run up" to your rescue should have included more responsibility for you own actions, so that you would not have to rely on others to find you. Common sense dictates taking some precautions prior to entering a wilderness area. But, rather than take responsibility for your own actions or inactions (lack of common sense), you would rather cast stones at "systems" and "inquiries" that "failed" you. The "team" that rescued you was just that, a team, which included everyone, even the person you were speaking with on the phone. without that person, a rescue mission would never have been initiated, which in this case, most likely would have taught you one final life's lesson; Don't be a jackass, and use common sense, if it exists within you. The only words out of your mouth at a moment like this should be "thank you, thank you, thank you".........to ALL involved.
Bill McGee January 22, 2013 at 05:42 AM
I don't think Dennis was trying to blame others at all and the point of the piece was to thank his rescuers and to help others avoid the same perils in the future. I didn't have the same reaction as Michael Smith and MJ expressed in their comments. I do appreciate Dennis writing the account and I immediately added the Sheriff’s 479-0911 number to my cell phone contacts and I will download the GPS coordinate app to my phone. I currently have been using a flashlight app and find it useful for everyday usage. My phone app comes with a Red and Blue lights which could come in handy in an emergency. All good suggestions for technology. Of course keep the cell phone charged but also best to prepare in ways which don’t involve a device which relies on battery power. There are many remote areas in Marin which has little to no cell phone coverage so best to always be prepared with map, compass, proper clothing, flashlight etc. Thank you to all of our emergency responders!
Kathryn Chipman January 22, 2013 at 03:15 PM
I sent this article to my husband who runs and mountain bikes alone. He does carry a smart phone and subscribes to Run Keeper so I can locate his whereabouts but things can still happen. Glad there was a happy ending to this.
Lrb January 22, 2013 at 07:39 PM
The number is 472 0911, not 479 0911
Dolly Lanna January 22, 2013 at 08:28 PM
You obviously did not read this man's article. He was not being stupid and was not lacking common sense. Sometimes shit happens. How rude of you to not understand.
Dolly Lanna January 22, 2013 at 08:31 PM
MJ Again, it is obvious you did not read Dennis's article or understand what was written. I suggest you re-read the total thing and offer an apology for having bad comprehension skills.
MJ January 23, 2013 at 01:59 AM
Unfortunately Joeann, if you were privy to ALL the information, not just what was written by Dennis, you're opinion might change, or perhaps not. Either way, makes very little difference to me.
Bill McGee January 23, 2013 at 03:15 AM
MJ - Joeanne and others are only privy to what we read here by Dennis and that is what we based our comments, and that is what you ripped. Our opinions must be meaningful to you otherwise you would not have bothered to write two posts. I hope you deal with whatever is eating at you.
Kathleen Duich January 23, 2013 at 03:32 AM
Dennis, thanks so much for sharing your experience. Ignore the crazy hostility people. Going out on a limb by sharing your story is a great reminder for all of us of how easily and quickly things can go wrong, even on our familiar green mountain. I took note of the 911 number and some of your other tips... thank you!
Kathryn Chipman January 23, 2013 at 03:54 AM
I agree. I appreciate that Dennis shared his story so that we can all learn from it. It takes a big person to admit they messed up so I applaud his candidness. I also think that he did thank his rescuers and even more importantly he fulfilled his promise to them to tell his story.
Thrasy Bulus January 24, 2013 at 12:22 AM
LOL at the copyright notice at the top of this.
Dolly Lanna January 24, 2013 at 05:19 PM
F in spelling
Novato Native January 24, 2013 at 08:34 PM
Whats so funny about it? You can copyright anything you write that is your own creative work. If a movie is made, they can't just take his story. And the copyright helps him get paid. Better safe than sorry!
Jennifer Witherington January 24, 2013 at 08:52 PM
brought tears to my eyes. so glad you were rescued. God bless our search and rescue teams
Fred Woods January 25, 2013 at 03:24 AM
I've shared this with friends and soon with my son's Boy Scout troop. I commend Mr. Klein for thanking his rescuers. As an Eagle Scout (1983), retired Army Reserve Officer and trail runner, I'm blown away by the incompetence of a supposedly experienced trail runner. Recently I ran a trail that crosses a creek, Momyer Creek Trail, in the San Bernardino Mountains. In my day pack: Extra socks,  gloves, light jacket, mirror, matches, lighter, Cliff bars, Cytomax powder, Hammer gel packets, bottle of water, LED flashlight, LED headlamp, skull cap, dry-fit tshirt, bandana and a 10-ft length of parachute cord. I also had my Camelback bladder with double the water I planned on needing and my iPhone (fully charged) in a Lifeproof waterproof case, turned to airplane mode to save the battery. I also had my GPS watch. I couldn't find  my whistle and I loaned my compass to my son for a Scout trip.  Before I got out of my car, I sent a text to a person stating where I was, where I was going and what time they should hear from me. They confirmed. How long was my trip? Less than 6 miles. this was the same gear I packed for a 25 mile run to summit Mt. San Gorgonio. It's not the distance that matters. I pack a bottle of water for people like Mr. Kline who are not prepared for their adventure. When I was a Scout all of the times we had to stop our adventure to assist people, were less than 3 miles from a trailhead. Most were within 1/2 to 1 mile. BE PREPARED!
Megan January 25, 2013 at 05:48 PM
Hey I think you forgot to thank the Marin County Search and Rescue team. The fact you would leave them out as they are your neighbors and community members who volunteer their time away from family and friends to rescuing people like you every day makes me wonder if this was intentional.
Jessie January 27, 2013 at 07:23 PM
Authentic gratitude from Mr. Klein, in the true spirit of giving back to the community (or the county in this case), would evince the following: For him to research, declare & be accountable for the estimated financial costs of his multiple-knucklehead moves • after long-distance travel • with East Coast jet lag • not young • running alone • near nightfall • several miles • cold dead of winter, after rains • on a point-to-point-only-one-direction-no-going-back-really trail • that he'd never-ever run before (!) • which has a ~1500ft precipitous drop from trailhead to trailend • in an area that is, in essence, wilderness • near only a remote, sleepy, isolated beachtown • on New Year's Eve (!!) and compensate the county for these taxpayers' bills DIRECTLY BROUGHT ON & CAUSED BY HIS ACTIONS. Too bureaucratic to do? Fine. Then make a commensurate $ donation to a Marin non-profit and then detail THIS ACTION in a MVPatch post. Of course, this all does not address the off-balance-sheet COSTS to some 30 New Year's Eve plans being destroyed (perhaps some, months in the making & anticipating). Nor does it address the possible hidden costs to his mal-decision (what if, for instance, a rescure worker tore an Achilles heel in the process. Who pays for that repair & rehabilitation costs?!!) Any quesses, if estimated & added all up? $8? $80? $800? $1800? $3800? $6800? $10,800? $18,800? More?
MJ January 29, 2013 at 06:38 AM
lest not forget, although not common knowledge, that he was a complete a-hole to the dispatcher on the phone who was only trying to help him....another case of Marin-ite self-entiltlement in action.
JNL January 31, 2013 at 08:15 PM
Fred and other folks here bring up very good points about preparedness. Seems if it took Mr. Klein 1:20 to run to the stream, after determining he could not cross safely, he could have turned around and run/walked back to his car. Since it was dark, if he had brought a headlamp or flashlight, he could have retraced his steps and gotten back to his car safely. Perhaps not in the 1:20 time it took to get to the stream as he was tired and it was uphill back to the car. He could have then called his family to say he would be late. But by turning around he would not have required a rescue. Having a light can make all the difference. Doesn't wear down the cell phone battery either.
oblio February 01, 2013 at 05:45 PM
Wow. I guess you've never made a mistake in your life. Wishing death on someone is pretty harsh.
Fairfaxian Trail Guy February 06, 2013 at 07:10 PM
I spend a lot of time solo on primitive trails in winter. I appreciate the honest account, with nod to his rescuers. But "jeans" and a "sweatshirt" on a winter run? I really hope these weren't cotton. 41 years of running in Marin should really prepare someone for the elements more than this. No light??? If I head out late, I would tend to avoid unknown terrain, esp. that which might include extremely steep drainages. I ALWAYS bring a light in winter, and enough clothes so that I could survive an injury if delayed. It is the responsibility of trail users to know the area and prepare for seasonal conditions and terrain. Oh BTW, I am originally from the East Coast, and quickly learned to respect the West Coast wilderness and all its unpredictable aspects. In my earlier zeal & ignorance I have had similar episodes -which could have required rescue. I typically prefer rough, primitive terrain, and often hike/bike alone. I try to be prepared, but still enjoy a challenge, with a manageable degree of risk. (former rock climber, mountaineer). But of course if things had gone as planned, we would not have enjoyed the well penned cautionary tale above. Happy trails!

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