The Real "Bay to Breakers"

by Dinesh Desai

Day 2

We were on the trail by 7:00 a.m., and being at an elevation of 2,200 feet, the temperature felt quite cool. But not for long. We warmed up as the trail slowly ascended a couple of hundred feet to a high plateau and the sun shone brilliantly. It was exhilarating to look at the panoramic view, and a few deer munching in the peaceful environment complemented the vistas. We moved effortlessly as the next six miles were mostly downhill. We hiked through the majestic redwoods of Portola Redwoods State Park till we reached Pescadero Creek and the "No Bridge to Somewhere" as opposed to Alaska's famous "Bridge to Nowhere".

looking up into tall coast redwood trees

The tall Redwoods

In our next leg, we were to regain almost all the elevation -- about 2,000 feet -- that we had lost since morning. Portola Trail, however, was fairly gentle and we moved quickly. Chuck was in the lead and I was right behind him. On a short stretch of the trail going downhill before a small creek, we moved even faster. Suddenly, the trail turned sharply to our right and Chuck found himself at the edge of the creek. Without losing momentum, he hopped to a rock in the middle and then to the other side. I followed suit, although not quite as smoothly. A few minutes later we stopped for the others to catch up.

"Tom fell into the creek," Skip informed us. "It took two of us to get him back on his feet. He crossed the creek, then lost his balance on the small rise on the other side and fell back into it. Even before he reached the creek, he was leaning to his right. When I told him about it, he straightened himself up for a while."

I didn't know it at the time, but I later learned that the name of the creek was "Fall Creek".

Soon, Tom and Patrick arrived. Tom was definitely leaning. He sat down and told us that he was dehydrated. He said he hadn't peed all morning. I gave him something to eat and asked him to keep sipping water. After 10 minutes, we resumed our walk. I asked Patrick to stay behind Tom. I turned around a few times to see how Tom was doing. Even though he was a bit slow, he was leaning less. I thought that once he got hydrated, he would be better. We rounded a junction and started up the much steeper Ridge Trail. Tom was now moving very slowly and was back to leaning. Patrick gave him one of his poles, but it didn't help. We were now walking five minutes and resting for two. He had been sipping water for almost an hour. In fact, he indicated that he was now bloated. I had been wondering how Tom could be so dehydrated. Most of the morning, we were walking downhill in cool weather amongst trees. After a while, it dawned on me that Tom may not be dehydrated; he may have suffered a stroke. But, he did not exhibit the usual symptoms of a stroke. He was completely coherent, had no speech impediment and both his arms and legs worked just fine.

We were hiking in coastal redwoods and there was no cell phone signal. We had to get him to either China Grade, a road about two miles away and a thousand feet up, or the Ranger Station of Portola Redwoods State Park, three miles away and a thousand feet below us. Though it would have been less tiring for Tom to go downhill, there was a real danger of him falling and sliding down the steep side, which would then be on his right. If he did, it would be extremely difficult for us to get him back up on the trail. The steep dropoff was on our left as we hiked up the trail. It was still dangerous and he was, rightfully, very worried about falling. Tom was very tired; I took some of his water and put it in my pack to reduce weight in his pack. I then had him put both his hands on Skip's shoulders and balance himself while Skip walked slowly ahead. When the trail got wider, he walked unaided, albeit somewhat unsteadily. We continued this way to China Grade.

Tom sitting at the edge of the road while others are gathered to talk and one reviews a map

Everyone is looking for a solution while Tom rests

China Grade is a dirt road in Big Basin State Park and is open to vehicles. We called the park headquarters, but on the recorded message, could find no option to talk to a ranger. I asked Tom if we should call 911. He indicated that he was not in any imminent danger and if we called his wife, Karin, she could come and pick him up. Since it would take Karin 90 minutes or more, we thought it best if Tom could somehow be taken to headquarters. Besides, it would be a lot harder for Karin to find him on China Grade. Eventually, we flagged down a car and the driver, Chelsea Chen of Reno, Nevada, a nurse by profession, volunteered to take him to headquarters. She was a Good Samaritan. Her car's back seat was full of camping gear and she had a passenger. She had no room for Tom. She talked to her passenger and he got out and began his walk to Cutter Scout Reservation, their destination a couple of miles away. She then drove with Tom the one-hour round trip to the Ranger Station. I don't have words to express our gratitude to her.

After Tom was taken care of, I had to decide a course of action for the rest of us. Patrick and Skip had hinted that maybe we should call Roger and ask him to take us back to our cars. It was a little after three o'clock and it was at least 13 more miles to the beach. It would be a long day; 14 hours on our feet. But the trail to the beach involved less than a thousand feet of elevation gain and I was reasonably sure that all of us could make it. I called Roger and asked him if he would mind meeting us at 8:30 p.m. instead of 6:30 p.m. as originally scheduled.

We quickly ate our lunch and hit the trail. The first few miles were on an old road and we made good progress. The Berry Creek Falls Trail, however, slowed our progress. It is a narrow, twisting trail with many slippery sections. The falls were spectacular, but we had little time to admire their beauty.

Dinesh descending steep stone steps and using a fixed rope handrail

Too scared to walk straight down?

Berry Creek Falls, a mixed cascade and series of short falls

Where is all this water coming from?

After a seemingly long time, we finally reached the Skyline to the Sea Trail. On this gently sloping trail, a dirt road in fact, all we had to do was to put one foot in front of the other. We were tired and the trail appeared to go forever. Then it got dark and the tree cover in many places made matters worse. I had a flashlight, but it was easier to walk by letting our eyes adjust to the darkness. At 8:45 p.m., we emerged from the trail and saw Roger's car. Chuck and Skip were ahead and were already sitting in the car. When Patrick and I arrived a minute later, I reminded them that we weren't finished yet. We had to go across the highway and dip our boots in the ocean. Skip decided it was enough for him and he stayed in the car.

My wife Joy and I have been climbing mountains for many years. We aren't in the big leagues, yet one thing that drives all mountaineers is their desire and commitment to reach the absolute summit. Due to a lightning storm, Joy and I once turned back from a summit less than ten minutes away. A year later we drove 500 miles and spent 10 hours getting to the same peak. In my way of thinking, if I didn't dip my boots in the ocean, I hadn't achieved my goal. Still, I didn't try to convince Skip to accompany us. He does not have much experience with such goal-oriented adventures and his mindset is different. Of course, I am not going to let him forget that he didn't dip his boots in the ocean.

The three of us made our way across the highway only to find that we were on a small bluff. The beach was a few feet below us. It was completely dark. In my haste, I slid the last few feet down the slope, luckily hurting only my ego. A wave came crashing in and we happily let it engulf our boots.


Photo credits

All pictures courtesy of Chuck Nile.

Dinesh Desai
August 2009


Karin drove Tom to Stanford Hospital's emergency department. They ran many tests on him without a definite diagnosis. He was discharged 24 hours later and was told that he either was dehydrated or had suffered a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), a mini stroke that usually lasts a minute or two, but can last up to 24 hours. Tom's symptoms lasted more than 24 hours. TIAs usually leave no long-term damage though they can be a precursor of a stroke.

The next page is "Route Description" and "The Participants". "We think we are still young - Part I" and "We think we are still young - Part II (at least some of us)", short accounts of our other two mini-adventures, are here.