Thursday, April 20th. Lee Hill’s birthday trip. The high temperature was 46 in Mammoth Lakes. Hill – 57, San Diego native, works at Children’s Hospital, been coming up to Mammoth since around ‘82 (about 20 to 30 times a year, he told me) – got dressed. Snow pants, socks, snowboard boots. A tank top. A ski jacket. Helmet, goggles, gloves. His knee braces (Hill had surgery back in March – right ACL, tibial plateau – and was just getting used to being back on his knee). A watch. His prescription glasses.
He parked by Main Lodge. His pockets: a lighter, his wallet, his car fob, a small packet of Welch’s Fruit Snacks. Plus, a 4 ounce water bottle. He left his phone in the car.
“I normally have my phone,” said Hill, “but I had left that charging in my car because I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be going anywhere but back to my car.”
Hill ended up out-of-bounds. Off the backside of the Hemlocks. For five days.
“Part of the problem,” Hill explained, “was there were a few ski tracks that were going down, and there were some snowmobile tracks going down, so I didn’t realize I was actually turning out of bounds. I thought I was just turning onto a run not too many people were taking.”
That’s how it all started.
Hill was headed down Road Runner around 2:00 p.m. He veered left. Didn’t realize he was on the backside of the Hemlocks until he got to the bottom. “It was such a good run, and the snow was so good in the afternoon that I was just loving making my turns in the trees, and nobody was around,” said Hill. And, his recently repaired knee was feeling great.
The run ended. He looked around. Later, he’d figure he was by Sotcher Lake. “I’m still not 100% sure,” he said.
In the moment however, he was, somewhat, lost.
“So, I realized that I was going to have to go back up to try to get to Road Runner,” said Hill. And he’d have to hike straight up the backside of the Hemlocks to do it.
“I knew it was going to be a hell of a hike,” he said. So, he started walking. At this point, it was around 3 p.m., although Hill wasn’t sure – “I didn’t really look at my watch at the time,” he explained.
By the time 7 p.m. rolled around, Hill was about two-thirds up the Hemlocks. He didn’t want to hike farther in the dark.
“Once I realized I wasn’t going to make it to the top of the hill that first night,” said Hill, “it didn’t even really bother me that much. I just knew I was going to have to basically camp out.” He wasn’t worried. He’d make it up the rest of the hill in the morning, ride to the lifts on the backside, and get back to his car.
25 years ago, Hill said he’d been a combat medic in the Army. He had a bit of survival training, but didn’t have any real experience snow camping, and he’d never been stuck outside overnight with minimal gear.
He found a big tree surrounded by some dead wood in a relatively flat area. With his hands, and his snowboard, and a couple of sticks, Hill dug a snow shelter in the well of the tree to protect himself from the wind. Five, maybe six feet deep. He laid his board down at the bottom of the well. Made a bed of gathered pine needles and branches.
Hill gathered more dry branches and needles for a fire. Surrounded by three walls of snow, he dug a fire ring about two feet in front of his shelter where the fourth wall would have been.
From his wallet Hill pulled a couple of lottery tickets and his old Jeep registration. His kindling. A couple tries and the fire got going. He slept and woke intermittently to keep fueling the fire, which burned until three in the morning. “It wasn’t a gigantic fire,” Hill explained. He didn’t want to start a forest fire, “but I knew that at that point I needed fire to just have a little bit of warmth.” He made sure he had enough snow surrounding the fire so that it wouldn’t get out of control. “And the branches from the tree weren’t close enough to actually even get sparked,” he said.
The fire didn’t keep him warm, but it did keep him from freezing.
He slept for nearly seven hours. Every now and then he’d hear the bushes rustle and bang on a big walking stick to scare off the rustle-makers (cats, he feared – but, who knows).
That night, Hill ate the Welch’s fruit snack gummies.
Around 6:30 a.m. Hill woke up and started hiking as high up the hill as he could. It was an icy boot pack. His snowboard helped. He got to the top and thought that the way to Road Runner and Chair 14 was toward the west.
Which, it isn’t. West leads deeper into the Sierras, away from the mountain and the lifts and the people. “That’s where I was first out of whack, because I was going more towards – instead of going towards Chair 14, I was going more towards Red’s Meadow,” said Hill.
He scoped out a route and started traversing, thinking he was headed toward Eagle Lodge, or, at least, some part of Mammoth.
It was 11:30 a.m. now. After a couple hundred yards, Hill hit some ice. “It was so steep, I wasn’t able to even catch an edge with my board,” he explained.
Hill fell, ragdolled, and whipped his head so hard into a tree that his helmet, goggles, and prescription glasses flew off.
Without a helmet, probably dazed from the blow, and still tumbling, Hill tried to catch an edge with his board. Still, he couldn’t. Trees whirled by, and Hill tried to grab them to stop himself from sliding.
After 100 to 200 feet of falling, Hill reckons, he ended up hitting three smaller trees that stopped him completely. “I literally was hung up,” he said. He checked himself. His toe felt busted. His shoulder was sore. He heard his helmet bouncing down the slope and turned and watched it go. “I knew I pretty much wasn’t going to be able to get that back,” he said.
Without his helmet, Hill had nothing to keep his head warm.
Without his goggles, Hill had nothing to keep the sun from his eyes.
And without his glasses, the landmarks in the distance blurred.
Hill’s nearsighted. “I can’t see far distances without glasses,” he explained. “I can’t make, like, street signs and stuff like that out.”
“I didn’t realize how far out of whack I was,” he said. “When I was on the back side of the Hemlocks, I thought I was actually on the front side of the Hemlocks the whole time. So, that’s what really threw me off.”
He kept traversing. Thought he was headed toward Chair 14. “But, then when I got back down to the bottom [of the hill] – and now, at this point, I really can’t see; I can’t make out landmarks with my vision, and I’m looking down towards the bottom of the hill thinking I see lifts. So, I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s cool. I can see the lifts. I’m good,’” Hill recalls.
He works his way toward the bottom of the hill.
Toward the lifts.
Which weren’t there.
At the hill’s bottom, Hill realized, “I am literally in the same spot that I was the day before by that same lake.”
Hill admits, this is when he made his biggest mistake. Instead of hiking back up the same hill again, he decided to follow the direction of the valley. He thought it would lead him down to Eagle Lodge. He hadn’t skied out of Eagle before, and he thought you could get to the lodge’s lifts from the backside of Mammoth.
Rather than going northeast to Mammoth, Hill headed southwest through Red’s Meadow. When there was a downhill slope, Hill strapped into his snowboard and rode. About once an hour, he’d shovel snow into his four ounce water bottle, tuck it into his jacket, and drink the melt.
As he traversed, Hill would see another lift, or person, or building, get within a hundred feet of it, and realize that the markers of civilization were just trees and rocks.
“It was heartbreaking,” Hill said, “thinking I was good to go and then realizing that the whole time I was going toward [these markers], it was just my bad eyesight.” And, he added, part of his mis-seeing was probably just being tired.
Hill pressed forth. “I was thinking if I got down to the river, I would be able to get over to Eagle Lodge by following the river down,” he said. “Which was a big mistake.”
He crossed a wooden bridge (southwest of Red’s Meadow Campground) and, because it was man-made, he figured there would be people on the other side. “That was basically the last time I saw anything man-made for the next two and a half days,” Hill said.
Hill rode and hiked the west side of the San Joaquin river down until it got dark. He stopped, gathered wood, and built his shelter with his bed and the fire ring. To keep his head warm, Hill tucked in his tank top into his underwear to cover his midsection, pulled his shell over his head, zipped it up, kept the very top of the shell open over his head with his gloved fingers (a breathing hole), and capturing most of his breath within the jacket, was able to keep his head and torso warm. “It was definitely keeping me warm enough that I wasn’t just, like, completely frozen, and I had the fire going that night, too,” said Hill. Kindled by old business cards and lottery tickets and registrations from his wallet.
The morning of the third day, Saturday, was more of the same. Hill headed downriver, thinking he’d run into Mammoth or the town or a cabin and some people. His eyes kept deceiving him. He was getting hungrier and hungrier, having not eaten anything since the fruit snacks that first night. Every now and then, he’d see a building, cross the river anyway he could, and realize the building was stone and tree.
“Then, I got down to where the waterfalls are,” said Hill. Rainbow Falls. Which is miles from the ski area. Once he got down there, Hill realized that if he kept heading south, he’d hit Fresno, or Bishop, and, either way, he wasn’t going to make it. Plus, Hill hadn’t seen another person in two days. “I was like, you know, I need to go back up and try to find that wooden bridge where I crossed the San Joaquin in the first place,” he said. The last time he’d seen signs of civilization.
Hill turned around and followed his tracks upriver on its western side. But, this time, he was going mostly uphill. On a two-day empty stomach and tired legs.
The side of the river was icy and steep and treacherous. Hill wound his way upstream. At one point, he took off his right boot to check his foot. “When I did, my foot was just basically a bloody mess,” said Hill. He kept the boots on after that.
“I knew I was going back north, northeast at that point,” Hill said. As long as he kept going, he’d be able to cross the river and cut across to the back edge of the ski area.
The day got late, and Hill built his shelter and fire. “I started burning $1 bills and $5 bills to get the fire started,” he said. The cash kept him from freezing to death.
The morning of the fourth day – Sunday – Hill thought he heard voices and dogs barking. He yelled for help, took a nap, no one came. “I don’t know if I was hearing things … I think maybe I was just hearing birds and thinking it was humans, but I don’t know,” Hill said. “By this time, I hadn’t eaten for three days, and I was getting a little delirious.”
He trekked on upriver, looking for a place to cross. “It was really scary,” said Hill. “Part of it was because nobody was going to be looking for me until at least Tuesday night, because that’s when my family thought I was going to be coming home.”
By that fourth day, Hill knew that things were life or death. “I knew I couldn’t just stop,” he said. “I had to keep going upstream. So I kept climbing, and I would hike up these hills, and each time I went up a hill there were points where I was climbing where it was so steep that if I were to somehow slip out of my spot or slide down the hill there … I mean like literally dozens of times I was in spots where if I would have slipped and fell I would have been dead for sure.”
At this point, Hill’s thinking about how he didn’t get to say goodbye to his friends. How nobody’s going to know he’s on the banks of the San Joaquin until they find his body. “I wasn’t depressed,” he explained. “It was weird … it basically was motivation, knowing that if I didn’t keep moving that I would end up dying out there.”
So – cramping, stomach knotting, “getting dizzier and lightheaded by the minute” – Hill kept moving. The heat pounded his exhaustion. The sun sank low. He dug out his shelter.
“One more night,” he told himself. Life or death. As long as he could get across the river, head toward the campground he knew was on the other side, he could make it. He sparked a fire, kept from freezing, and slept a few hours.
Then, Monday morning. Day 5.
Get to the bridge, he told himself. He trekked. And trekked. And came to a fallen tree that spanned the river. A 50 foot pine, probably, about four feet in diameter.
Hill found his chance.
He ditched his snowboard – a bittersweet, Tom Hanks-leaving-Wilson-behind moment, he said. “That board had worked for me … literally, all the climbing and digging, using it as an edge and using it for my bed… I didn’t want to leave it behind, but I knew I couldn’t get across that log with my snowboard,” Hill said.
He shimmied his way across the log. He knew that if he fell in, he’d be swept by the hypothermic current and carried down river and, possibly, over the falls.
Two or three minutes later, scooch by scooch, he was across the river.
At the top of the bank, he basked in happiness and breath.
Then, using the sun as a compass, he headed northeast. And started seeing snowmobile tracks. He followed them, post-holing into knee-deep snow with each step. “I could only go maybe 30 yards at a time and then have to literally sit down, kneel down, and catch my breath for a while.”
During one of those rests – that’s when he prayed for a miracle. “Hey, God, send me an angel, somehow, that can come find me and get me out of here,” he told me.
Within an hour and a half of his prayer, he heard snowmobiles. “I wasn’t sure at first, because I had been hearing and seeing so much stuff that maybe I was just hoping …” he explained.
“I started getting super excited,” he said. “And then, I can actually – I saw two snowmobiles coming up the ridge that was probably 300 yards in front of me… but they were hauling ass. And I was screaming already at the top of my lungs, ‘Hey! Hey!’ Waving and screaming, waving and screaming … But they just kept going … I was just starting to get totally depressed.”
Then, Hill heard the snowmobiles stop. He screamed some more, got the drivers’ attention – Chris Cox and his friend, Matt Feeley.
Cox had borrowed a sled for his buddy and was out teaching him how to ride. “We were going to check out the hot spring,” Cox told me, “just kind of cruise around down there … and we got down to Red’s – like, the campground area. And I wanted to take a picture. I turned my engine off … and I heard someone screaming.”
Cox told Feeley to stay put and went down toward Hill. Who was holding his sharpened stick. Cox wasn’t sure what Hill’s deal was, so he approached carefully. Hill explained he’d been out there for five days. Cox and Feeley – and that photograph Cox wanted to take – had saved Hill’s life. “Those guys are true heroes,” Hill told me.
“It was just luck on my end that we were there,” Cox explained to me. “I was just stoked to do a good deed for the day.”
Cox calmed him down some, gave him a liter of coconut water and some pizza. “It was literally the best pizza I’ve ever had,” said Hill. Cox drove Hill to the ski patrol at Main Lodge.
The patrollers, Hill said, couldn’t believe he’d been out there for five days. They checked out his feet, his vitals – the whole nine. The frostbite wasn’t horrible – his feet were blistered, sore, and he had bruises up and down his shins. About a week later, when Hill and I talked, he told me, “I have blisters, and they’re still bleeding and weeping all over my socks, but I’m walking okay.”
From his work as a respiratory therapist, Hill could tell he was in fairly good shape. When the paramedics arrived at the patrol room, he signed a waiver so he wouldn’t have to go to the hospital. “I just wanted to rest and get back home,” he said.
Then, Hill and one of the ski patrollers cruised around Google Earth, trying to make sense of where Hill had wandered. That’s when he realized that instead of turning right and continuing toward Chair 14, he’d turned left and went down the backside of the Hemlocks.
His takeaway: when he leaves his vehicle to go riding in the future, he will always have a couple food bars, a phone, a compass, a lighter, and some kind of paracord stuff in his jacket.
On a deeper level: “It’s just one of those Finding God Moments,” he said. “I’m not a very religious person, but somehow my prayer got answered.” In the last ten years, Hill told me he’s had probably four or five near-death experiences. But this one was the only one that made him get on his hands and knees and pray: “I feel like I was actually helped by God.”
Hill, now, believes in miracles
And, “if somebody gets [the snowboard from the banks of the river] and can use it, God Bless,” he said.