Downieville Blackout: The night we spent in the Sierra unprepared

Spending a scary night on the trail

3rd Divide / Big Boulder Trail Sign

3rd Divide / Big Boulder trail sign. Photo courtesy of Katrin Deetz

“I need a rest,” Ron sighs. He checks his watch, and it’s about 10:30 p.m. now. We have mere ounces of water left, and my Luna bar.

“I’m starving,” he says. I am running on adrenaline and too amped up to eat anything, so I give him my Luna Bar, which he inhales.

“I need some water,” he says.

“We only have a little bit left; we should really conserve,” I urge.

“Yeah, but you were drinking water on the whole drive up today, and I forgot to drink much at all. I’m so thirsty,” he sighs. He finishes his water, and I still have about four ounces left. Listening to the quickness and urgency with which he drinks makes me realize just how much more water we both need.

‘Damn that creek crossing! Why didn’t we fill our bottles then?!’ I think to myself. Add that to the list of Coulda, Shoulda, Didn’t. There is no way we’d make it all the way back down now in this darkness.

As we continue onto the start of Third Divide, I spark the lighter to be sure we’re still on the trail, feeling for the firmly packed ground beneath my feet and hands to confirm we are still on the trail.

“I don’t think I can keep going,” Ron concedes. This is not what I want to hear, and in my building stress, I drop the lighter on the trail. I instinctively remember my beloved maternal Grandfather, Dr. Daniel Meub, who gave me some great advice when I was a child and had “lost” something: ‘Whenever you drop something on the ground, don’t move anything: be as still as possible, without shuffling the ground at all. Then just slowly scan the landscape and you’ll find it’ he told me. It’s worked most times I’ve dropped something. I pat around carefully, and Hallelujah, feel that plastic Bic beneath my fingers.

We continue inching down the trail. The gas on the lighter is burning out, and Ron tells me to save the flame. We reach a turn just a few minutes later – a sharp right turn. I can’t remember now if we turn here, but it doesn’t feel like the trail continues straight with all the loose dirt. So I turn right on this trail.

We keep going for about ten more minutes, slowly moving along, totally blind. Crawling is almost more like it. The trail has gotten a lot thinner and keeps crumbling beneath our feet. We are also definitely climbing uphill. This is not the right trail, I realize. We are on the Big Boulder Trail; we should’ve gone straight at the turn to continue onto Third Divide. The moment I realize this, Ron sits down on the trail and surrenders.

“I can’t go a step further tonight,” he reconciles.

And as much as I want to say we ‘have’ to keep trying, I realize he is right. This is untenable. I tell him then that we’re also on the wrong trail.

“FUCK!” Ron yells into the forest. Never has one word summarized how we’re both feeling so well. This is the moment we realize we are spending the night on this trail until the sun comes up.

I’ve done a lot of camping and backpacking in my life, but never have I experienced such darkness. I plop down on the trail with some relief, lying down out of pure exhaustion. It’s about 11:00 p.m. now. We’ve been going hard for hours, and it actually feels good to lie down. We both are lying here, completely wiped out, dehydrated, hungry, and cooling off by the minute. Although we are blessed with this heat wave, at 4,000’ elevation in the mountains the temperatures cool off quickly.

“Maybe there’s nightriders out here,” Ron wonders.

“I don’t think so, Honey. But maybe they’ll notice our car’s still parked in the lot and come looking for us,” I naively wonder.

I lie down halfway on the trail, halfway on my bike-frame, using my helmet as a “pillow”. Ron curls up with me to help keep me warm. We are both so tired, we just lie there in silence for a bit until about 12:30 a.m.

“I’m getting kind of cold,” I say.

“Let’s make a fire,” Ron declares.

We are in the midst of a five-year extreme drought in California, and the trails are quite dry. The last thing we want to do is start a forest fire, but don’t want to risk hypothermia, either.

“Start gathering any tinder you can feel,” Ron says. We start feeling around for fallen sticks, pine needles, anything that feels like dried vegetation. We make a small pile on the trail, and try to light it with the dwindling lighter.

But the lighter is dead.

Ron takes apart the lighter top and somehow gets it to light the smallest hint of a flame. It immediately goes out. He then takes out his patch-kit glue and tire-tube, which are both toxic and flammable. He concocts a small tinder of rubber and glue, barely gets a flame from the lighter, and the mix lights up like a sparkler. It almost gets the tinder going, but starts to die out. Slowly but surely, the fire starts to grow, and we can actually see a tiny bit.

“Gather more sticks!” he tells me, and with a flicker of hope, I start gathering what’s nearby, adding it to the fire that is quickly growing. The forest is illuminated.

“We have FIRE!” he triumphs.

My faith is somewhat restored. The best part was how we could actually see the forest – the skinny trail on the steep hill we were on; the tall Pine trees towering over us; each others’ faces. We weren’t so “trapped” by the darkness anymore. And of course, we had warmth. Most importantly, perhaps, we had something to do.

I remember a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Flight of the Phoenix, which is about a small plane that crashes in the Gobi Desert, and its passengers work to rebuild the plane. There is a scene when they are deciding whether it’s realistic to rebuild the plane in the dismal, sand-ridden heat of the Gobi, and a character named Liddle suggests to the pilot:

“I think a man only needs one thing in life. He just needs someone to love. If you can’t give him that, then give him something to hope for. And if you can’t give him that, just give him something to do”.

That having something to do part really resonates with me right now. We have to keep that fire going. We have a purpose. Yes, we won’t be leaving until dawn, but at least we have something to help the time pass. I am inspired, and warm.

Overnight Location

Where they spent the night. At the end of Big Boulder Trail near the start of 3rd Divide Trail. Photo taken on a subsequent trip. Photo courtesy of Katrin Deetz

It’s about 1:30 a.m.

“I’m really thirsty, Baby,” Ron states. I have a tiny bit of water left and tell him he can drink it since I drank more earlier that day. From my Wilderness First Responder course, I took years ago in college, I remember our instructor discussing the obvious role that body weight plays in hydration. I know Ron needs more than me since he is bigger, so I settle on waiting until morning for a sip, parched as my own mouth is. At least we have some chapstick. He nurses the last sip, painfully so. I hear the lid unscrew, knowing there are only drops in there, which he tries, in vain, to suck out. It is a painful sound to hear.

“I’m really thirsty,” he says again.

“Close your mouth when you breathe; it’ll help conserve moisture,” I suggest. That’s what I’ve been doing most of the night. Now I am a little concerned about the water situation.

“I think I see lights!” Ron says. “Do you see them?”

I don’t see anything.

“No one’s there,” I rationalize. “It’s just your eyes playing tricks on you”.

Another hour passes of us keeping up the fire, trying to lie down on the trail to rest, although neither of us is sleeping. I am feeling surprisingly calm and faithful. I know we will make it through the night; that this is really just a major inconvenience. I look back to memories of 24-hour solos on backpacking trips when we committed to staying in one area for a full day, without food. The first time I did it I struggled through the night, but the second time I found real serenity and strength from the experience. I know I can survive this; my experience has proven that. Ron seems to be getting more and more worked up, however. His respirations are shallow and faster; I can hear him breathing through his mouth loudly.

“Stop breathing out of your mouth; breathe through your nose,” I tell him.

“I can’t. I’m getting really claustrophobic. All I can think about is water. This is really hard for me right now”.

I sit there in closed-mouth silence, trying to focus on keeping calm and my heart-rate down. I feel like I’m meditating, sort of. The funny part is I am like a fish: I drink a ton of water every day, and like to have a full water bottle with me at all times. I’ve used the same 40-ounce KleanKanteen for years. I am pretty good at calming myself, but not having water can make me feel uneasy. Somehow I am not at all anxious, just accepting the situation as it is. I realize I have absolutely no control, and surrender. Ron is getting worse by the minute, exhaling loudly out his mouth, which is stressing me out a bit.

“Baby seriously, try to breathe through your nose,” I say, again.

“I can’t! I can’t swallow, I have no saliva, I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin!” Ron retorts.

That last hour drags on like molasses, until about 4:15 a.m. – at last – there is a hue of dawnlight peeking out of the Eastern horizon! The fire is down to a crackle now, and I start burying it to be sure it’s all the way out.

“Jamba Juice,” Ron softly says. “How good does a Jamba Juice sound right now?”

“Iced coffee,” I smile. “Almost there”. Ron has calmed a bit but is really, really dehydrated.

The very second that we can barely see, about 4:35 a.m., we are up and at ‘em.

“Let’s get out of this place.” We ride about 100 yards up the trail when Ron stops and sits down.

“I need water. I can’t go anywhere until I get some water”. This is the weakest I’ve ever seen him.

“Wait here. I’ll ride back to Pauley Creek and fill our bottles,” I offer. I take off like a bat out of hell, riding back to Pauley Creek. I am buzzing from lack of sleep, adrenaline, the sweet arrival of a New Day, and the promise that we are finally getting out of here.

Arriving at the creek, which is really more like a river, I drink two quarts from a waterfall-esque section where, ideally, it’s cleaner than stagnant water. I know about the risks of Giardia but have read many reports indicating it’s not all that common in some parts of the Sierras anymore. Either way, we need water and are drinking what we have.

I fill our bottles, and set back up that hill, breathing hard from fatigue. I get back to Ron about fifteen minutes later, and immediately give him two bottles of water. When he takes that first sip from the bottle, I start crying with relief. I know in that moment that he is definitely going to be alright. Even he starts to cry.

“Oh my God! That tastes like life,” he exhales, drinking more from the second bottle. We both sit there, half-crying, half-laughing, realizing it’s all coming to an end.

“Let’s go,” he says, finishing his water.

We get on our bikes, his bare rim thrashed but still holding up, and start our way down Third Divide. We stop and refill our water bottles at the next creek we see.

Third Divide is my favorite section of the Downieville Downhill. You can really let it rip, flying down perfect trails. It’s a lot like our favorite spot, Soquel Demonstration Forest: flowy. Tired as I am, my bike is working fine, so I let it go and speed ahead of Ron, stopping to wait for him every now and then. Ever the thoughtful, loving husband, he encourages me to get mine. This little bit of downhill puts a huge smile on my face. I am charged.

We reach the end of the trail at Lavezolla Road about forty-five minutes later. Lavezolla Road is a dirt road with a few homes along it and leads back to the town of Downieville.

“You wait here; I’ll ride and get the car.” It’s about 6:30 a.m. by this point and Ron plops down to rest in front of someone’s huge ranch estate.

I ride the dirt road as fast as I can, the cold, morning air waking me up with each deep breath. I reach town and see a couple of women out for an early-morning stroll; they look at me as if they’ve seen a ghost.

I peel into the Downieville Outfitters parking lot, where our lone car remains, and start crying with happiness. I load up my bike and drive back to the dirt road. This road is about four miles long, full of potholes and ditches. My Subaru Forester handles it fine, but I can’t go very fast over the terrain.

I finally make it back to Ron about 7:30 a.m. We load up his bike and look at each other.

Holy Crap! We made it! No words are spoken, but it’s what we’re both feeling. We pull out of there with a purpose, suddenly recharged and exuberant. We are high-fiving, reminiscing about the night, and feeling complete relief; laughing, even. We drive to the Coyoteville Cafe in Downieville, where we are greeted with looks from the locals as if our evening saga is written all over our faces. That breakfast might’ve been one of the best ever – just eggs, toast, and hashbrowns, and some coffee, but pure heaven.

After breakfast, we head to the Yuba River for a cleansing dip. The sun is up, shining through the canyon on us. It’s a new day! We take a dip in the cold water, feeling elated and refreshed, and say, “Let’s go Home”.

Morning After

Morning After. Dirty and Weary faces. Photo courtesy of Katrin Deetz

Despite the challenge this was, I consider the roles that Faith and Fitness played in our outcome (I don’t mean Faith in a religious way, per se). I had Faith that we would make it because I had the experience to know we would. Faith is trust, like muscle memory. I had Faith in our abilities, in our Fitness. I knew we were strong – not just physically, but mentally, and that helped get us through when we were certainly not having much of a Flow experience.

We went back to Downieville a couple of months later, but this time, we brought the Full Moon with us! We also took the earlier 2 p.m. shuttle with several other riders. In addition to our regular gear, Ron brought a backpack with six patches, two tubes, a flashlight, two Luna Bars, two apples, and a camelback full of water. We learned many lessons from our night in the wilderness. I think we got through the situation with some Grace: the Grace of that heat wave (it only dropped to 50℉ that night); finding the water bottle on the trail; getting the fire going; never getting sick from drinking the river water. You can live in fear, or in faith. Fear may be helpful for preparation (“I don’t want to spend the night in the woods!”), but it’s not helpful to endure a difficult situation.

After all, it’s a lot more fun to spend the night in the wilderness when you’re prepared.

Downieville In The Morning

Downieville in the morning. A view from the bridge. Photo courtesy of Katrin Deetz

Author Bio

My name is Katrin Deetz, and I live in Ben Lomond, California. I am married to my wonderful husband Ron, whom I’m lucky to share many adventures and passions with. I am a Seventh Grade Math & Science teacher, two subjects I’m quite passionate about. I love being outside flowing through Nature – whether on a bike, snowboard, or my own two feet. Flow is also a state of mind, from the simple joy of appreciating a beautiful song, written word or spending time with loved ones.

Life is good when you’re flowing with grace! And even when you’re not, it’s still all good. – Katrin

Katrin Deetz Author

Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)

About the author: Justin Wages

As a stage 4 colon cancer survivor, Justin Wages got into the cycling world in an effort to increase his endurance after losing his left lung. As a California native and growing up with a skateboard and snowboard beneath his feet it wasn’t long before the thrill of mountain biking gripped him. Justin’s day job as a Land & Recreation Manager helps him understand the balance between conservation and trail use. He also works with his fiancé, Jeni, to bring more women into the mountain bike world with certified skills clinics and education. “My goal is to get more people on trails for health and enjoyment,” he says. “I want to help them overcome their mental or physical limitations and be the best person they can be, while expanding their appreciation for our natural world.”

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  • Bruce Lee says:

    Brings back a memory of a similar impromptu overnight with Rod and Ray from IRD back in the mid ’80s. This was in the Cascades near the Illinois River. We had drastically underestimated the time to ride the trail end to end. Luckily it was Summer time so a night in the forest with no camp gear or food was uncomfortable but not life threatening. But it was very dark until dawn just started to glow. Live and learn.

    • Katrin Deetz says:

      Thanks for sharing, Bruce. I think most outdoorsy people find themselves in some sort of imperfect situation like this at some point in their lives. I think you summed it up well when you said “uncomfortable, but not life threatening”. That’s a good way to put it! We had a lot going for us with good weather and the fire, and it could’ve been a lot worse. As you said, live and learn!

  • Evan says:

    Crazy how something like a flat tire and a few innocent bad decisions can so easily leave you stranded overnight. Reminds me of a few things I need to put back in my own pack. Hopefully it makes other riders think before heading out, too…

  • Mickey says:

    Tubes? Downieville?
    I think I need to put a bic mini lighter in my head tube storage. Or a bunch of water proof matches.
    Fork Cork baby!

  • Eric says:

    I got turned around on a trail once in the woods around dusk after riding a few hours. It’s crazy how quick it gets dark and how dark it actually is. I was able to walk out a few hours later by feeling the trail with my feet but it wasn’t a great experience. I carry a light with me at all times now haha… Glad to hear you guys made it out alright!

  • Julie Kanagy says:

    When my husband first told me this story I was furious at the shuttle driver for not being a bit more attentive. But sounds like even he had some warnings/misgivings. It was just a snowball effect of multiple things gone wrong. I thought it was brilliant how your husband thought to use the glue from the patch kit as a fire starter! Thanks for writing about this to help spread awareness. I’m in Felton, and we should ride, lol!

  • Alex Mendoza says:

    “Experience is what you get with things don’t go as planned.” Not sure where I read this but it says it all.
    I understand the feelings of frustration when reading about how unprepared you were going into this…I was scared for you! Mostly because I have been there. My first experience at 17 with being extremely dehydrated and dreaming of Root beer floats at 3am! And then melting snow the next day to fill our water bottles. And getting caught in a blizzard while cross country skiing to Glacier Point in February of 1998. Made a snow shelter and spent the night shivering uncontrollably at times. This is what your body does to stay alive! I have ridden Dville for the last 20 years and sometimes I forget that there are lessons to learn. Thanks for reminding us that things don’t always go as planned! Glad to read you were aware of your fitness and resourceful enough to minimize your mistakes. And welcome to the club!
    Alex in Santa Cruz.

  • James B says:

    Hi Katrin, they say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Although I don’t typically agree with that sentiment, in your case I think it’s true ;) I’ve had a handful of near “accidental overnight wilderness experiences” but fortunately have always somehow managed to get back to warmth & safety. Twice in 2017 I used my cell phone to light my way as I pedaled near-blindly back to the parking lot for over an hour in total darkness. Shit happens, be it from our own lack of preparedness, stupidity, and/or just plain bad luck! You sound like you handled your adventure with strength, courage & grace. Thanks for sharing your story, I am so glad it ended well for the two of you. Maybe I’ll see you guys at one of the CA Enduro’s this year.

  • Scotch Hennesy says:

    Your one hell of a wife!

  • Don Paul says:

    We ALWAYS carry our SPOT GPS Locator whenever we MTB so we can get EMS if we need it… and let our 30-something kids know “We’re OK” (there’s a button on our SPOT for that) as well as track us. Our SPOT only cost $50 on sale… or you can rent them. Absolutely no reason not to have one since they cost about as much as a MTB tire.

  • Steven W. says:

    Had something similar happen to me a few years back, I usually ride alone, but prepared for most things. Probably the worst thing that has happened to me was crashing and nearly splitting my helmet in half as I wrecked into some lava rock down a very steep section. Luckily I was able to walk that one off. I always carry a camel back with 2-3 liters of water, extra tubes, tools, food and a first aid kit, along with a pump, zip ties and a small knife. Glad you both got out of that relatively unscathed.

  • Francis Cebedo says:

    >> “Experience is what you get with things don’t go as planned.”

    Awesome comment Alex!

  • Philo says:

    This was a good read, and a good reminder of things I should add to my pack.

    That trail is notorious for flats. I remember when Kenda Nevegals were spec’d on new Santa Cruz bikes. All were replaced prior to going on the rental bikes up in that area, or so the story goes, due to their sidewalls having a tendency to getting ripped.

    A friend once taco’d his wheel almost near the top of Downieville and had to wait for us to ride down, get the car and drive up to Packer to get him. This was summer time but he froze his ass off waiting for us at 7000 feet.

  • Pat Day says:

    Katrin Deetz,

    Don’t let the trolls bother you. We all learn from our experiences. I now always carry a light on all afternoon rides, because of being caught out after dark without one, more than once. We don’t all write about our mishaps, but thanks for putting it out there to everyone as a good reminder to go prepared and have the right mindset.

  • Dave says:

    Wow, very dramatic. I mean, like way overboard dramatic for the situation. Weather was nearly 70 degrees all night and a few days from the solstice meant it was about 6 hours between last and first light.

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