Heat Exhaustion on the Berryessa Peak Trail

We climbed Berryessa Peak in the blistering heat to catch the last of the wildflowers. Two years prior, James and I had taken this same trail and been stupified by profusions of poppies, paintbrush and lupine spilling forth from the mountainside. It was the second of back-to-back superblooms in California, each of which was an exceedingly rare event, and butterflies and bumblebees had flitted and hummed about the cliffside flower fields in storybook style. We were eager to return. James had visited with his wife Joleigh a few weeks prior and although this year was not a superbloom, his pictures showed an impressive bloom along this hidden gem of a hike. Perhaps we could catch the last of them.

We met just before eight. I arrived first, the other two cars, both Priuses, pulled up together a few minutes later. James was driving, barely recognizable behind sunglasses and under a ballcap with a snap-on neck shade attached. His brother Simon was in the passenger seat looking a little nervous about his first real hike in a couple years, ever since the birth of his child. Andrew, a soft-spoken, lanky guy with blonde hair, was right behind them. We had picked a tough hike: 14.7 miles round trip, with 3500 feet of elevation gain. It didn’t help that the weather report predicted 90 degrees.

It was still cool while we greeted each other, slathered on sunscreen, and slung on our packs. I finished up first and guzzled water from a Crystal Geyser jug. The more I could drink, the less I’d have to carry. A trio of turkey hunters pulled their rifles from the back of a pickup truck nearby and set off down the trail before we were done.

“How much water are you all bringing?” James asked. As a business owner, community organizer, and former boy scout, he naturally focuses on logistics and preparation. As someone who tends to wing it a little too often, I’ve come to appreciate his checklist-style approach.

“Three liters,” Andrew said.

“I’m bringing four,” Simon replied.

“Only two,” I said, “but I just drank probably a liter and a half.”

The hike started easy, with a moderate pace and a slight but steady climb alongside a dry creek. In single file we waded through knee-high foxtails and grasses, the trail discernible only by a slight cleaving. After the first mile, the turkey hunters passed in the other direction, headed back to search elsewhere. Around the second mile, the trail began to climb out of the drainage and south across the hills. By the third mile, we were climbing in earnest up a steep, eroded trail that followed a shoulder dotted with damaged oak trees. Reminders of the recent LNU complex fire were all around us—charred logs and earth scorched in patches of purple, grey, and black. Lake Berryessa reservoir lay below us to the south, surrounded by pale green hills that were past their prime in an insufficient rainy season, and to the west, long views toward Mt. St. Helena and the surrounding hills. We fell naturally into alternating pairs of conversations as we walked. Simon and I talked about parenting while James and Andrew walked ahead. Andrew and I knew each other least well, but caught up about life and careers while James and Simon fell behind. And James and I fell into our regular quasi-philosophical discussions of marketing and culture, too caught up in our thoughts to realize we were leaving the others behind.

“Simon might just go up to the wildflowers and wait for us while we do the summit,” James said while we waited for them to catch up.

Around mile four, the trail leveled out and cut south a little below the ridge line. The trail hung onto the steep mountainside as if by its fingernails, occasionally crumbling away so there was barely a foothold. Our progress slowed as the sun lifted above the mountains and made us aware of the lack of tree cover.

We passed several points where I remembered seeing big displays of flowers two years prior, but each turn revealed nothing but dry grass and bare dirt, some still black from last year’s fires.

“The flowers are just ahead, around that turn,” James said.

We arrived at the promised display to find poppy petals shriveled and scattered in the dirt like dehydrated spices. It was a disappointment, but not wholly unexpected after the dearth of wildflowers along the way. We continued toward the peak, hoping for views of the Great Central Valley, Lassen Peak, and the snow-capped Sierras to the east.

Near mile five, the trail dropped down along a south-facing slope, into a fold where I remembered two small creeks flowing with water. The fire and subsequent erosion made for a tricky descent that we approached one at a time. I took up the rear, and while I waited for the others to descend I began to notice how hot it had become. It would be nice, I thought, to splash my face with the cool creek water when I got below.

“Poison oak,” James called up to us as he neared the bottom.

The creek bed was dry, but we rested in the first shade we had found in some time. The trees around us were bare of leaves from the fires, but some small bushes, including poison oak, had sprung up in the spaces between. We snacked on granola bars, cheese sticks, and dried fruit. I had brought two apples, and savored the cool, juicy pulp of one of them. A glass of water and an apple is like two glasses of water, I remembered. I was down to only a liter of water, but I still felt well-hydrated.

The second creek was dry too. We started a long, sunny ascent between sagebrush and chapparal overgrowing the trail. Every few hundred yards we’d stop and wait for the stragglers to catch up. Near mile six, a heavy-set man with a camelback and a wide-brimmed hat came down the trail. James, Andrew and I stepped away from the trail to give him some space to pass. Simon was somewhere behind.

“How was the view?”

“Pretty good. There’s a fire blowing some smoke down from the north, but you can still barely make out Shasta.”

I didn’t believe it. Lassen is barely visible from Berryessa on a clear day, and Shasta is significantly further north.

“What time did you leave this morning?” James asked.

“6:30,” he said.

After he left, Andrew checked his watch and said “we’re probably about 45 minutes from the peak then.”

“How do you figure?” I asked.

“He left an hour and a half before us.” It made sense. About half of that time was spent getting from the peak to here.

“That assumes he has a similar pace as us,” James pointed out.

I checked my watch and was surprised to find it was already after noon. I had expected we would be well on our way down by now. I wondered if I had brought enough water.

Simon showed up a few minutes later, breathing heavily and slightly flushed. We waited a few more minutes for him to catch his breath before we continued on.

The next time we stopped, it was a quarter mile from the top. James and I were ahead. When Andrew arrived he told us that Simon had decided to wait for us at a shady spot while we summited. He was worried he wouldn’t have enough water and wanted to conserve it for the climb down. We finished the climb along a dirt road that looped between antenna towers and utility buildings.

The view to the east was mediocre. I could make out Lassen, just barely, but the central valley was hazy and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra were just a fuzzy white line above the horizon. Shasta was nowhere to be seen. Better views spread to the west, where dark oak trees speckled the folds and ripples of pale green hills around the Berryessa Reservoir. The three of us sat and enjoyed a cool breeze and our lunches, disappointed that Simon couldn’t join us.

As soon as we came down off the peak the wind stopped and called our attention to the heat radiating off the rocks. By the time we reached Simon we were beginning to sweat. He was sitting in the shade under some bushes with a college-aged young man who looked like his gear was brand new.

“You missed out, Simon!” I called as we approached, “There were girls sunning topless up there!”

He let our a sound halfway between a chuckle and a groan to let me know he heard my ribbing but didn’t think it was very funny.

“Hey guys, this is Ethan,” he said, “He’s worried he doesn’t have enough water either and wanted to go back with a group.”

As we walked back down the trail, we welcomed Ethan into our group and got to know him. He was a part-time employee at REI who was hoping to get more into hiking and backpacking, and he was attending community college somewhere in East Sacramento. He was friendly and eager to hear about our prior adventures. He had mastered the art of making other people feel important, and we warmed to him immediately. Simon was slow on the downhills, but we were all enjoying the group chatter and were happy to wait for him.

By the time we reached the dry creeks, I was down to a couple gulps of water. A few years ago, during a wilderness first aid course, the instructors ended the class with two pieces of advice: first, 90% of the Search and Rescue operations they had been on could have been avoided if the hikers had just brought a headlamp or flashlight; and second, most people who died of dehydration or heat stroke still had water in their waterbottles when they were found. Water, they said, did more good in the body than in the bottles, and if we were ever running low during outdoor activity we shouldn’t ration ourselves. I went ahead and finished my water.

After the dry creeks we had to climb back up the eroded, sun-drenched slope. It was peak heat, and Simon was clearly struggling now. After he made it up the steepest part, we rested for a few more minutes in the direct sunlight until he was ready to go on.

The next section included more uphill than I had remembered, on a south-facing slope with no tree cover during the hottest part of the day. Nothing but sun. Our group separated, waited, and separated again. Simon was breaking longer and more frequently.

“Go ahead, guys,” James told us. “I’ll stay with Simon.”

“Okay,” Andrew told him, “we’ll just go until we find some shade and wait there.”

Andrew, Ethan, and I continued along the brutal slope until we found some shade on a grassy slope under an oak tree. After resting about 10 minutes, James texted us.

-Hey Simon is maxing out so we are not making much time. Its 327 and we’re taking a bunch of breaks. If you guys want to blast off, by all means!

He followed up with his GPS coordinates. I conferred with Andrew and Ethan. I was out of water, Andrew and Ethan were both low. I texted back.

-Okay, I think we will. You guys gonna be alright? Enough water, etc? Got your SPOT? Don’t want to leave you guys in a situation.

I was referring to the emergency beacons James and I both carry with us on hikes, to call for Search and Rescue support in the case of an emergency. Neither of us has ever needed to use them, but it was beginning to look like a possibility.

James: -I have the Garmin, Simon is worried about water because his pace has decreased and he’s feeling a little ill. He has less than a liter left and we’re still roasting in the sun.

Me: -You guys are in a shitty section. There’s shade when you get around the bend, but don’t push it. Keep him drinking water, it’s better in the body.

James:-Yah, not sure theres much we can do. He’s sitting down every like 2 minutes. It’s mostly a nausea feeling he’s getting.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s probably dehydration/heat sickness. Shady tree not too far up with a breeze.

At that point, I decided to go back and talk it out with them, see if there was anything I could do to help. They weren’t too far back. On the way there, I stepped over a fallen log and brought my calf down on a hidden branch, scraping and bruising the hell out of it. While I hiked, James sent another message that I didn’t see until later.

-If you guys could just check your messages when you get back to the road, there may be a chance we might need you to hike some water in, but hopefully it won’t get to that.

When I got to them, Simon was sitting on a rock facing away. The heat was almost unbearable. I told them about the shade coming up, but was worried that he might push too hard too quickly and end up with heat stroke.

“How are you guys on water?” James asked.

“I just ran out, both of them are at about a half liter,” I said.

“If you’re out of water, you should go,” Simon said without turning around.

“I’ll be okay,” I said. “I’m still plenty hydrated and it’s mostly downhill.” But there was still little we could do for Simon without more water. “I’ve got more water down at the car,” I added. “I could carry it up.”

“Yeah, we might need that. I’ll text you.”

When I got back to the tree we got another text from James.

-Simon is talking about pulling up to shade and just resting and having me walk out and go get him water and we wait out the sun and heat. The chance we will need water reinforcement is growing larger.

Andrew read the text aloud for Ethan, who said “Maybe we could relay the water up.” At 4 miles and 2000 feet of elevation, that sounded like a great idea.

“I’ll head down now,” I said, “and start hiking back up until I get to one of you.”

I texted James back:
-Ok, I’ll start it up as soon as I get down.

-He’s starting to get abdominal cramps, James texted, we’re just getting to that first tree now.

-Fuck, okay, I think we’re gonna relay water up.

I took off at a run.

The relatively level but steeply eroded section of trail went on for longer than I expected, and several times my hiking poles saved me from a precipitous slide, but I eventually reached the steep descent along the shoulder. There was no safe running through that section, but I descended as quickly as I could.

My mouth was parched, and I remembered reading something about conserving water by breathing through the nose. I still have no idea whether it’s true, but it seemed to take the edge off my thirst as I hurried downhill.

At the bottom of the steep section I took back to running, and alternated between that and a quick walk whenever my lungs began to protest too much. About a mile from the car, my knee began to ache, and I had to time my hiking poles to lessen the impact. It’s only the downhill, I thought, I’ll be fine when I’m carrying water uphill.

I checked my messages when I hit a flat section. James had sent another text:

-Yah we’re stuck at this tree guys…We’re not gonna move for quite awhile…Maybe it might make sense to fill up water before marching it up

-On it, I texted, -Almost back to the car now. I’ll fill up and start it back.

I called my wife to tell her what was going on. I would be home late.

When I reached the car, I drank a bunch of water and filled up my coffee mug with water and an electrolyte tablet. It was strong and overly sweet, but it took the edge off the headache I had been developing over the last hour or so. I cranked the AC to max and sped along a poorly maintained road to the north end of lake Berryessa, where there was a day use area. No potable water. I continued on past two more spots without water until I finally reached the Putah Creek campground, about 15 minutes drive from the trailhead. A ranger let me in to fill up at a spigot. I chugged more water, not realizing how dehydrated I had become, and downed another electrolyte tablet from my coffee mug.

On the return trip I saw Andrew in his Prius near the first day use area. He flagged me down and we pulled up window to window. His hair was wild and sweaty, his face flushed bright red. There was no way he was going to hike back up in this heat.

“Where did you get water?” he asked.

“There’s a spigot at Putah Creek campground, about 10 minutes.”

“Okay, I’m going to go get more and then I’ll come back to the trailhead.”

“Sounds good.”

By the time I reached the trailhead, the AC had done its work and I was fully cooled, almost chilled. I briefly considered waiting for Andrew to get back, but he didn’t seem like he was in any condition to hike another 8 miles. I wasn’t entirely sure I was, either, but there was no one else to get water to Simon and James. I jumped out into the heat and stuffed my two-liter platypus, the 2-gallon Crystal Geyser bottle, and my collection of electrolyte tablets into my small daypack, extended my hiking poles, and took off at a trot. A couple hundred yards in, I crossed paths with Ethan, who was also looking flushed and fatigued. He wasn’t on the text chain, so I gave him an update and asked how he was doing on water. Did he have any in his car? He was out, so I pulled the water jug back out of my pack, poured a half a liter into his bottle, and wished him a safe trip home.

It was 4:30. It seemed like the heat should be abating by now, but if it was I couldn’t tell. The slow climb up the drainage seemed to take an eternity. At one point I wondered if I had missed the turn away from the creek bed, but I didn’t remember there being a split in the trail. I passed a collection of feathers, the midden of a bird of prey that I had noticed on the hike down. I hadn’t missed the turn, it was just farther than I thought. Finally the trail turned and began to steepen.

Out of the drainage and across the foothills. My lungs were starting to burn. My legs felt like lead. My back muscles and triceps ached as I forced them to strain against my hiking poles and pull me up the mountain. It even seemed like I could feel the soreness in my heart muscles. When I absolutely had to break and catch my breath, I provided an update on the group text.

I reached the steep shoulder almost an hour from when I left the car and I had almost nothing left to give. “Starting the ridge now,” I texted, “pretty tired, so lots of stops expected.” I continued on and climbed almost purely by momentum, my mind a complete blank except for the constant attention on the fatigue of my body. The first time I stopped, it was difficult to start again. I tried not to stop again, just to take it slow. Twenty minutes later I was at the top, faster than expected.

I climbed over the barbed-wire fence at the steps I had already navigated twice that day. My lazy rear foot snagged on the top wire, the momentum of my water-laden backpack yanked at my shoulder and almost spilled me off the steps, but I caught myself by a pole and barely pulled myself back to balance. It was a stupid mistake, made out of fatigue and hurry. I climbed down carefully and vowed to be more careful on the steep traverse ahead.

-Just passed the fence, I texted. -Quick break, then I’m there.

The traverse was longer than I remembered. The temperature was beginning to drop, but it was still an exposed, south-facing slope in full sunlight, and I was heavily fatigued. I was running on autopilot, grateful to be done with the steep incline and ready to be done altogether.

Then I almost stepped on a snake.

It was splayed out across the trail, head and tail both hidden in the long grasses, probably about four feet long. I stepped to the uphill side to pass behind it and caught a glimpse of the head. Cylindrical. Not venomous. I snapped a couple pictures with my phone and hurried on.

Ten minutes later, with my nerves on alert, I found another snake in the middle of the trail, facing directly toward me. This one was only about a foot and a half long, with the telltale arrow-shaped head that indicated it was venomous. A baby rattler. They are usually more aggressive, and less able to control their venom release. Where an adult rattlesnake will deliver a small amount of venom or may even deliver a dry bite, baby rattlesnakes tend to release all their venom when they bite. I looked up the slope. It was too steep to reasonably climb. Same with the downhill side. I stepped back and kicked a rock toward the snake, hoping that it would move. It stayed still. I reached out with one hiking pole and backed away quickly as I nudged it. It coiled up and lifted its head, forked tongue flicking out to taste the air and assess the threat.

“Go on, little one,” I said. “I’m not trying to hurt you.”

It stayed tense for a moment, then turned and slithered into the sparse grasses on the uphill side of the trail. Then it stopped, less than a foot from the narrow trail. I backed up, took a deep breath, and took a running leap, praying that I would be past before it reacted. When I landed I looked back to see it coiling again, ready to strike, but at a safe distance. I took note of the surroundings for the return trip.

A minute later I saw Simon and James, sitting under the oak tree where I had left the group. They filled up with water and electrolytes, I ate my last few snacks, and I texted Andrew:

-I made it to them.

-Woot!! Okay, I will head out then. Left 2 liters of water on the Prius.

The descent was slow but uneventful. No snakes, no falls, no emergencies. Simon was doing much better with water, electrolytes, and cooler temps.

Coming down the steep ridge, the sky darkened into vibrant oranges and pinks over the shadowed folds of grass- and oak-covered hills layered for hundreds of square miles before us. If we had finished the hike this afternoon as planned, I thought to myself, I would have missed all of this. The snakes, the sunset, the stars that I knew were soon to come. I pulled my headlamp out of my pack in anticipation of the coming darkness.

By the time we reached the cars, it was 9:30pm and we had finished all the water I brought. I had gone 23 miles, with a little over 5000 feet of elevation gain. As promised, Andrew had left two more liters sitting on the trunk of James’ Prius, and it was with gratitude that we all filled our bottles for the drive home. As I drove off, I was surprised at how emotionally satisfied I felt. My body was sore, my knees ached, my stomach was in knots and there would be nothing to eat until I finished the hour and a half drive home,, but I felt satisfied, like the day was well spent. When I hobbled into bed, my wife groggily asked me how I was feeling. For a moment I wasn’t sure how to answer.

“Good,” I decided.

4 thoughts on “Heat Exhaustion on the Berryessa Peak Trail”

  1. I love your story. I ‘m convinced that the best stories come from the biggest errors, not bringing water, as an example. Or me ,not checking the weather forecast before a sailing trip😀.

    • Thanks Steven, so glad you enjoyed it. I agree, it’s one of the reasons I get out there so often: nothing ever goes quite as planned, and we learn more about ourselves and our friends through those experiences.


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