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Hikers recall near-death trek through snowy forest

Santa Barbara News-Press 6 January 2005

Quintin Cushner

Staff Writer

As they trudged through thigh-high snow in Los Padres National Forest, with too little clothing for the weather, Joel Degner and Nathan Krier knew they had to keep moving.

The two Santa Maria men, who were suffering from severe cold and exhaustion, feared they would die if they stopped.

Their ordeal, which they recounted Wednesday, began Tuesday morning as a carefree hike into the forest to spot some waterfalls. It ended late that night with the pair being rescued and taken to a hospital by helicopter.

"My biggest fear is dying alone in the wilderness," Degner said. "We knew we had to at least make it to the road so we would be found."

Degner, 22, and Krier, 24 - buddies from their years at Righetti High School - started out at the Cachuma Saddle, about 10 miles east of Santa Ynez, and walked along McKinley Road.

After several hours, they decided to get off the road and hike down to the Manzana River. Using maps compiled by Degner, the two followed the river to the east before taking the unmaintained Big Cone Spruce trail up to McKinley Mountain.

To the men's dismay, the trail was covered with about three feet of snow.

"It felt like the longest hike," Krier said. "I was just trying to conserve and keep warm."

The men took three hours to travel about a mile through the snow at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

Degner was wearing shorts, and because his bare legs were numbed by the snow, he often lost his balance. Both men said they fell into sharp bushes and shrubs along the rugged trail.

The cell phone they carried didn't work in the forest canyons. Their only hope, they believed, was to find reception on a road near the mountain's ridge so they could call for help.

When they did reach the road connecting McKinley Mountain back to Cachuma Saddle, both were exhausted and very cold. Degner was almost incoherent, suffering from severe hypothermia - a potentially fatal lowering of the body's core temperature.

Luckily, their cell phone worked. They dialed 9-1-1 about 8:30 p.m., and walked slowly down the road to stay warm while help arrived.

Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue team members responded, and were able to drive through mud and snow to find the hikers about 9:40 p.m.

Once they were located, the search and rescue team directed a helicopter from Ventura County to airlift Degner and Krier to Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital.

Degner's temperature at the hospital was measured at 90 degrees, while Krier's was 96. Both were released early Wednesday. The two said they were grateful to the emergency personnel who saved their lives.

"They hiked a long way in very cold conditions," said Nelson Trichler, Search and Rescue incident commander. "If (Degner) didn't have his cell phone it wouldn't have been a rescue. It would have been a (body) recovery."

Degner, a recent UCSB graduate, and Krier, a student at Chaminade University in Honolulu, said they likely would hike again soon.

"Next time, maybe we'll be more prepared, more ready for the unexpected," Krier said.

Staff writer Quintin Cushner can be reached at 739-2217 or by e-mail at qcushner@pulitzer.net.