Local woman describes mountain ordeal

Hiking her favorite trails in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, 58-year-old Hanford resident Karen Lafferty never worried about the weather. It was warm and dry. The last thing on her mind was hypothermia. But on Friday on the Pacific Crest Trail near Lake Tahoe, at more than 8,900 feet above sea level, a bitterly cold rain blowing in gusts of nearly 100 miles per hour, the temperature with the wind chill dropping well below freezing, it was a different story.

Lafferty and her three companions — Harold Herlan, 65, of San Diego; Pamela Bryant, 49, of El Cajon; and Phyllis Hall, 62, of Clackamas, Ore. — were caught in a freezing storm, and at the worst possible time.

They had lost track of where Hall was, and Herlan, his cotton T-shirt and jeans soaked, was already suffering from hypothermia, the condition where the core body temperature drops dangerously low.

So Herlan, Bryant and Lafferty had no choice but to jam themselves into a two-person tent to get warm as darkness fell and the temperature plummeted.

Their last communication with Hall was by cell phone.

According to Lafferty, Hall reported that she was setting up camp in a clump of trees a few miles away.

Saturday morning, with the storm still raging and light snow falling, Lafferty, Herlan and Bryant took turns calling 911 on their cell phones and talking to rescuers, who located the three and took them out, one by one, on the back of ATVs.

It was too late for Hall.

According to Lafferty, rescuers found her alive but unconscious at her campsite.

Hall later died at a Truckee hospital, leaving Lafferty and the others wondering what they could have done to prevent the tragedy.

Lafferty wishes she had "forced" Hall to stay with the group.

But Hall had a penchant for hiking at her own pace, often separated from the group.

In good weather, it wouldn't have been a problem.

But with conditions deteriorating rapidly, separation proved deadly.

If the four had been together, two each would have crammed into waterproof-two person tents, warming each other and likely keeping everybody alive.

“That’s why we kind of blame ourselves,” Lafferty said.

The four hikers faced the ultimate combination of factors for hypothermia — cold temperatures, blowing wind and heavy rainfall.

"When you get wet, your ability to tolerate low temperatures is lower," said Dr. Imamu Tomlinson, director of emergency services at Hanford Community Medical Center.

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Modern backpacking clothing is an array of synthetics that don't absorb water and dry easily.

Tomlinson, a backpacker himself, mentioned the mistake of wearing cotton, which absorbs water quickly and doesn't dry fast, a bad combination in the kind of cold, wet conditions Lafferty and her group experienced.

Lafferty said that she was well equipped with a waterproof jacket, waterproof boots and water resistant pants.

She's not so sure about whether Hall was adequately equipped.

Herlan, one of the organizers of the hike, was the only one wearing cotton, Lafferty said.

Lafferty said she planned to go backpacking again, but she's learned some hard lessons.

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One is the importance of staying together and regrouping.

Another is having a storm-worthy tent.

In July, Lafferty hiked for several days in the High Sierra without a tent, her down sleeping bag exposed to what proved to be warm and dry conditions.

She'll be bringing a tent every time now, she said.

“You almost want to ignore forecasts and be ready for all temperatures and weather situations,” Tomlinson said.

Another lesson Lafferty learned is that she should be more familiar with the route and the planning process than on this trip, where Bryant and Herlan did the planning and Lafferty and Hall were basically along for the ride.

Lafferty also now recognizes the risk of hiking this late in the season, when unpredictable storms can quickly bring winter conditions to the Sierra.

She recognizes what she did right. She had the proper clothing, she had a warm sleeping bag, and she had a day or two worth of extra food for just the kind of situation she found herself in this past weekend.

She also recognizes what went wrong.

"It just teaches you a lesson. These things happen, and you have to learn from them," Lafferty said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. The reporter can be reached at 583-2432.

(Oct. 7, 2008)

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