Unexpected Hero: My PocketRocket Stove in a Rescue

A few weeks ago, I went on an overnight backpacking trip to Sespe Wilderness in Los Padres National Forest. It was a trip that I had been planning for a while. My uncle was visiting from Taiwan to the US for the first time in his life, and I wanted to plan a memorable trip to the outdoors. Along with my roommate, the three of us had planned for this trip the last few months.

backpacking with friends

As an avid backpacker, I had been on a few trips this year and decided to bring my MSR PocketRocket stove as I’ve always done. It’s so small, convenient, and packs a punch so I figured it would be an excellent addition to my kit. Since purchasing it in the winter last year, it’s the stove I bring on all my trips. Little did I know the impact this little stove would have on this trip.

hiking in california

On the first day of the two-day trip, the weather was amazing. We were aware the forecast had stated there would be a half inch of rain, but with spring in the air and with a wealth of rain throughout California the past few months, the mountains were lush with greenery and wildflowers were in bloom all along the trail. There were even a few river crossings around knee height throughout.

crossing river on hike

In total we had hiked over 10 miles with all our gear and had decided to set up camp before sunset around 30 ft. away from the Sespe creek. We finished the Japanese curry that I dried in preparation for the trip, and within a few hours decided it was time to get some rest ahead of the return trip the following morning. It felt like we had timed things perfectly. The rain started to fall as we were finishing up our meals. However, later that night, things began to diverge from perfect.

I had expected there to be light rain according to the forecast, but I woke up to the sound of heavy rainfall in the middle of the night. I thought, “Well this doesn’t seem like a half inch of rain,” but I figured it would stop by the time we started the return journey. Comfy in my sleeping bag with the rain continuing to pour, I could hear that the nearby creek once flowing at a gradual walking pace was now roaring to life.

That morning, though the rain had stopped, the nearby creek had evolved into a full-fledged river. The night rains had filled it up with more water rushing in. This is when thoughts of the future river crossing began running through my mind. I figured the three of us, seasoned backpackers (my uncle was ex-military), would be fine when we had to finally cross.

Without giving things much thought, the three of us finished breakfast and started on that return journey. We had been making good time but around the 5-mile point, we encountered our first river crossing. At the bank, we encountered a group of three other backpackers who had just told us they had attempted to cross but were nearly swept away and decided to turn back. That’s when the fear began to set in.

The doubts were there for good reason, the creek now looked like it had further swollen in size to nearly 40 ft., the current looking even faster than we had seen in the morning. The knee-height creek was unrecognizable from the day before. My uncle, a former military man, instructed us to attempt a maneuver he had learned in his training days. We’d interlock arms and inch across the river, literally one step at a time. Fighting my fears, I would translate this to our new broader group, and we decided to practice the maneuver a few times before actually getting into the river. In theory, it looked like we could make the crossing and I would even have the chance to be home by the later afternoon. I would take my fleece, jacket, phone, and camera and stuff them into my backpack.

Shortly after we jumped into the river, gear, and all, and oh was that icy river good at destroying the optimistic sentiment we had tried to garner while practicing on the bank. With every step we took, the water seemed to get colder and the water level rose as we ventured towards the centerline. At chest height, the current seemed to wash away any positive resolve we had to make it across. In what felt like an eternity, we had only ventured 10 feet into the 40-foot width and I was starting to realize that this was a losing battle. At a certain point, I looked at my uncle next to me, and I realized he was losing his footing and that the water was now up to his chin. He was leading our charge, but it was at this moment I realized that the situation had the opportunity to get even more dangerous. In a split second, he had begun to drift, and I broke formation to grab him. We decided to turn back.

Now on the bank, drenched, the rain and wind picked up. It was obvious crossing the river was not an option and that we needed to get warm and dry quickly. One of our new friends mentioned there was a campsite with a clearing in the off chance we needed emergency support. The six of us would begin our mile trek uphill to the new spot.

Upon reaching the campsite I knew that I also needed a change of clothes. Looking for quick relief from the dropping temps, I remembered my sleeping bag that I had stored away before our crossing attempt. I was confident that my bag was likely drenched and filled with water but in a last-ditch effort, unmounted my bag to check if there was any warm clothing I could scavenge. To my surprise, upon unzipping the side pocket, I found that all my items were still dry, even though moments earlier we had all been dunked in chin-deep water. I could not stop smiling when I saw those dry clothes staring back at me. I grabbed my replacement clothes and immediately changed into them.

warming clothes by fire

With a fresh set of clothes and even a dry sleeping bag and tent, we seemed to be holding our own against what had been thrown at us. My uncle managed to start a fire, and five of us gathered around to keep warm, though one of the fellow backpackers opted to stay in her tent.

cooking around campfire

Luckily for us, my roommate had also purchased a satellite phone for the trip. Gathered around the fire, we concluded that calling for help was our best shot at coming out of our debacle. And so emergency services were called.

And so began the waiting game. We all had extra food left, but I was already thinking about how we needed to ration our food. We were unsure if emergency services could make it through the brewing storm and when we’d finally be able to make it out. But with the fire slowly bringing us back to life, at this point, the group had banded together in our joint misery. I thought it would be nice to boost morale with some hot soup, so I used my little stove to heat up some water for miso soup. The other group was quick to reciprocate, cooking a steak over the open fire. I have to say, although it was seasoned with steak seasoning that had been submerged in river water and one side had been burnt to a crisp, and the miso soup was a bit watered down, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. Up until that moment, I had honestly been feeling a dreadful fear and a sense of hopelessness. Our mini trek up to the campsite had been miserable, with rain and mud and cold pummeling us in all directions, slowing us down. However, finally having some warm food gave me a sense of hope in what felt like a day of uncertainty. I can’t describe the gratitude I felt for having that PocketRocket with me.

setting up PocketRocket stove

It would be another four hours before we’d hear the sounds of a helicopter in the distance. We all hurried to gather our belongings as the helicopter approached. A fireman rappelled down from the helicopter in the distance. We were going to be saved.

The fireman approached our camp and cracked a few jokes about the weather and our fire. All I was thinking was that I was ready to go home. We put out the remaining fire and were instructed to remove our hats and to crouch by the brush as the helicopter dropped down. As the helicopter came down, the 86-knot winds it generated nearly knocked me over. The six of us trudged to the helicopter and handed our gear to another fireman, before being directed to a seat.

airlifted into helicopter

The short flight back to the trailhead was surreal. Looking down from the helicopter, a multitude of thoughts went through my head as I examined the changed landscape. The river looked even bigger than when we had attempted to cross hours earlier. I kept thinking that if we struggled with that one crossing, we would have easily been swept away through one of the other 4-5 crossings further up the trail. I thought about my uncle, and how this was his first time visiting. He was grinning and in a great mood the whole time, but I couldn’t help but feel bad that I had essentially placed his life in danger. But I also thought of gratitude. Gratitude for the chance encounter of running into the three other backpackers, allowing us to band together. Gratitude for my reliable gear to keep me safe and warm. Gratitude for the emergency services that responded so quickly to get to us. And lastly, gratitude to be alive.

being rescued by helicopter

We touched base at the trailhead where our car was parked. I was safe now.

It’s been a few weeks since that weekend adventure and I’ve still been taking the time to process what happened that day. To be honest, it’s been a bit of a fever dream, going from that little adventure back to my day-to-day routine of remote work. As the days pass, the memory of what happened seems to be slowly overshadowed by the day-to-day deliverables of work and life. However, I still can’t help but think of my learnings from that day and the overwhelming feeling of gratitude. That gratitude, combined with the desire to preserve this memory while somewhat fresh in my head, motivated me to write to you guys.

Your gear was crucial to me, my uncle and my friends making it out of the trip that day. Eerily to think about, though I had precautionary methods like a dry bag for some gear, had my clothes or stove been faulty or wet, the gear I had nearly made the difference for whether I made it back or not. I can even confidently say that the food made by the PocketRocket literally kept our morale up. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for making the gear that you do with the quality that you do. It made the difference for me two weeks ago.

I don’t have any concrete backpacking trips planned in the future yet, for good reason, but when I do, I’ll be sure to bring my PocketRocket along with me.

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