This post is the continuation of my Sierra Estrella Highpoint experience (be sure to check out Part 1). It describes an experience in the outdoors that may be disturbing to some readers.
Heading down the north side of the mountain just to the west of where I’d come up, I found the going pretty easy and fun. I faintly caught a whiff of something dead and thought nothing of it. There were plenty of places where a bird or small mammal could wedge themselves under a rock. I continued down the mountain the smell disappearing and I forgot about it nearly as quickly.
And then my senses overloaded. All at once, the smell was back much much stronger, I saw a man laying on a ledge. And I was scared. Immediately I began to think I was in danger. I hadn’t rationally processed that he was dead although my more primal instincts seemed to understand and I screamed. I tried to take in what I was seeing and make rational judgements and observations but all I wanted to do was get away, and fast. He was lying prone, shirtless, and had removed his boots. One of his heavy leather boots sat next to him and I didn’t see a pack or any personal belongings.
I scanned around the ledge from my position hoping I wouldn’t have to get any closer to continue down the mountain. I was able to proceed pretty much directly downhill before traversing east to the saddle. The whole way there I had to force myself to focus on the descent; I still wasn’t on flat ground and although the going was fairly easy, the terrain was steep and I didn’t want to fall.
At the saddle, I briefly allowed myself time to freak out a bit. I called F and talked to him while I brought my breathing under control. Once I could speak calmly, I called 911. Despite my proximity to the highpoint with its radio towers, explaining my location to the dispatcher wasn’t that easy. Eventually we were on the same page and I gave her directions to the van (I also explained where to find the SummitPost directions for a second source). She told me that deputies would meet me there. Happy to be moving, I explained that I would be several hours but was headed in that direction.
My descent from the saddle was as rapid as I could make it. I wanted to put ground between me and the grisly sight. I tried to rationalize that it was simply a dead body; someone who had likely died of exposure but I was still nervous. Nearly two miles down the hillside my legs were still a little shaky and I jumped more than once at a bird call.
Finally, I was on the flat ground of the valley floor walking as fast as my tired legs could take me. Just as I started to think I should be approaching the van, a helicopter appeared from over the peak. I breathed a sign of relief, the presence of other people (not to mention some so clearly official) really made me feel better. I tried to provide the best description of the area that I could to the officers. They seemed a little bit astounded that I was out alone for that many miles in an area with no roads or trails.
Darkness was falling quickly and the helicopter soon called off the search for the night. I provided the deputies with my information and assured them they could call me with any questions as they tried to locate the corpse. I was tired, dirty, hungry, and emotionally exhausted. I just wanted to get home, showered, and cuddle with my boys.
All evening I felt cozy and safe but still slightly unnerved. What had happened to this man? How long had he been there? What was he doing there? (The side of a remote, rarely climbed peak isn’t somewhere you just find yourself, you know?) It’s strange to think that I could have just climbed the high point and continued down, never knowing I was within a half mile of him. Or, I could have climbed down from Peak 4232 the way I went up, passing within yards of him.
The next day, I received a phone call from the Gila River Indian Community Police department. As it turns out, Peak 4232 is in their jurisdiction. They asked me to clarify a few points I’d shared with Maricopa County Sheriff and said they’d call if they needed me. Several hours later, the phone rang again. They wanted me to come out and join the MCSO in their helicopter. I’d told deputies several times that I remembered him being somewhere that would be difficult to see from the air but that I was willing to come help.
We weren’t able to locate the corpse from the air and also weren’t able to find a place to land where I could exit the helicopter with a mountain rescue trained officer to look on the ground. I was able to better help them constrain their search area before we returned to the landing zone.
I did the best I could to answer all of their questions about what I’d seen. The question I didn’t have a very good answer to was “What were you doing up there?” I babbled a bit about highpoints and fun rock scrambling. Then the Gila River detective looked at me sternly and said, “You know, it isn’t safe to be hiking out here alone.”
My blood boiled. And then he continued, “Do you carry anything out there for protection? A gun? A knife?”
Annoyed I flippantly responded, “A pocketknife?”
Suddenly back in fighting form, I wondered if he would have told me it was unsafe if I were a man. After flying over the beautiful country I’d hiked the day prior, I was convinced that despite my extremely rare experience, being outside is completely worthwhile. Sometimes it’s not possible to find someone to hike with you, so you go alone and it’s better than not going.