During a camping trip in a California state park last June, one family ended up at the top of a waterfall before realizing there was no way to climb down the 40-foot drop.
Curtis Whitson, his son Hunter and his girlfriend Krystal Ramirez had been camping along the Arroyo Seco tributary for three days when they realized they had hiked into a trap. Whitson, who had made the same trek seven years earlier, was excited to share the beauty of the trail with his loved ones.
“It’s a paradise off the beaten path — a gorgeous place to take a float trip and get away from the crowds,” he told The Washington Post. “We were all looking forward to camping along the river, under the stars.”
But when they reached the top of the falls, Whiston expected to find a sturdy rope secured to the rocks that would allow them to repel down. When he hiked the area on his last visit, the journey from the top only took about fifteen minutes.
But this time, there was a problem.
“The rope was gone,” the dad told CNN. Without a line to hold, the only way to the bottom was to jump — and with 40 feet to the bottom, they’d never make it.
The worried dad was at a loss. They had no cell phone service and no one else was nearby.
“I knew that our friends would call somebody at some point when we didn’t show up,” Ramirez told The Post. “But I was worried about how long it might take for anyone to find us.”
“It was a little scary,” Hunter added. “We hadn’t seen a single soul the entire trip.”
The trio heard voices briefly and immediately called for help, but no one came. At that point, they realized they would have to get creative.
Whitson took his bright green Nalgene water bottle and carved the word “HELP” into the plastic. His girlfriend had brought a spare notepad to keep score in games they might play on their trip. On one of the sheets of paper, Whitson penned the date, along with instructions detailing their location.
“We are stuck here @ the waterfall — get help please,” he wrote, tucking the paper into the water bottle. Sealing their “message in a bottle,” the family tossed it into the river, hoping the bright color would alert someone downstream to their crisis.
“We’ve done all we can do,” Whitson said to his family after dropping the bottle over the edge of the falls. “The only thing left to do now is wait.”
Miraculously, they didn’t have to wait long.
Two hikers discovered the bottle and alerted the camp authorities to the situation as fast as the could. Within hours, a helicopter was hovering over the family’s campsite.
“We were all dead asleep when we suddenly heard the helicopter right above us,” Ramirez said. Overjoyed, they waited eagerly for rescue, as the team in the air told the family they would be back early the next morning, as soon as it was light enough.
Todd Brethour, of the California Highway Patrol Air Operations Unit, said that Whitson’s quick thinking likely saved the day. There’s no telling how long they would have been stranded, if not for the water bottle message.
“They were really out of options,” Brethour told CBS News. “If they hadn’t gotten the message out that way, it might’ve been a while.”
The family hopes to identify the two hikers so they can thank them for the part they played in the rescue, knowing their story could have easily turned out much worse.
“It blows me away how it all came perfectly together,” Whitson said. “What are the odds?”
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