When a couple of Potwisha Campground visitors noticed a vehicle parked at Sequoia National Park’s Marble Falls trailhead overnight on Saturday, Jan. 10, they sensed something must be wrong. The observant duo notified park rangers about the vehicle. Then they walked up a portion of the three-mile trail, which is where they came across calls for help and several shrill whistle sounds.
Their next call to the National Park Service dispatcher was at 1:20 p.m. This time they reported hearing the calls for help.
Park rangers immediately began mobilizing to hike in, preparing for a possible rescue in the steep canyon with gurney and litter.
The foothills trail is accessed from the north end of Potwisha Campground at an elevation of 2,000 feet. It climbs nearly 1,500 feet, ascending high above the Kaweah River’s Marble Fork canyon before meeting up with the river once again at Marble Falls, the trail’s terminus.
The views are magnificent and the footing is sure on the maintained trail. In the winter, the river’s flows are minimal unless fueled by a passing rainstorm or melting snow.
The lower flow currently translates to more exposed granite on either side of where the river pools within bowl-shaped rock formations. When the river spray wets those already slick granite surfaces along the pools it can be treacherous to take a single step because it’s akin to walking on ice, and slipping is a near certainty.
And that’s what happened to Margaret “Sam” Wilson, who started out for a solo afternoon hike on Friday, Jan. 9.
What she expected to be a two-or-so-hour day hike turned into a nightmare of an overnighter.
Wilson, 33, of North Hollywood told park rangers that she got into trouble after stopping along the trail to snap a photo of one of the pools below. She dropped her pack into the river some 30 to 40 feet below where she was standing.
As she was attempting to retrieve the pack, she fell but was able to arrest her fall in the steep gorge. When Wilson tried to go continue her descent is when she free-fell backward another 15 feet or so.
The second fall, she said, damaged her arm and shoulder. Wilson told park rangers that after retrieving her pack from the water she was wet and cold but could stand. However, she could barely move her arm so she knew she couldn’t climb out.
At that point, she decided to wait for someone to come along the trail. Wilson spent a cold, lonely night next to the river with only a light jacket and part of a granola bar. Temperatures dipped into the low 30s at least; Wilson shivered and endured the pain of a broken arm.
At first light, the injured hiker fashioned a makeshift sling and moved to a better position out in the open where she could be spotted. Her rescuers, two teams composed of Sequoia rangers and Tulare County search-and-rescue personnel, arrived about 24 hours after Wilson first fell.
Reports of the incident said her rescuers, after making contact, examined the victim and called for an evacuation helicopter. The ground crew secured the injured hiker to the litter and moved her down canyon a short distance where the CHP helicopter could safely hover for the pick-up.
The CHP released video of the airlift from the time the patient was secured to the helicopter’s cables and hoisted up approximately 300 feet. Wilson was flown to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno where she was treated for what the incident report described as “serious but non-life threatening” injuries.