Sierra Estrella Highpoint, Part 2: A Weird and Grisly Outdoor Experience…

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.

Beth in helicopter

16 thoughts on “Sierra Estrella Highpoint, Part 2: A Weird and Grisly Outdoor Experience…”

  1. Wow, what a story. I thought at first you were going to say you had a bear encounter. What an unfortunate situation. Hopefully they can locate him and identify him in case family is searching for him. (unless they already did….I’ll go Google.)

  2. I would have freaked out too! And I totally agree that it’s more worthwhile to go alone than to never go at all. If I waited for someone to go out with every time, I’d…. well, I’d just never get to go.

  3. Of course I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak for the detective. But I think I would probably have a similar reaction about your safety and well being, not because you are a woman, but you are a solo hiker. I mean, you did find what appears to be a dead solo hiker! I think it’s natural to be concerned about anyone hiking alone when there’s a hunt for someone dead. Maybe he said something about you being a woman that was uncalled for though.

    I have been known to be a bit overprotective about my mom on her solo hikes alone the Smokey Mountains. I gave her a whistle at Christmas one year and demand she wears it at all times when she’s on the trail. I really worry about her, because anything could go wrong out there in the wilderness. I would have the same fears if my dad were hiking alone too.

    1. I think it’s one thing to discuss safety with your mom…she’s family! If F had concerns about me out alone, I’d certainly have to give his thoughts a lot more concern than from someone who doesn’t know me. He’s very familiar with my limitations and shortcomings in the outdoors so he’s great to bounce my plans off.

      I also hope that if that man was, as he appeared to be, a solo hiker that he died doing something he loved. (He had quite a view of Phoenix!) I hope that he was prepared and died because of a heart attack or something similarly unpreventable and that he was happy and at peace that he went out alone.

      Finally, (and your comments about your mom have me pondering another post on the matter) I’m not really sure what a whistle is supposed to do for one hiking alone. The same goes for a cell phone or knife or a gun. (We are considering a SPOT which gives rescuers your exact coordinates but again, just pondering.) Where I was, no one would have heard my whistle. In the Smokeys, there *might* be people close enough but who knows. If your mom hikes frequently, she probably makes informed risk decisions on where she goes.

  4. I think it’s so good for you that you sat down and wrote about it. When you texted me, I was freaking out for you – but I was also totally in the middle of a big meeting that I was in charge of taking minutes for. I kept texting you sneakily and at the end Niko was like “dude what were you doing? You looked really intense.”

    Keep being your strong awesome self, and keep hiking alone, because that’s what awesome ladies do.

  5. While I agree with Jacqueline, my fighting feminist totally would have jumped down that guy’s throat. But, then again, I love traveling by myself. WAY better to go alone than stay at home.

    Glad you’re safe, sweets.

  6. Wow, Beth, that’s quite the story. I’ve heard stories about things like this. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, and I’m sorry it happened to you.
    I think that one thing that really comes across in your writing is that you do what you love, and I know you’ll continue to do so. Despite this experience, I know you’ll keep going for it. It’s inspiring, Beth!

  7. Holy crap. I hadn’t read this post yet but when David Creech told me about it while hiking this weekend I was flabbergasted. So crazy and scary! I’m hoping you will be kept in the loop as they continue to investigate. If anything, at least for some closure. Wow.

  8. Death is never good to be around. I hope the guy died doing something he loved. You’re strong, you’ll be fine. See you guys soon.

  9. Holy shitballs! I hope they’re able to recover the body, and that you’re able to make peace with what you saw. As for being safe and hiking alone, I gotta say, sometimes the only way you’re ever going to get outside is if you do it alone. And frankly, you’re a helluva lot more likely to have a car accident on the way to the trailhead than you are to have an accident while hiking. Just keep your head clear and know your limits… in all things. Hugs to you guys.

  10. I was enjoying your blog and this account, until the gratuitious ideological stuff.

    Why the need to put a negative spin on someone being concerned about you? First, many, many boys and men have been warned about doing things that aren’t safe…especially by law enforcement and public safety officials. After all, that’s their focus and life’s work–to protect the public. I myself, an unambigious male, when traveling overseas, was warned even by taxi drivers not to go to certain neighborhoods because of safety reasons.

    Second, you may file a complaint with Mother Nature if you like, but it is fact, and not opinion, that the average woman is both a more attractive target (because of sexual reasons) to the average attacker (male) than is a man, and, unarmed, she is usually less capable of fighting off the attack than is the average man. It’s simply a matter of size and strength and speed.

    But instead of gratitude, or even a neutral recognition that the kind stranger has at least something of a point–my goodness, even in the process of searching for a dead body of someone who may very well have died from a circumstance he might have survived had he not been alone in the wilderness, we get what? Angry defensiveness, “fighting form,” as though that ungracious bristling is something to be proud of.

    The world is a better place when we stop looking for reasons to be victims, or evidence that we are victims.

    1. Concern is one thing, telling someone they *shouldn’t* do something where they are perfectly aware of the risks is another. You actually have everything backwards: I was offended and in fighting form because I’m NOT someone waiting to be a victim, I’m someone out there living live and enjoying it. What the officer saw in me was a potential victim rather than the empowered human I am (who happens to be female).

      For me, the risks of hiking alone are FAR out weighed by the benefits to me. If you can actually find any facts about women being more at risk in the outdoors I am all ears but my extensive searching on the internet and in journals has yielded nothing.

      Secondly, your argument about women being more attractive targets for “sexual reasons” is not to the point. Rape and other sex crimes are more associated with power than with sexual desire. Women are much more at risk from acquaintances than random strangers in this regard.

      As to speed and preparedness, let’s race through the wilderness, okay?

    2. Beth isn’t a victim, she’s a passionate, independent woman who deserves respect for both her judgement and physical abilities. And you’re a gross mansplainer.

      Sexism is real and informs the way many people (men and women) interact with women. Your comment is riddled with assumptions, half-baked science, and truly bs “common sense”. To claim enlightenment while negating Beth’s honest reaction is belittling and offensive.

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