At Hills & Hops, we’re serious about the part of our moniker that follows the ampersand. An adult beverage never tastes better than it does on the back end of a hike, and the hastened buzz after a day of battling gravity on diagonal slopes makes for easy camaraderie. Beer bonding, we call it.
I am often asked, as the empty glasses accumulate, to recount tales from the trails, either hilarious, harrowing, or sublime, depending on the mood of the requester. There are too many to mention: The time my sister was frozen in shock after mistaking a deer for a mountain lion on Mount Tamalpais; the day a freak hailstorm trapped us, in the midst of California’s five-year drought, under the lookout tower at Barnaby’s Peak near Lagunitas; or the wondrous moment I rounded a corner while hiking alone on Mission Peak in Fremont on Thanksgiving Day and discovered an entire meadow of displaying peacocks, a missed photo opp I have never been able to replicate, despite a dozen or so more treks past that very field.
But a trip to Mount Diablo State Park in the fall of 2014 encapsulated all the elements of good barroom story: a dramatic fall; the tension and resolution of the aftermath; and, ultimately, a gut-splitting moment of happenstance that, for want of a camera at the ready, would have surely been the stuff of YouTube video gone viral.
For years I lugged around a backpack bursting at the seams with the unnecessary weight of enough emergency gear to outfit a rural hospital: Ace bandages, bandage clips, a wound sealer, gauze, scissors, ibuprofen … and on and on. All in preparation for the day when I would be required to put my medical skills -- honed entirely from episodes of “ER” and “Gray’s Anatomy” -- to use in a do-or-die situation.
The ibuprofen was popular with many as a post-hike regiment, but the preponderance of the bulky equipment grew dusty with lack of purpose. Defying the odds, hundreds of hikers started and finished dozens of Hills & Hops hikes without injury.
The streak ended on Mount Diablo, which rises so dramatically from the flat transition zone between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley that, according to literature distributed by the folks that run the California state parks, the view from the top on a clear day encompasses more of Earth’s surface than anyplace on the planet except the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Problem is, the summit of Diablo is literally a parking lot, a cul-de-sac at the end of a 30-minute drive up the mountain from Walnut Creek. This being America, a world-class panoramic view -- from San Francisco Bay to the snow-capped peak of the Sierra Nevada range -- isn’t enough. So there’s also a half-ass museum filled with taxidermied coyotes and such that sells cold beverages from a cooler in the summer, all beneath a lighthouse-grade searchlight that is put into operation but once each year, on December 7, to mark the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
Which is all well and good for the average tourist. But Diablo’s summit is the source of revulsion for the hikers who spend four hours attaining it from its base in the town of Clayton. For a distinctly wilderness feel, Eagle Peak towers over a bony, wind-swept spine near the midpoint of Diablo’s slopes.
After pausing to admire the awe-inspiring scenery at Eagle Peak five years ago, we had scarcely lifted our packs when we heard a bear-like howl emanating from Berkeley Ben.
As I am fond of repeating to my hikers, nobody ever gets hurt going uphill. Sure enough, Ben had just taken his very first step downhill when he twisted his ankle and went down hard, all 270 pounds of him. With his head decidedly downhill from his injured limb, like a man hanging from an inversion bar at a declination of ten minutes past eight.
With the blood rushing quickly to his head, Ben had the presence of mind to prep Stephanie, the first hiker to reach him, for this own triage: “Don’t freak out,” he said, “but I’m gonna pass out.” And so he did.
In the few seconds it took me to push my way through the pack and assess the scene, Ben had begun to slide slowly downhill, head first. Stephanie positioned herself a few feet lower on the trail in an attempt to arrest the progress of an unconscious man twice her weight. I grabbed him from the other end, taking care to avoid his rapidly swelling ankle. While others around were coming to grips with the quick turn of events, I had a wildly inappropriate moment of glee for the opportunity that had befallen my dormant emergency gear.
As I proudly unpacked a collection of injury aides that would have made a battlefield medic proud, Stephanie blurted out in a panicked tone: “I think he had a seizure!”
“What do you mean? Before he fell?” I inquired.
“No, just now,” she noted. “He said he was about to pass out and then his eyes kinda rolled back and he started … seizing.”
“Oh shit,” I said, my glee vanished. “I don’t have anything for that.”
Having accrued a team trainer’s breadth of experience wrapping my own chronic sprains since tendon-shredding accidents on both ankles within weeks of each other my sophomore year in college, I had Ben’s ankle braced and wrapped with emergency-room efficiency by the time he revived a few seconds later. It then stuck me that I had neglected to include in my wonder kit a sandal or some laced platform upon which Ben could walk without exposing his Ace bandages to the ground. I had failed to consider the obvious; that anyone with a wrapped ankle would be unable to fit into his or her hiking boot.
After futilely checking our phones for a signal, we realized what we were up against: Helping to get a very large man with a bum ankle down a sharp drop on a bony ridge and then back up a twin peak a quarter mile downtrail. After that, we’d be relegated to praying for a cell signal at Murchio Gap, where a half-dozen trails converge midway up Mount Diablo.
Ben, sometimes with my aid but mostly without, heroically limped across the granite tightwire of a trail on his exposed bandage. By and by, we reached Murchio Gap, where 15 more hikers awaited -- but a cell signal did not.
Quickly scanning the dwindling options under the scrutiny of 30 eyeballs, I made an executive decision. I asked two of the larger guys in the group, Pete and Pablo, along with a woman named Monica (one of Berkeley Ben’s closest friends), to hang back with me to aid Ben’s descent. I then assigned one of my most experienced hikers to lead the rest of the group to Deer Flat, a small meadow containing picnic tables just under a mile down the fire road upon which he had just alighted.
While I was sorting out the details, a few of our hikers had been approached by three German trekkers who appeared to be lost. Murchio Gap, the Grand Central Station of Mount Diablo, gives rise to confusion en masse on a daily basis, with trails converging from above and below to and from vague destinations. I’m at a loss to recall a single occasion when I’ve passed through Murchio Gap without feeling obligated to provide clarity for a hiker or group of hikers staring blankly at a trail map.
But I was trying to make a quick getaway with Team Ben when I heard one of my hikers bark a familiar directive at the Germans: “Go ask Brian!”
“You guys go ahead and get started,” I told the other members of Team Ben as the German guys headed in my direction. It turned out that he younger member of the trio, a bald guy in his 30s, was in desperate need of a bathroom. I shook my head and delivered the news that the he was 90 minutes, at best, from the closest one. They decided on the downhill route, and left amidst the Hills & Hops hikers headed to lunch at Dear Flat. But a few minutes later they passed us headed in the other direction.
By the time I caught up with the rest of the group, Ben had vomited twice. He also was fading in and out I was asking him simple questions in an attempt to discern his orientation. Now I was getting worried.
I had everybody re-check their phones, to no avail. So I asked Pete and Monica, who I knew to be trail runners, to scoot downhill and stop every few hundred yards or so to check for reception. I had both enter the number of the Mitchell Canyon ranger station into their phones, and told them, in simple enough terms to memorize, roughly where to send help. Even in the worst-case scenario, I knew from experience that there were usually a few people among a group our size who could pick up a bar or two of reception at Deer Flat, which was now just two-thirds of a mile away. But I was coming to the conclusion that Ben wasn’t going to be able to cover even that distance under his own steam.
So I thrilled to hear Pete bellow, just two minutes later from a ledge a few hundred yards below on the corkscrew trail, that Monica had reception and was placing a call. I asked Pete to wait with Ben and Pablo while I took off in a gallop downhill. Monica handed me the phone when I arrived. Thus began one of my more poignant lessons in governmental dysfunction.
On the other end of the line was a police dispatcher in Antioch, a few cities over. I was informed that her department, not the Mount Diablo rangers, were in charge of emergencies on Mount Diablo. As I clenched my jaw for what I could feel was going to be elongated round of red tape at a time when I could least afford it, I explained that I was on a mountain, and couldn’t exactly give her an address, and didn’t exactly have time to lay out detailed directions to someone unfamiliar with the trail system.
Three transfers later, I found myself, at last, talking to a Diablo ranger. Unfortunately, this ranger seemed to understand the orientation on my side of the mountain only as it related to Juniper Campground. Although I knew exactly where that was in relation to where I now stood, I was reticent to relay that information, given that he was stationed in Mitchell Canyon and merely needed to follow the Mitchell Canyon fire road uphill for 4.5 miles -- with nary a nod in the direction of the campground -- to find us waiting, a party of five with one fading quickly.
By that time, Pete, Pablo and Ben had caught up with us. Ben was looking sicklier by the moment, and had thrown up twice more, I was informed, in the past few minutes. So we all plopped down on the side of the trail to wait for help. In the 20 minutes before the first of two ranger four-wheel drive trucks arrived, Ben explained that he was able to predict his fainting spell not because of his downhill trajectory, but because he had always fainted as a coping mechanism for pain. I had never heard of such a condition, but asked if he was epileptic. He looked at me as if I had just asked him to perform a selection from River Dance. “Well, Stephanie saw what she thought was a seizure after you passed out,” I informed him. Ben denied such a possibility.
As we awaited help, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of empathy -- not my strong suit -- for Ben.
I was working on a humor memoir, which I would complete the next year, about my warped journey from Midwestern altar boy to California trail guru. During the research, I came to discover that a basic premise about my own group was unfounded. I assumed the primary motivation for joining Hills & Hops was as a means of nurturing the adventurer in each of my members. On the contrary, I was to discover, it was pain that lead most to my doorstep. More often than not, that took the form of a romantic breakup or a job transfer to an unfamiliar place. My people, like so many people, were looking for new connections.
For Ben, the group was a beacon in the foggy years that followed the day he came home from work to discover his fiance dead of a rare vascular disease of which Ben was unaware until the autopsy.
Being the founder of the group, I was the one who dispensed nicknames. But I decided early on they would only be assigned organically, if at all. For example, Sideways Paul got his moniker because he couldn’t grasp the concept of rotating his profile picture 90 degrees to the upright position. But most of the time, nicknames were assigned to distinguish between two hikers with same first name. In this case, two Bens, both of whom became stalwarts in the group.
The Ben in question not only lived in Berkeley, he was so very Berkeley, a place where I spent a half-dozen years covering the Cal football team for the Oakland Tribune. Ben was a mountain of a man, heavily tatted with a ring through his lip. But his intimidating physical presence was belied by a lisp and a propensity to wear his emotions on his sleeve when he wasn’t gushing, all nerdy, about sound waves and acoustics as an employee of a company that installed sound systems in stadiums and concert halls across the country.
He invariably hiked in a cowboy hat and ignored my admonishments to trade in his barefoot trail shoes for hiking boots. I took those admonishments to Defcon Red after that day’s incident, but Ben incredulously denied any connection between his injury and the minimalist footwear supporting his massive frame. “Berkeley Ben” was the easiest, most organic nickname I’ve ever authored. And he reveled in it, changing his Facebook page to reflect the moniker and introducing himself to members of his other hiking groups as “Berkeley Ben.”
The calvary finally arrived and we loaded Ben into the bed of one of the trucks. He would be fine. After being checkout out in an ambulance in the parking lot at Mitchell Canyon -- he neglected to say anything about his seizure-like symptoms -- he refused medical help and simply waited by Monica’s car until she arrived 90 minutes later.
The rest of Team Ben hopped in the bed of the other ranger truck then jumped for the half-mile downhill ride to Deer Flat to join the rest of our group, which by then had been lingering over lunch for close to an hour.
Because the ranger wanted to head uphill to Juniper Campground, he dropped us off a hundred yards from the picnic area where the others were gathered, at the head of an overgrown trail no longer in use.
Unfortunately, nobody had their phone at the ready to record what would surely have been social media gold: The bald German hiker, squatting wide-eyed over a steaming pile of dung just a few yards up the abandoned trail, undoubtedly mortified as a ranger’s vehicle abruptly halted directly in front of him as what must have appeared to be four rambunctious trail mercenaries (including Monica, who spotted him first) came scrambling out of the back. The Shit Patrol had arrived.