Hiker’s rescuer sprints up 300 feet of smooth rock, just in time
A Fresno County Sheriff’s deputy’s gravity-defying sprint saved a hiker as the man started to slide off a ledge on the side of a Sierra Nevada peak.
“In five years with search and rescue and 30 years as a paramedic, it was the most dramatic rescue I’ve ever seen,” said Russ Richardson, leader of the Fresno County Search and Rescue Mountaineering Team. “It was pretty heroic.”
On Saturday afternoon it had come down to what hiker Lawrence Bishop believed was the last moment of his life, he recalled on Tuesday.
A wrong turn and a couple of brutal falls had left him clinging for two nights and two days to the east side of Dog Tooth Peak, where nature has polished the granite to a glass-like sheen. He had no food or water, having ditched his backpack before scrambling to the peak.
“‘How much do you want to live?’ is a question I’d never really asked myself,” said Bishop, 64, a retired hazardous waste specialist with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “But all I’d thought of for two days and two nights from every angle, every minute, was: How do I live? I really want to live.”
By late Saturday afternoon, suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, Bishop hallucinated a giant clock, ticking backward to zero. His right leg, which was keeping him propped on a small outcropping, was trembling. His body was starting to slide toward a 65-degree granite slab on the mountainside.
“I was quivering, I couldn’t hold on any longer,” he said. “Then I saw five to six guys below in orange and there was a surge of adrenaline from hope. I tried to grasp the rock.”
David Rippe, a detective with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department and a member of the department’s search and rescue team, heard a moan. He looked up and could see Bishop’s trembling foot and slow slide.
He sprinted about 300 feet up rock that most people cannot stand on without sliding.
“This guy would put mountain goats to shame, He just runs up,” said Bishop, his voice suddenly cracking. “I’m sorry; when I get to this part I fall apart every time — He just runs up and he puts his hand on me and he pushes me back into the rock.”
Rippe, 30, agreed to tell the story only if credit was given to Richardson’s all-volunteer search and rescue team: “They’re on their own dime, their own time. They’re amazing.”
He described his climb without ropes or equipment only as “a little bit sketchy.”
“I wasn’t focused on the climbing,” he said. “I was focused on him. I saw Larry on the ledge and I saw he was starting to fall.”
Days later, Rippe is still incredulous at the timing.
“I keep replaying it in my head. I can’t believe it was that close. It’s amazing.”
The adventure that ended with rescue began innocuously.
Bishop, camping with two church friends, headed out on a day hike to Dog Tooth Peak, elevation 10,256 feet, in the Sierra National Forest. To get to the peak requires scrambling over boulders. His hiking companions decided to pass.
“OK, I’ll take some pictures and holler out your name for you,” he said he told them. He left his pack and water bottles under a tree and headed up alone.
When he started down, he saw a small rock cairn and headed that way, thinking the pile of rocks pointed to an easier way down. He slipped, hitting his head and opening up a cut that began to bleed. The rock was too slick to go back up. He thought he could make his way by wedging himself down a small drainage chute in the rock. He slipped again, this time sliding 100 yards onto a steep, exposed granite sheet.
Bishop shoved himself into a small indent, using his hiking poles in other holes to keep himself wedged in place. He spent Thursday night pressed against the rock.
At daybreak, his party hiked 12 miles to the nearest working phone. The call for a search went out at 1 p.m. Friday.
About that time, Bishop saw a level spot in the granite below, where he thought he could lay down and wait for rescue. He thought he could make it down wedging his feet in holes. He immediately slid, bouncing past that area another 300 yards down, coming to rest on a tiny ledge about 6 inches wide. He couldn’t sleep. If he relaxed his leg, he would fall.
The next fall, he knew, would leave his body at the bottom of the mountain, 300 feet below. But just as he slipped a final time, he felt Rippe’s hands.
A sheriff’s helicopter hoisted them up and carried them to safety.
There have been several major search and rescue operations during the last several weeks in the Sierra. But officials said the number of searches is not above average this summer. Last week, 31-year-old Tom Heng’s body was found in the John Muir Wilderness after a three-day search. Inyo County officials said he suffered major head trauma. He had been hiking with friends before setting off on the last leg alone.
“It’s really important when you’re hiking to go with someone and stay within sight of the people you’re with,” Rippe said.
“It will at least give us a starting point if we have to search. When you’re out there, you’re just a tiny speck against things that are so much bigger.”
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