Sending a distress message in a bottle would not typically be considered a sensible strategy. However, it miraculously worked for three hikers from Morro Bay, California, who found themselves stranded atop a 40-foot waterfall at the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on California's Central Coast.
In June 2019, for Father's Day weekend, Curtis Whitson, his girlfriend, Krystal Ramirez, and his 13-year-old son Hunter decided to go backpacking along central California's Arroyo Seco River. Things went according to plan for the first two days, with the trio spending hours hiking through the beautiful forest and drifting down the river on inner tubes. On June 16, which happened to be Father's Day, Whitson, who was familiar with the area, led the trip to the Arroyo Seco narrows — a spot in the river surrounded by solid rock up to 40-feet-high on each side.
Whitson's planned for the group to rappel down the side of a waterfall along the river, where access is blocked by the perilous drop, and then hike the few miles back to the campgrounds where the journey had begun. However, when the hikers reached the waterfall, Whitson realized that unlike his previous trip through the area, the water currents were too strong to navigate across. To make matters worse, the rope he was expecting them to use for their descent was missing. "My heart sank when I realized the volume of water was just too dangerous to make rappelling down possible," Whitson told CNN.
Since trekking back the way they had arrived was dangerous as well, Whitson and his son tried to seek other routes to get around the waterfall. But, after hitting several dead ends, they realized there was no alternative way out. “It was an unpredictable area,” Whitson said. “It was slippery and just too dangerous to risk. We decided it was better to be safe than sorry.”
Given that the backpackers were scheduled to meet up with friends near the campgrounds the following day, they knew they would be missed at some point in the near future. However, Whitson was concerned that his friends, not realizing the urgency of the situation, would wait a day or two before alerting officials. With food running low and no cellphone reception to call for help, he began thinking of alternate strategies to draw attention to their predicament.
The three tried yelling from behind the massive boulders each time they heard voices and even tossed over a stick with a call for help etched on top. When neither worked, Whitson decided to carve a "GET HELP" message on the side of his yellow-green Nalgene water bottle and toss it downstream in the hope that someone would find it. Fearing the scratched message was easy to miss, he also put a dated note inside the bottle. It said, "We are stuck here @ the waterfall get help please."
After tossing the bottle across the waterfall, Whitson and his family retreated back up the river to a small beach to camp out for the night. Before settling down, they spread out their blue tarp in a clearing and spelled out "SOS" using white rocks collected from the surrounding area. To ensure it was visible at night, they kept the sign illuminated with a headlamp. Sometime after midnight, the three adventurers were awakened by a welcome sound — a California Highway Patrol helicopter flying overhead. Soon after, someone blared over the loudspeaker, "This is Search and Rescue. You have been found." Since it was too dark to conduct a rescue, the officials asked them to stay warm for the night, and promised to send a team the following day.
Shortly after being picked up on the morning of June 17, 2019, the trio discovered that two hikers had stumbled upon their water bottle and, upon seeing the distress message, reported the issue to the officials at the Arroyo Seco campground. Whitson says, “They didn’t leave their name or phone number. They just did what was right in their heart, and took it seriously. They couldn’t have done it faster or more selflessly, and I can’t thank them enough.” Whitson and his family hope the two good samaritans will reveal their identity so that they can express their gratitude in person.
Resources: Businessinsider.com, kion546.com, CNN.com