As Curtis Whitson and his family face the 40-foot waterfall realization hits: they’re trapped. In addition to the cascade, a churning rapid thrashes below and unscalable canyon walls surround them on all sides. They’re cut off from the rest of the world with only one chance to raise help. But would such an improbable SOS reach anyone?
As a keen outdoorsman, 44-year-old Whitson is no stranger to hiking. With this in mind, it seemed like a natural choice for a joint family vacation/Father’s Day activity. He subsequently planned a four-day trip for June 2019 to get back to nature and spend some time with his loved ones.
Whitson’s girlfriend, 34-year-old Krystal Ramirez, and his then-13-year-old son Hunter Whitson also accompanied him. Whitson senior actually spends his working days performing maintenance on windows and doors in California. It makes sense, then, that he wished to exchange his usual urban environment for something more picturesque. Conveniently, his home state could accommodate him.
So the family set out expecting to fill their holiday with hiking, card games and nights gazing at celestial bodies. However, as they prepared for their vacation, little did they realize it wouldn’t be quite so relaxing. In fact, their adventure would soon turn into a nightmare only compounded by their isolation.
They would later find themselves faced with a natural barrier and only one way to overcome it. It was an outside shot, and the chances of success were incredibly slim. But if they didn’t take it, Whitson and his family had no idea when help would arrive, or how search parties would find them.
The family’s destination was the Arroyo Seco tributary, a 40-mile-long course that flows into the Salinas River via canyons and gorges through central California. Although its name translates from Spanish as “dry wash” or “dry streambed,” its title is deceptive. Indeed, the moniker is especially contradictory following winter downpours, which cause large water volumes to fill its banks.
Some of the surrounding mountains also drain their own water bodies into the Arroyo Seco. This, combined with the fact that the tributary has no dams to control its flow, make it a flood risk. Nevertheless, it’s a hiker’s dream as Whitson could attest himself, having visited the area seven years previously.
In September 2019 Whitman told The Washington Post newspaper, “It’s a paradise off the beaten path. A gorgeous place to take a float trip and get away from the crowds. We were all looking forward to camping along the river, under the stars.” And to begin with, everything worked out just as Whitson and his family had hoped.
Day number one ended with Whitson’s group sitting around a campfire and having fried steak with quinoa for supper. They even had some chocolate-flavored energy bars to complete the meal. Day two also went along without any setbacks, so it looked like the adventurers’ camping trip was all plain sailing.
However, on day number three things began to take a turn for the worse. The group climbed down from elevation and descended into a steep canyon, named for its main feature: The Waterfall. At this point, Whitson thought he knew just what to do, and recalled his actions on his previous visit.
On his last pass through this part of the Arroyo Seco, Whitson had encountered no problems with this particular obstacle. Actually, he vividly remembered how on his prior hike there had been a clear (if precarious) way to navigate the cataract. A thoughtful stranger had left out some tools to make the trip a little easier.
To be more precise, someone had run a thick rope down the wet cliff alongside the waterfall. Last time around, Whitson had spent a careful 15 minutes climbing down it, subsequently circumnavigating the raging waterfall. But when Whitson went to look for the rope on this occasion, it was nowhere to be found.
Exactly what had happened to the rope is unknown, but the probable theory is that unpredictable floods had claimed it. Whatever the cause of its absence, the result was the same. Whitson and his entourage were trapped in the narrow gorge with no obvious means of escape one way or the other.
As panic began to set in, the hikers weighed their options. To begin with, there was no going back the way they had come; it was simply too high a climb. Indeed, 40-feet-high canyon walls trapped them at the waterfall. Nor could they press on through the falls, which were flowing too fast.
“We came to the waterfall and knew immediately it was not what we wanted to see in regards to the water levels,” Whitson told British news network ITV News in September 2019. It wasn’t what the hikers had expected to see at all, especially since they thought they’d planned for possible floods so carefully.
Whitson elaborated further in an interview with media network ABC News that same month. “It was just the water level that caught us by surprise. And we thought we had that under control by our timing. And our timing was just not right.” The sheer speed and volume of the water also prevented another avenue of escape.
Among his belongings Whitson had packed his own rope, which was all but useless at the falls. Speaking to reporters for Fox News in September 2019, he described the water as “too swift and high” to anchor the rope. Nor could they just stay in position and wait for a group of passing hikers to assist them.
Whitson’s son Hunter revealed that they hadn’t spotted anyone else on their three-day journey. “It was a little scary,” he told The Washington Post. “We hadn’t seen a single soul the entire trip.” The whole idea of their hike had been to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, after all.
The group’s only saving grace was that they hadn’t gone off into the wilderness on an unannounced whim. Ramirez informed The Washington Post that other people knew they were hiking in Arroyo Seco. “I knew that our friends would call somebody at some point when we didn’t show up,” she said.
Ramirez continued, “But I was worried about how long it might take for anyone to find us.” Needless to say, when the stranded family checked their cell phone service, they had none. So they were totally isolated – at least for the time being – with the turbulent river below presenting a constant threat.
Whitman described his party’s precarious situation in his interview with ABC News. “One bad step or one misjudgement with regards to the strength of that river and it could have just carried us right over the edge,” he said. “And that could have been it.” Fear wasn’t the only emotion the hikers felt, either.
“It was a sad realization, to know that our trip was over and we needed help,” Whitson informed The Washington Post. “Every inch down that river had committed us to a spot where we couldn’t get out.” But the family didn’t give up and began to think outside the box.
At first they tried to use flotsam to send messages to other potential hikers downstream. Whitson used his pocketknife to scratch the message “We need help” on a branch and cast it into the water. However, the current either took the stick in circles, or lodged it against the canyon’s rocky walls.
After some deliberation Whitson came up with a similar plan that sounded like something out of a movie.However, he and his family had their backs quite literally against the wall and were otherwise out of ideas. For his plan to stand a chance, though, Whitson needed some simple materials, which he hoped Ramirez could provide.
“He asked if I had something to write with,” Ramirez said of her partner to The Washington Post. “And I remembered that I’d brought pens and a bar order pad for a way to keep score playing card games. I’m very competitive.” This was the stroke of luck Whitson needed for his plan to proceed.
Whitson once again used his knife to carve a message. But this time he used something a bit more substantial than a stick. Indeed, he chose a green Nalgene water bottle as the message-bearer. On the outside, Whitson scratched “Help” and on the inside he added an additional message.
Whitson wrote this secondary note on the bar pad Ramirez proffered and put it inside the high-visibility bottle. “The first thing on it was the date, and then below it said, ‘Stuck at waterfall, please send help,’” Ramirez told ABC. Then they sealed the bottle and threw it into the churning waters.
“With one lucky toss, it went right over the waterfall,” Whitson described to news gatherers CNN. Then to ABC he said, “I looked at Hunter and I said, ‘We’ve done all we can do. Y’know, now it’s just a matter of waiting to see what happens next, and waiting for people to come.’”
With that, the family chose to leave the treacherous edge of the waterfall and wait a bit further upstream. There they found a sandy clearing where the hikers chose to make camp for the night. But before they set down for the evening, there was one last thing to do.
Whitson and his family placed a canvas sheet down on the sand and began making another message. This one was shaped out of nearby rocks and stones, and it simply read, “SOS.” After that was done, the group settled into their sleeping bags and prepared for a potentially long wait.
However, unknown to Whitson’s group, their rescue was close at hand. A pair of hikers within half a mile of their location had spotted the message in a bottle. They subsequently took it to Arroyo Seco camp manager Cindi Barbour, who in turn informed search and rescue.
Despite the dwindling daylight, Todd Brethour, a helicopter pilot for the California Highway Patrol, set out with his team to find the hikers. And thanks to the heat from Whitson’s campfire, the rescue team’s infrared and night vision equipment pinpointed them. As a result, the sleeping Whitson family got the most welcome surprise awakening of their lives.
“We were all dead asleep when we suddenly heard the helicopter right above us,” Ramirez informed The Washington Post. They jolted awake to Brethour’s booming voice over the loudspeaker informing them, “This is search and rescue. You have been found! Stay put, and we’ll be back to get you tomorrow morning.”
“The individual came out and he was waving, and it seemed like he was very excited… relieved,” one rescuer told news network CBS. That’s an understatement, as the group’s further reactions proved. The hikers were ecstatic at the news, and fell about each other hugging and crying. Joe Kingman, a pilot on the rescue crew, confirmed their elation.
Kingman told The Washington Post, “As you can imagine, they were very happy to see us.” For their part, the rescue team were astonished that Whitson’s message-in-a-bottle plan had actually worked. It was certainly a first for them, as they revealed in their interview with CBS.
“Never heard any kind of request for assistance coming down river in a water bottle,” one rescuer said. Furthermore, his fellow crewman revealed just how lucky Whitson’s group had truly been. “It would have been almost impossible in some areas to actually get out of there,” the second pilot explained to news crews.
“So they were really out of options,” the first pilot agreed. “If they hadn’t gotten the message out that way, [rescue] might have been a while.” The seriousness of the situation wasn’t lost on the Whitson family either, who were all so grateful for the California Highway Patrol’s timely rescue.
“I’m pretty sure I fell to my knees,” Ramirez informed ABC. Because nightfall complicated the rescue, pilots returned the next day to airlift the hikers to safety. Hunter was incredulous that the plan had actually worked, saying, “Stuff like that only happens in the movies, really. To see an actual message in a bottle be the reason someone actually got saved is mindblowing to me.”
Whitson shared the same view as his son, as he told ITV News. “It just feels like a little touch of Hollywood, and there’s nothing Hollywood about any of us,” Whitson said. “We’re just normal people who had a set of circumstances that worked out the way that it did.”
“A lot of pieces fell into place just right for these folks,” Kingman revealed to The Washington Post. Nevertheless, the story isn’t quite over for Whitman and his family. He’s still trying to get in contact with the hikers who found his message in a bottle to thank them for the rescue. Hopefully one day they’ll get their wish.