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Mill Valley Man Recounts New Year's Eve Rescue on Mount Tam

Three weeks after he was rescued on the west side of Mount Tam, Dennis Klein lauds his rescuers and gives his own account of what happened.

Mill Valley Man Recounts New Year's Eve Rescue on Mount Tam

A New Year’s Eve to Remember: A Rescue on Mt. Tamalpias from the viewpoint of victim Dennis H. Klein - 2013FreeWillPress (c)2013

On New Year’s Eve 2012, after 41 years of running the Marin Headlands without mishap, I messed up. Rapid nightfall made it too dangerous to move and I had to be evacuated from the base of Mt Tam by a rescue team.

I promised the 30 wonderful men and women from all over Bay Area that I would repay them for so willingly blowing off their New Year’s Eve to make sure it was not my last that I would submit a recap from my point of view of what happened that cold dark night as affirmation of the amazing performance and inspiring attitude of these most special Americans.

Having returned early from an East Coast holiday with our kids and with an 8 p.m. New Year’s dinner invite ahead, I drove to Pantoll to do a run to Stinson I had contemplated for years but had never done. Because the only afternoon Marin Transit bus back up to my car was at 5 p.m., I started down a few minutes after 3 p.m. with the last part being a 1,500-foot ‘schuss’ leaping down a drop‐dead gorgeous, wide open, thick duff, high canopy redwood forest ridge line.

Things went so smooth, I hit bottom at 4:20 p.m. with 40 minutes left to go and less than a half mile to the bus. Just as I figured, the last leg was a stream bed. However, up until now, this close to the bottom, be it Muir Woods, Four Corners, Cascade Canyon, Blithedale Canyon or Big Rock Ridge, every stream I had ever encountered was an easy meandering thing between broad banks. Instead, this was a raging torrent squeezed between two tall near vertical cliff faces – not what I signed up for.

Anxious to stay dry on that unseasonal cold night, I went back up slope to go around the stream only to use up valuable time as it became too dark for that to work. So I returned to the stream as the one sure way to get out without getting lost. Trying to step along ledges, I was soon wet to the knees. Then it got so dark that when I put my hand out to steady myself, there was nothing there as I fell face first into the water. Knowing better now, I doubled my efforts to not do that again as I watched my hand pass to only touch anything so densely dark it just had to be solid.

This time I tumbled head over heels down a 15-foot cataract with thoughts that the next step could be a 20-foot drop to a lights-out cracked skull. Game Over. I pulled myself out of the water, sat down next to the roaring stream and decided that being stranded soaking wet, shivering violently all through one of the longest nights of the year until enough light made it possible to walk out was a better option than running the risk of packing it in altogether and really pissing off a whole bunch of people.


No way, with my iPhone underwater at least twice. (Without this device, none of what followed would have been possible. I pulled it out of my jeans (runner's body armor) just to make sure. Thank you Steve Jobs! It was still working with 30 percent battery left, kicking off a whole new chapter in this saga presented next blow by blow.   

I called 911. I heard a flat voice seemingly impervious to my plight. I was referred to another jurisdiction. When no one picked up, I called 911 again. This time a different flat voice tells me they have absolutely no knowledge of the earlier call as we start all over again. After a protracted discourse, I am referred an agency who has no idea where Mt. Tam is.

After hearing some three minutes of my story, saying, 'Uh huh, uh huh," the person suddenly blurted, "ARE YOU IN A CAR?" I repeatedly tried telling everyone to look at any online map, zoom to Stinson Beach to see two residential areas east of the highway. I tell them repeatedly I am up a stream that outfalls into the upper north east corner of the southern residential area. I am not able to reference street names since none are present, this being THE last day of Apple Maps. The very next day, the roads are back on the phone, thanks to Apple and Google deciding to make nice again. [Death by AppleMap?!] Disappointingly, no one I talked to all night seemed to have any interactive mapping of any kind, at all.  

I was asked where my car was. Later, when told they had a coordinate for my location, I find out it’s at my car, five miles away, as though returning to your car on foot is the only allowed option. I am put on hold again with another wait too long. With the phone at 12 percent and the air getting colder, I called 911 again, got someone else entirely new, again with no record of prior calls. I hung up and call 411 and get Stinson Beach Fire Department on the line. A friendly voice of Fire Captain Toby Bisson comes on the line and immediately knows I am along a high volume stream not far upslope from the houses.

He asks the name of the steam. I could think of none. Nearly every creek in all of the Marin Headlands has a name except the ones down slope from the Bolinas ridge. Soon a helicopter was overhead. I climbed up some 60 feet from the deep trough of the stream bed to be better seen. I flashed my Search Light App up but was apparently not seen. In seconds the phone was dead. I sat down. It was so dark that one second I am shifting my weight to get more comfortable and the next I am falling uncontrollably and blindly down a 60-foot cliff face to the stream, this time lacerating my hand and other bodily bumps and grinds. Game ends again.  

I pull my soaked sweatshirt over my head and made like a tent to trap my breath. Shortly my upper body was becoming comfortable but my lower body was shaking violently. It got colder. Concerned about losing a toe, I warmed my hands in my armpits, took off my soaked shoes and socks and massaged my toes, or at least an assembly of dead nerve endings at the far end of my foot. I repeatedly warmed my hands and massaged my feet until my toes came back to life. I continued to shake violently my upper and lower body with an occasional respite.  

It got colder. I repeated the hand-foot cycle every 15 minutes for six hours, capable of only two thoughts: ‘Will I make it through the night?’ mixed with ‘Is anyone coming to get me?’ and this latter I was able to even invoke reason as long as it was the same argument that went like this: I had told them on the phone before the big fall that I was old and that I was not hurt, so when no one came, my thinking was that with or without seeing me from the helicopter, I could last until morning and walk out on my own, and if not, since there was so little shelf life left, I did not matter all that much if I did not walk out.

One more round of this comforting self pity is interrupted right in the middle by tiny wiggly head lights coming toward me up the stream. It was Ken and Kevin and Charles and Teal, the sweetest, toughest medevac team just in from the center of a perfect world. Teal, a certified teacher who could not find work, opted for a paramedic career, unlike two of my certified teacher children who had to leave the state to find work. Education is always tyranny’s first target, but something that had too many friends to get chopped, the Roman tenant that ‘The safety of the People is the highest law’ remained sacred enough that from where I sat, there was enough funding to keep our security apparatus in top condition.

Everyone was excited. I was not going to die and, and FINALLY the rescue party has a live body to save rather than training dummies. This was not a drill. Stinson Beach Fire Protection District’s few and finest were joined by volunteers answering this New Years Eve call to action from Sonoma, Contra Costa and Solano counties. Teal soon had my pulse retreating from a shaking-induced high of 65 vs my 41 runners pulse. Soon I am in the stretcher on my way out assisted by of all manner of zip lines and lanyards competing for the real‐time proven best practice award.

All around me relationships enriched, networks tightened and leadership tested and perfected, giving them strength they did not have before to handle something much worse much better. With the average carry or slide being about 6 feet a minute, the 250 yards to the road was crossed in around four hours of relentless competent toil. For all of my days, memory of their energy, physical fitness, gentleness, patience (with me and each other), intelligence and humility will make them the one group on earth with whom I would rather spend New Year’s Eve, ever.

Four hours later I am in a ultra warm ambulance ready to take me to Kaiser for my lacerated hand.Thanks to my amazing rescuers, I felt so good that a fully staffed ambulance ride to Kaiser at the other end of the county for a hand that had long stopped bleeding should best be saved for a more worthy enterprises. After being driven up to the top of the ridge to my car, I signed a release waiving the ambulance and drove myself to Kaiser.  

So why this attempt to immortalize a debacle? It’s to thank the volunteers. I learned that night how the survival of just one single person is somewhat the same as the survival of an entire culture Without enough committed to 'We are all in this together,' neither is possible. On New Year’s Eve ’12, I got to meet some of ‘in this together’ priesthood. Since the stretcher work was done in shifts, I got a good look at nearly every face. What I saw in each was … 'I gave up my New Year’s Eve plans just to keep someone from dying and all I get in return is this euphoric feeling lighting up my body that may never end.'

My praise for these 30 Californians who made sure I did not perish from this earth cannot be enough. And if it is too over the top, give the rest of the praise to the millions of volunteers everywhere who continuously commit their time and talent, with near no recognition or thanks, to not considering anything okay until the whole thing is okay.

Also, perhaps that night was pay‐back for some volunteering I did once, in ’68, on the Korean DMZ as an Engineer Officer in a ground war between the Pueblo's seizure and the crew’s return. With the Tet Offensive so deep in the crapper, a news blackout prevented this second front from being known at home. So in return for the 2nd Infantry Division's clear victory in preventing a North Korean invading Seoul, there was no thanks, no appreciation, not even any recognition.

Perhaps some of the praise overflow for my rescuers is better directed at the 12,500 GIs of the 2nd Infantry Division for their rescue of this nation from still one more embarrassing Nam-era defeat. While near a hundred GIs did not make it home, I did not get hurt out there for only one reason on this green earth – just like NewYear’s Eve ’12, the person next to me was that good!  


I have no suggestion for the rescue squad. They were perfect in every way, an accolade I cannot assign to the run‐up of their arrival. Subsequent to the rescue, I have learned that all 911 calls from a cell phone are randomly assigned to CHP dispatch centers all over the state. Worse, they have no protocol or systems for logging in a call. Perhaps each call needs a incident number tied to the name of the caller as a simple means of avoiding starting all over again.

Meanwhile, for all calls going out of the Bay Area, to assure they go to “our” command post, instead of 911, dial 415-472-0911. This is the fastest way to get your plight known to the Marin County Sheriff, in my case, Lt. Doug Pittman who oversaw the entire operation.

Online GIS. Mapping system implementation should be by simply training every call center to use the popular commodity systems offered free such as Google Maps, Bing Maps and Yahoo Maps.

Upon the caller citing their mapping system, dispatch selects the same so all are looking at the same thing. Even without a match system, zooming in on Stinson Beach returns the same basic display everywhere, no wiggle room.

Location Coordinate. I was asked for a coordinate repeatedly. Try as I may, I could not get the blue dot on the map do that. Out of remaining phone time worries, a visit to the App store was sidelined. Later, an intuitive query, GPS Coordinate, returned GPS Data in a matter of seconds that reports not only your latitude longitude but your elevation as well. Having said that, no one should venture out into the natural world ('going out is going in,' according to John Muir) without something like this on their phone. And if you do not have a phone, do not go out at all.

What did happen, in my call to the Stinson Fire Department, they were able get the reasonable coordinate on my phone before it went dead. That and knowing I was beside a stream, together enabled them to find me.  

Clothing. I was given socks for gloves. Better a pairs of gloves are packed in. I was given warm up jackets that were great but my legs were wrapped only in thermal blankets. Perhaps pairs of pants be packed in as well.

Naming Streams. All over the Marin Headlands, every little trickle has a name until you get to the ocean side of the Bolinas Ridge. I urge that between the Fire Department, County sheriff and State Parks, names are assigned where needed and add all creek names to all maps so that they become well known and useful reference in times of emergencies.

A lesson offered that night is how can the natural world so benign and friendly and full of grace in daylight so quickly become a murky, damp, near freezing hell hole gorge riddled with precipices and pitfalls quite ready to cause my death. The answer is still rattling around in my head. More certain, the 8 hours of bone rattling shivering was a terrifying, painful ordeal and a judicious punishment for not being more careful. That brings us back to the 30-person Search and Rescue crew who relentlessly waded up creeks until they found the right one, who bandaged my wounds, monitored my vital signs, warmed me up and carried me out. This California 30 were dead‐on validation of a 'patience‐of‐Job' obsession that America is a successful country.


"[Your recap] was great reading. I've been involved in Search and Rescue for nearly 20 years and it's uncommon for us to have such a thorough narrative with constructive feedback we can put to good use. Thank you very much! I'm now a deputy sheriff over in Napa County. I coordinate our volunteer SAR team here... I'm glad you're well and will pass on your feedback to the team." --Bryan Sardoch, Deputy Sheriff, Search and Rescue Coordinator, Napa Sheriff's Department

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