Sunday turned out to be a much longer day than planned for a group of hikers from the Los Angeles area. Their moderately difficult ascent of 14,035-foot Mt. Langley took a serious turn when a knee injury left one of the group unable to walk.
Mark Kuckelman, 56, of Long Beach suffered a twisted knee just 30 minutes into the descent from Langley’s summit. With a 10-mile hike and 4,000 vertical feet of descent ahead of them, the group, Bill Rudnisky, 32, Jeff Logan, 26 and Brian Hay, 26, along with Kuckelman, pondered the choices.
No cell phone or radio reception is available on the mountain, so any help was hours away, at best. A decision was made to make do with whatever resources they had and continue descending.
Using a Velcro strap to immobilize the injured knee, Kuckelman used his climbing poles as makeshift crutches as the group slowly made its way down the mountain.
Ahead of them lay the steep and un-maintained Old Army Pass trail, the scene of a tragedy just four weeks prior, to the day. In that case, an experienced hiker from San Rafael fell to his death on the pass, and the body wasn’t found for a week. Thomas Heng, 31, had also just returned from Langley’s summit and became separated from his hiking party. The different outcome this past Sunday may have been due to the hiking group staying together, providing assistance and keeping an eye on each other.
“I told them multiple times that I could make it by myself – that they should go on ahead, but they insisted on staying with me until Cottonwood Lakes, where the trail levels out a bit,” Kuckelman said. “I felt pretty bad, holding them up for hours, since they had to drive back to L.A. that night and get up for work the next day.”
Kuckelman, now retired, was the supervisor at Raytheon in El Segundo for the other hikers in his party.
Descending the 1,500 vertical feet of Old Army Pass on one leg was challenging, requiring some crawling, sliding and inching along in some places. When the bottom of the pass was finally attained, Kuckelman said, he felt the team was released from their duty, and now could continue on without him, at full speed. The team had other plans however, and informed him that “you’re stuck with us until we get you to your car.” At this point the climb had lasted 10 hours, and they were facing at least five more at slow pace. The team finally reached base camp at Horseshoe Meadows just after sunset. Due to the lateness of their return, Kuckelman’s wife Pam had contacted Inyo County Sheriff’s Corporal Terry Waterbury who immediately dispatched a Lone Pine deputy to Horseshoe Meadows. The deputy was recalled 15 minutes later when Kuckelman was able to make contact with his wife via cellphone.
When asked if the group would hike together again, Kuckelman replied, “You’d think not, but they’ve already asked me to go for White Mountain next month before the snow flies.
“I’m more than grateful to them for their help on the descent, and am impressed with their intelligence and decision-making.”
Rudnisky has near-term plans to climb Mt Rainier, while Logan has his sights set on Aconcagua in Argentina.