Storming Norman


The pleasant outing had become a grim struggle for survival against chilling rain and raging floods. Soaked and exhausted, the Scouts faced a simple choice: Find shelter or die.

A summer rain in the Sierra Mountains usually lasts only a few hours, so I wasn’t worried when the rain began. I told the boys to pack up and we’d hike during the rain to the high secluded lakes in Bench Valley that promised good fishing. We were unaware, after four days of camping and hiking, that Tropical Storm Norman was lashing at California. In a rage of rain, wind, and ship-shoving waves, “Storming Norman” would make itself felt across the state. But that first Monday in September, we merely enjoyed the cooling rain.

A week in the Sierras had become an annual trip for me as bishop and the Explorer-aged boys in my ward. I had been on many hikes in the Sierra Mountains as a teenager. Now as bishop I felt the hikes brought me close to the boys as nothing else could. This was my sixth trip as a leader and one of my easiest so far. In the first place, two other adults, Brother Rich and Brother Christiansen, were helping me. Secondly, seven of the boys had been with me before. Only two 14-year-olds were on their first Sierra hike. Steven Knight had planned on this since his brother Jim came back a year before with enthusiastic accounts of the fishing, camaraderie, and glories of nature. He and Kurt Moody, the other first-timer, were excited. I found their inexperience creating the usual slight problems any beginner presents. They made occasional mistakes. They complained about the difficulties of backpacking and suffered from sore ankles and stiff muscles. But generally, we all enjoyed the 11 kilometer hike that day. We crossed several small streams, walked through one large meadow, and managed a stiff climb into Bench Valley.

“Don’t set up camp yet, boys,” I instructed. “We don’t want wet tents if we can help it. Stay under your ponchos and wait for the storm to end.”

I still thought the rain would soon stop, as it had every other time I had been there. But when the rain hadn’t stopped by midafternoon, we set up our camp.

“Split some logs for dry wood and let’s start a fire,” I instructed.

“Won’t the rain just put it out?” Jim asked.

“Build the fire next to that rock face. It will provide a little protection from the rain. We’ll keep the fire big enough to burn in spite of the rain.”

After a wet but warm supper, we went into our tents to wait for the end of the storm. The wind began blowing. And the rain came down.

“Bishop Brown!”

I woke up. It was still night, and it was still raining. Steven was standing outside my tent, shivering and wet.

“Our tent leaks. I’m all w-w-wet and freezing.”

I got Steven in with Steve Rich, who was sharing my tent. I didn’t know that Steven had left his own tent flap open. For the rest of the night the rain came in on his tent-mate, Kurt.

Several hours later I awoke again, with a feeling of wet suffocation. The wind had pulled the tent stakes out of the ground which was too wet to hold them. One end of the tent had collapsed, dumping its load of water on us. I struggled out and reset the stakes. While I was up, I built up the fire again. By the time I got back to my tent, the other end had blown down. I put it back up and got back in. It took a long time before I felt warm again.

Dawn came, showing a very wet camp. Keith and Mark Nelsen woke to find a pond forming next to their tent, within 15 centimeters of them. A new stream ran between two other tents. The rock overhang used to protect the packs had sheets of water flowing down it, soaking the packs. Most of the boys had wet sleeping bags. The rocky cliffs surrounding us were covered with waterfalls pouring water into the valley. It was spectacular. It was also frightening.

“We’d better leave here,” Brother Christiansen said. “We might get trapped by some flooding.”

Aren’t we up pretty high?” Steve Young asked. “This rain could turn to snow. We might get trapped in a snowstorm.”

They were both right. We decided to start going down for more shelter and less cold. We hurriedly packed our camp equipment.

“How much of this food should we take? We don’t need to carry it all back out do we?” Steve Rich asked.

“No, let’s just take what we need,” I agreed.

“Let’s go all the way out to the cars today. I’m sick of this rain,” Cornell Hansen grumbled.

The boys all loudly agreed. But I wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know if we can hike the full 32 kilometers today in all this rain,” I said. “We had better take food for four meals in case we’re delayed.”

“Oh, bishop, do we have to?” “We have to. Now let’s start.”

The hike soon became a nightmare. Our fears of flooding were well-founded. Small streams we had walked through without wetting our pant cuffs became turbulent rivers, tearing at us and trying to pull us under. Waterfalls were everywhere. The trail itself became a stream and difficult to follow. The wind whipped branches in our way. We missed our turnoff and went down the longer trail to Maxon Meadows. I remembered a Ranger cabin in the meadow from last year. Maybe we could take refuge there. We walked slowly on through the chilling wind and rain. When we finally reached a spot where we could look over the meadow, we stopped in dismay.

“Look, it’s a lake!”

Yes, the meadow was covered knee-deep in water. The cabin looked like some sort of strange ark. The rising water was lapping at its base. We hiked through the lake and kept going.

The trail was now often waist deep in water. We were all cold and miserable.

“Just keep going, boys,” I encouraged. “Then we’ll be out of this mess.”

But I hadn’t taken into account Fall Creek. It was a small creek we had waded through on the way in. Then it had been about 3 meters wide and 30 centimeters deep. Now it was a raging torrent of churning water 30 meters wide and well over our heads.

We had to cross the river. Our situation was becoming critical. We were wet and chilled, with no way to dry shelter, and all the wood was soaked or underwater. It was hard to comprehend the quantity of water around us.

We had to cross the river. But we couldn’t cross the river. It was too deep to wade, too rough to swim, and too wide to bridge. Upstream, the river came down a deep gorge between cliffs. We couldn’t cross there. I prayed to our Heavenly Father that, like Moses, I could somehow part the waters. We started downstream, hoping to find a way across.

After hiking about 400 meters Brother Rich discovered a huge pine tree that “happened” to span the river. We had often seen pines crossing streams before, but never one the dimensions of this huge patriarch. While it didn’t reach from shore to shore, both ends were on ground high enough that we could reach them by wading waist deep.

Brother Rich started across first to test if it was safe. As he climbed on the pine, it bobbed in the water, but stayed where it was. Carefully he made his way safely to the other side. There he climbed off and waded out of sight through the trees to higher ground.

I was the third one to attempt the crossing. I had gone only a few steps when I stopped. I had a feeling that the two younger boys would not be able to get across without help. I turned around, but others were on the log behind me.

“Keith,” I called. The big blond boy looked up. “Cross with Steven and help him if he has trouble.” He nodded in agreement.

“And, Jeff, you go with Kurt.”

“I will do that,” Jeff answered.

Keith and Steven started across the slippery tree. Branches, twigs, and other debris washed down by the flood were trapped by the tree. The fallen tree’s own branches impeded their progress.

“Step there,” Keith instructed.

Steven stepped, but he had misunderstood Keith’s directions. The branch disappeared under the foaming water. Steven followed it. His pack pulled him down, completely under the water. The current started pushing him under the log. He was in danger of being trapped and drowned. Acting quickly, Keith reached in and grabbed Steven’s pack. With one strong pull, he pulled him back onto the log.

Scared, but with no other choice, they continued across the tree. But danger wasn’t through with Steven yet. He stepped on some branches that snapped underneath him. Again he went in over his head and started being pulled under the huge tree. Again Keith reached in and pulled him out.

By now, Steven was afraid to take another step. Keith helped him off with his pack and carried it. Without its added weight, Steven made his precarious way to safety:

When Steven reached solid ground he began shaking. He was thoroughly chilled and apparently in shock as a reaction to his near drowning.

“Let’s get you some dry clothes,” I said heartily, trying to get his mind off his past peril. I gave him the shirt and dry wool sweater I was wearing. One of the boys gave him some dry pants from his pack.

While he was changing, the rest of the boys came across the tree.

“Be careful,” Jeff told Kurt. “You’re bigger than Steven and I’m not sure I can lift you.”

They began to carefully walk across. But the slippery tree moved—Kurt lost his balance and fell in, He caught himself and didn’t go completely under. However, with the force of the current and the weight of his pack, he couldn’t climb back on the tree and Jeff couldn’t lift him. They struggled futilely for several minutes. Jeff almost lost his balance himself. Finally Jeff helped Kurt off with his pack. Now Kurt was able to get back on the tree and continue across the river.

A new danger was now apparent. Kurt was soaked after his icy bath, I had given up my own dry clothes, and Steven was still shivering. In spite of his dry clothes, he was shaking so hard he couldn’t speak. I knew we had to get warm, but I didn’t know how.

Everything—equipment, clothes, wood, ground-everything was wet. The temperature was dropping, and the wind was adding to the chill factor. The only thing I could think to do was to keep on moving. Brother Rich and Brother Christiansen, agreed. We had to get out. But the rain was falling and the rivers were rising.

We hiked on. I was becoming very chilled. I was having a hard time thinking clearly. I recognized this as a symptom of a lower than normal body temperature, and I was becoming frightened. As the body temperature drops, the body loses its ability to warm itself. It’s a very real danger for wet hikers and I wasn’t sure if the two younger boys would be able to get out all right.

I sent a couple of the older boys ahead to look for dry wood and ground up out of the water. And I prayed.

About 15 minutes later we got to them. They had found a fallen log.

“We managed to split it,” Jeff said. “We dug some dry wood from the middle, but none of our matches will light.”

“Here,” I said as they moved aside. “I’ll use my lighter.”

I flicked the lighter. Nothing happened. Flick. Still nothing. Flick. Flick.

“Maybe it’s out of fuel,” someone offered.

“It can’t be. I bought it just for this trip.” I flicked it again and again. It wouldn’t light.

I got out my matches. Thank goodness they were still dry. I struck one. It wouldn’t light. Another. It still wouldn’t light. One by one I struck them all. Not one would light.

“Oh, Father,” I prayed, “thou knowest we need help. I am afraid these two boys will die if they don’t get warm. If we have to spend the night wet in this rain and wind, I may die too. Please help us light a fire to warm ourselves. We need thy help!”

We tried everyone’s matches. We didn’t get one spark.

“Why, Father why? I am their bishop, and we need thy help. Why are my prayers unanswered? We need thee. Please don’t turn away.”

The only answer was the blowing rain.

“Lord, it depends on you now. I don’t know anything else to do.”

We hiked on. I was shivering violently now. The trail was sometimes chest deep in water on the boys. Only the marked trees kept us on the correct trail. I knew we couldn’t hike all the way out. The younger boys were slowing down. There was another river ahead. It was bigger than all the others. It would surely be unpassable.

“What will I tell their mothers?” I worried. “Will this end all camping trips for Church teens? How will my wife manage our seven children? Little Melanie’s only two weeks old. I’ll never know her.” My mind continued on its frightened course. I continued praying, hard and constantly.

Almost in despair, we hiked on, leaning into the rain. We walked wearily around a bend. There was a cabin. It took a moment for us to realize it was real. A cabin! A cabin with smoke coming out of the chimney. Other than the inundated one on Maxon Meadows, it was probably the only cabin within 32 kilometers. Pacific Gas and Electric Company kept it to measure winter snowfall.

Inside the cabin were four other hikers who had taken refuge from the storm. A fire was burning hotly. There was a huge stack of firewood, trashcans full of wool blankets, and ample food supplies. We were safe.

When we were all warm and dry, I thanked God for his mercy. I realized that had we been able to light a fire, we would still be out in the storm, fighting for our lives.

“Thank thee, Father, for not answering my pleas for fire. Help me remember, when I complain and wonder why, that I do not know what shelter is is around the next bend.”

I tried my lighter. It flicked its merry little flame on the first try.

The storm forced us to stay for two and a half days. Then, with snow on the ground, we hiked out.