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Stranded above a waterfall, California hikers sent out a message in a bottle for help

Three hikers from Morro Bay, California, who found themselves stranded atop a rushing waterfall during a June outing turned to a tried-and-true method to call for help: a message in a bottle.

And it worked, Curtis Whitson said, in a tale that “only happens in Hollywood.”

Whitson, 44, his 33-year-old girlfriend Krystal Ramirez, and his 13-year-old son, Hunter, had already been out for two days, lugging 50-pound backpacks in a hiking and tubing river adventure that began at a campground near the community of Gonzalez, about 100 miles north of Morro Bay.

After a morning navigating the Arroyo Seco River in an isolated area of the Los Padres National Forest, the trio reached the top of a 40-foot waterfall.

Whitson was familiar with the route, having navigated the same journey seven years earlier.

So he was prepared for this point, carrying a rope in his gear to rappel down a rock face on the river, where access is blocked by the perilous drop.

But unlike on the previous journey, Whitson said, this year the group was greeted with a much stronger, faster flow after a winter of above-average rainfall.

The only way down would have required them to navigate a slippery ledge to tie the rope to a rock near a spot where the water was shooting past equivalent to “15 to 20 hoses with a washing machine down below.”

It was early in the afternoon when the seriousness of their predicament set in.

“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.”

Now what?

The original plan was for Whitson, his son and girlfriend to meet friends the next day at a bridge crossing in a forest area downstream.

But if they didn’t show up, Whitson said, he worried that their friends might not realize something was wrong right away and, once they did, a rescue effort might take hours or even days.

They were running low on food, and he wasn’t sure when help might arrive.

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Whitson said he’d heard voices off in the distance of hikers coming from the other direction who had tried to reach the waterfall but got stalled by the rush of water and rocks.

They tried yelling for help, to no avail.

Whitson said they discussed retracing their route, but because they’d seen nobody for miles, they figured that could lead to confusion for rescuers.

“Coming up to the waterfall, knowing that’s what we had to go through, made my heart sink,” Whitson said. “It was a feeling of failure. At that point it was a matter of keeping the others’ spirits high.”

Sending a call for help

That’s when Whitson arrived on a creative idea, one that seemed desperate but just might work.

He would scrawl a message on his yellow-green Nalgene water bottle and float it downstream in hopes someone would find it.

Whitson scratched “GET HELP” in capital letters on the side of the bottle, but realizing that might not be noticed, he asked Ramirez, a bartender at Rose’s Landing on the Embarcadero, if she had a pen and paper to add a message inside.

“She said she had brought some writing materials to keep score in our card games while we were sitting around the fire,” Whitson said. “Her thinking really paid off.“

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Courtesy photo

Whitson penned the note “6-15-19 we are stuck here @ the waterfall get help please” and set the bottle afloat.

After dispatching their distress call, he said, the trio fashioned a “SOS” message from rocks to help rescuers spot them from above.

When night fell, they lit a campfire and dozed off in their sleeping bags.

Then, at about midnight, they were woken by the sound of a California Highway Patrol helicopter circling overheard.

“It was a big, huge sigh of relief,” Whitson said. “We were all dead asleep when they first came. They used the infrared to spot our campfire and said, ‘This is search and rescue. You’ve been found.’ I’ve never heard better words uttered in my life.”

Over a loudspeaker, the CHP crew told them to stay put for a return the next morning, when they were airlifted to safety.

Plan worked perfectly

Later, Whitson learned that two hikers had spotted the water bottle and reported it to the Arroyo Seco campground.

“They didn’t leave their name or phone number,” he said. “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 – who runs a full-service operation for doors, windows, screens and glass – said the experience of using a message in a bottle was like something out of the movies.

But when asked who might play him in the film, he sounded sheepish.

“I’m just a blue-collar worker who enjoys life and the outdoors,” Whitson said. “I don’t know about that. ... I’m just thankful to the hikers and the public services people that came together in this. It really shows how dedicated they were.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.
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