YOSEMITE — When Marcus Mazzaferri set off from Campo, California at the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on April 1, his plan was to hike the all the way to the other end at Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada.
The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail is a long-distance hike closely aligned with the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, which lie 100 to 150 miles (160 to 240 km) east of the U.S. Pacific coast. The PCT is 2,659-miles long and ranges in elevation from just above sea level to 13,153 feet in the Sierra Nevada. The route passes through 25 national forests and 7 national parks. One of them is Yosemite.
Most recently a mechanical engineer, originally from Canton, Ohio, Marcus had been living in Seattle , Washington for the last two years. His intention, before starting law school back east on August 14, was to complete the solo-trek of the PCT by August 10.
With a single mis-step in near-freezing water about 15 miles north of Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, his plans went terribly awry. He is sharing his story now, so that others may learn from his ordeal, about what put him in such a desperate situation and the good decisions he made afterwards that led to his survival.
Marcus’ story in his own words:
June 5, 2017. Unfortunately, my Pacific Crest Trail journey has come to an abrupt and very dangerous end, where I can say I am truly lucky and grateful to be alive. Here’s what happened.
At about 1,000 miles into my hike I was alone in the Sierra Nevada mountains when I came across a particularly treacherous river crossing. The flow was strong and the water was past my waist. As I was fording the river my footing gave way under a lose rock and I was swept into the current.
I began rushing towards a waterfall and couldn’t swim out with my 60-pound pack on, so I ditched the pack and was able to swim out of the river before I hit the waterfall and rocks. My pack and all of my belongings are lost forever in the river and probably washed up somewhere in Southern California now, but I didn’t drown, so it was worth it.
The realization of being stranded in the middle of nowhere, alone, in snow-covered mountains with nothing but the clothes I was wearing on my back quickly settled in.
Given that no one knew I was in trouble and there was so much snow this year, there was no trail to follow. The only way I would survive was by backtracking my own footprints in the snow for 15 miles to try and get to a remote shelter I stayed at the night before, where I could wait and hope for the slim chance someone would come by in the next few days.
I made it back seven of the 15 miles before nightfall, which brought sub-freezing temps, while I had no shelter and wet, cold clothes. It was cold enough where if I fell asleep I probably wouldn’t wake back up, so I had to do jumping jacks and run in circles all night to keep from freezing to death.
Once the sun came up I started tracking my day old prints again. If I were to lose my tracks, or if a snow storm were to roll in, I would lose all chances being able to navigate back, and of survival. Twice I did lose those tracks and, leaving it up to fate, I decided to follow some deer and coyote tracks I came across, which miraculously lead me straight to my tracks both times.
Luckily the weather was clear, and even though I had lost my glasses in the river, I was able to track myself back 14 of the 15 miles I had done the day before. At this point the sun had melted away the rest of my prints.
I knew I was within a mile or two of the shelter I hoped to find, but I had no idea which direction to go, and no tools to help navigate — my map, compass, phone, etc. were all lost to the river. After climbing up three different mountains that I thought may be the right way, I came back down to the last track I could find and began losing hope, realizing that I was probably going to die out there.
I wouldn’t be able to last another night in the freezing weather without food or sleep, and no one knew I was in trouble. There would be no rescue or rangers looking for me. I was officially lost in the mountains without any leads.
Then, I got lucky.
As I came to terms with my probable death by freezing or eventual starvation, I heard the humming of machinery. Then the classic backup beeping noise you hear from big vehicles! There were people somewhere here in the middle of nowhere!
My heart jumped and adrenaline shot through my veins. That day, at that hour happened to be the time that the state decided to send some giant bulldozers to start plowing the back country road that runs through the mountains and near where I was, although it was covered by 10-feet of snow and still was closed.
I saw the trucks emerging out of a valley miles away across a snow plain and past the Tuolumne River. I needed to get over to them and make sure they saw me before they left. I sprinted across the plain and dove into the giant river and began swimming across. Somehow I swam through the current and got to the other side.
The water was freezing, I definitely had hypothermia. I ran up to the bulldozer, finally realizing I wasn’t going to die at 25 in the middle of nowhere in the mountains! I got a ride in the giant bulldozer for miles out of the mountains and got to a ranger station.
I made friends with the Yosemite Park Rangers and ended up staying with them that night where we celebrated the weekend and my unlikely survival. Thank you Emily Noyd for the hospitality and kindness, what a great way to end a day that started quite differently!
Although I wasn’t in life-threatening danger anymore, I was still in Yosemite National Park with no ID, money, or belongings. Within an hour after calling them, Joseph and Chelsea McCoy hopped in their car and drove 11 hours from Portland down to where I was to come get me, then turned around and drove back. They are truly the best friends any one could have and went above and beyond the duties of friendship.
I’m safe and sound now, and so happy to be alive. Everything tastes a little sweeter after having an experience like that, and I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am to still be here.
I made some good decisions out there and gave myself the best chance of survival by refusing to stop fighting for my life, but honestly, none of that would have mattered if I didn’t get as lucky as I did or didn’t receive the miracle which was those bulldozers that just happened to be plowing a road in the middle of a mountain range that day at that time.
Happy to be here, happy to be alive!
Marcus’ takeaways for other hikers:
- Don’t hike alone in hazardous conditions or during a high snow year in the Sierra
- Keep some items on your person when crossing a river so you have resources in case you have to ditch your pack
- If you are uncomfortable and concerned about a crossing, it is okay to turn around or sleep on it and try to find a more comfortable situation