Every Diver has stories. The longer they dive, the more the stories. The more critical the conditions, the “hairier” the story.
After show hours at the annual Big Sur Jade Festival, Jade divers gather at the campgrounds and share. Ages 13 to 83, we play “show and tell” with our favorite finds and of course, the accompanying story. Since many of our customers can’t make it to the festival, maybe I can share a few stories here.
Every year on December 9th I go to “the cove” in Big Sur to dive for jade for my birthday. From year one the cove has blessed me with epic gems so it quickly became an annual tradition.
The swell forecast once again cooperated for my special day and the cove lay pretty flat so my dive plan was to go into a spot that can only be dove safely on the smallest of swells. After over 400 dives at the cove, I felt pretty confident in my read of the conditions and what is within my comfort zone and these conditions seemed a sure bet for a successful birthday dive.
The view from the cliff at dawn proved promising as there was barely any white water around the rocks indicating very little swell … my dive plan was “on” and I was sure I was going to have a great day. I set the rope at the top of the cliff trailhead, scrambled 180ft down to the rocky shore and started picking my way around and over giant boulders to the entry spot.
The entry spot is a narrow finger of water “pointing” inland with sheer cliffs towering on both sides. It can only be dove on a small swell because any wave activity is channeled between the cliffs and magnified exponentially. This morning water was slowly lapping up on the shore as I went through my pre dive check and everything was a go however, right before I entered the water, I noticed a wave down the beach …. I should have taken a second look.
As I entered the water I noticed the visibility was not as clear as it should be and wondered why. My question was soon answered as I walked into chest deep water and pushed out. There was a very strong “push” as I started kicking out toward the mouth of the notch and had to kick very hard to make any headway. As the “push” reversed, it began pulling me toward open ocean very fast and dangerously close to the sharp rocks of the cliff. At this point I realized something was very wrong as despite my strong effort, I was being pulled and dragged from side to side of this small inlet like a piece of Styrofoam even though there was no surface wave activity.
My anxiety was increasing as was my breath rate and I needed to relax so I decided to descend and “ride it out” on the bottom. I kicked down to the bottom and felt a long and powerful surge so I found a large rock to grab onto and relax. An incoming surge ripped my hands from their hold and blew me sideways under a boulder … “ok, that was intense but this is a pretty safe place, just chill out here for awhile” I told myself. I lay under that boulder feeling the power and length of duration of each surge and once comfortable, continued my trek to deeper water along the bottom being pulled out by the surge and hanging onto rocks during the incoming surge to stay in place.
Suddenly something was wrong and my heightened anxiety level returned. The water was not getting deeper, it was getting shallower! Where was I? Did I get turned around? I do not want to be in this shallow water with this surge! So I decided to ascend, take a quick look around and get my bearings.
My heavy breathing produced bubbles that obscured my vision during my ascent however, the aerated white water took visibility to practically zero as I neared the surface …. “this was bad”.
My head broke the surface and I saw a wall of sharp rocks directly in front of me as the surge had pushed me into a small alcove to my right directly into the cliff. This alcove was shear cliff 150ft high on 2 of the 3 sides and there was no beach or exit spot. As if the situation wasn’t bad enough, I began to feel the onset of panic setting in. The outgoing surge sucked me back towards the notch despite my hardest kicks then downward! It seemed the massive volume of thick water surging in and out of that narrow channel had created almost a tsunami effect and a vicious whirlpool right in front of the alcove.
When I surfaced again, full panic mode had set in! I was in big trouble, hyper-ventilating and wanting to spit my mouthpiece out so I could breathe more air … I knew better, this is how people die. First they panic, then they make a bad decision, then they find themselves in a worse predicament, then they make another bad decision and die.
A quick evaluation identified my 2 immediate choices. One, try to swim around the whirlpool, get out of the notch to deeper water and look for a safe exit spot down the beach or two; take my chances getting smashed against the cliff at the back of the alcove. I chose door # 2.
“You can make it … hang on!”
Since my breathing was already compromised by a high anxiety level, I figured that land rather than water would be a safer place for me. Funny, just 5 minutes earlier, I couldn’t wait to get in the water and now I would give anything to be high and dry. I didn’t care if I broke a bone, ankle or took some cuts on the exit, it had become a test of will and endurance to escape.
I had already expended a ton of energy trying to stay away from the rocks so I was feeling light headedness from hyper-ventilating. I decided to kick slowly towards the back of the alcove as the surge was dragging me towards the whirlpool then kick for all I was worth as I felt the surge push me from behind. This seemed to work as the incoming flow subsided, my feet were on the bottom, I was in chest deep water and only a few feet from the back wall. Suddenly I felt the pull of the outgoing water and it ripped me onto my back as I hurtled blindly towards the channel again. I fought to right myself and turned back towards the alcove back wall to try it again. My legs were burning from lactic acid, I was dizzy from hyper-ventilation and still not getting enough air but my panic was gone because I had a plan.
Again I felt the push from behind and kicked and pulled as hard as I could. I felt the push subside and I stood up in waist high water, my chest heaving to get air. I removed my mouthpiece with my hand and took a giant gulp of fresh air only to slam it back in my mouth as the outgoing surge sucked my feet out from under me again. This time however, I was dragged back face down, didn’t have to fight to right myself as I spread my fins to create a drag to keep from being pulled all the way back to the notch.
I was trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the next push and attempt for the rocks because I had to make it on this attempt. I was tired, hurting, discouraged and beginning to doubt if I had enough in me to make a 4th attempt if I missed on # 3. I had to make it on this attempt!
The push came and I kicked and swam as hard as I could. As the push began to ebb, I felt my mask gently hit rock and I felt for something to grab onto. I putt my arms around a large rock and planted my fins firmly on the bottom in thigh deep water. As the water started rushing out from around me my feet ripped loose and I lay out in a prone position with both of my arms around that rock. As the surge turned again I had to quickly re-adjust my grip and re-position myself to keep from getting slammed into the rocks.
I turned my back to the wall and wedged myself into a crack with a large rock in front of me. I pushed my head back against the cliff wall feeling the sharp rocks digging through my 7mm hood as I braced to take one in the face while digging my heels into the cobble floor. I held my breath as the wave hit me in the face then the outgoing surge tried again to take me back into deeper water ….. but something was different.
Finally a break
I was breathing really hard from the exertion and seeing stars but I had a solid hold and wasn’t going anywhere. I had won a small victory but I had to get my fins off to climb out of there and onto a safe spot.
As the next surge came in, I noticed that it was substantially smaller than the others and outflow was minimal as well. The ocean was experiencing a “lull” or short break until she started surging again …. “Thank you God, this couldn’t have come at a better time”. I finally removed my mouth piece and the sweet taste of fresh air hit my lungs. I kept heaving until I finally got a breath that hit the bottom of my lungs, uttered the words “Holy $h!t what just happened” and immediately turned my thoughts as to how I was going to get out of here.
I struggled getting my fins off and around my neck so I could use both of my hands to climb. I could not balance and my limbs were shaking as I tried to collect myself and secure my gear for climbing. I was in knee deep water but new that could change in an instant.
Which way out?
I quickly surveyed the cliff faces as there was no way I was going back the way I came …. I needed to climb. Two of the cliff faces were shear all the way to the 150 foot top but the ocean side of the alcove was much lower and led to a small rock outcropping where I could rest and collect myself.
I started climbing the back wall in full wet dive gear. 45lb tank, 22lb weight belt, wet wet suit, dive light, mask, fins, etc. The wall was straight up and down but I only needed to get about 10 ft of elevation to reach a narrow ledge that led back over the water and to the rock outcropping.
The rocks were sharp as I wedged myself into a small crack and started working my way up the back wall. Foot and hand holds were very small but somehow I reached the ledge and began shuffling my feet from side to side over the alcove. I finally reached a spot on this rock outcropping that was not too steep and climbed up and onto the rock out cropping …. I was safe from the water but now what?
Survey my situation
Safely on top of the rock out cropping I quickly took off my heavy SCUBA gear and checked my immediate needs as I was dog tired and shaking uncontrollably from my ordeal as shock was setting in.
I was still trying to catch my breath but needed to assess any physical needs. My gloves were shredded and dripping some blood but nothing serious. I took my gloves off and yes, my hands were cut but would clot once they dried. Had a few cuts in my wet suit as well but no blood. I started squeezing my arms, legs and torso to see if anything hurt and my right side and both upper arms were sore but not too bad as I must have taken a couple of shots to the arms and ribs on the rocks. As I took a deep breath, I could feel some pain to my ribs but again, nothing I couldn’t live with. The back of my head hurt from the cliff wall and wave to the face but no blood. Considering what I had just gone through, I was extremely lucky and thankful to have so few injuries. “Thank you God”!
Now I needed to figure out a way to get out here. The rock outcropping was an area of about 15ft x 25ft and 20ft above the water that jutted out at the mouth of the notch and had water on 3 sides of it so my location was pretty safe, At my back was the 150ft mostly vertical cliff comprised of crumbly serpentine rock that would be very dangerous to climb. There was no safe way out …. So now what do I do.
Think about it
I was not in immediate danger at this point so I had time to think and evaluate. I was in shock but was warm in my wetsuit so shouldn’t have to worry about hypothermia and if I got too hot I could still cool myself in the water between sets additionally, I had almost a full tank of cold air. I did not have any fresh water so staying there until someone found me was not an option as this remote location could find me there for days without seeing a soul.
I laid down on the warming rock and relaxed trying to re-group physically and mentally. I kept thinking of the stories I used to read in Readers Digest when I was a kid about people’s life and death experiences and how bad decisions and panic lead to disaster. I had just made one bad decision that got me into trouble, and one good decision that got me out of immediate danger but I needed to make one more decision to get out of this predicament …. It has to be a good one.
I sat back up and surveyed my surroundings. The day was bright and warming and the sea was dead flat calm. I could see my usual dive spot with its comfortable and safe exit just a couple of hundred yards down the beach beckoning me to swim for it. I picked a likely entry spot from the rock outcropping that looked good and waited for about 5 minutes until the next set of small waves hit. When they did, all hell broke loose. These waves were small but the huge intervals (23 seconds) between waves caused massive water movement turning the once placid entry spot into a boiling cauldron of white water and boulders while the alcove again showed its whirlpool. This went on for about 3 minutes then returned to dead flat calm. I spent the next hour timing the interval between the sets of small waves and found them to be 10-15 minutes apart …. Could I make it?
I decided I would go for it and surface swim with mask n fins only as I could always come back with my rope and rescue my gear later. As I approached the 4 ft leap into the water I looked for swell and it all looked good however, the tide had dropped a bit. I looked south toward my destination and noticed the surface of the water was not calm as it had been just minutes before. The water was churning, choppy and brown and looked to have a massive rip tide.
I have been an ocean swimmer, diver, surfer since early childhood and also did a stint in the Navy as a helicopter pilot rescue swimmer so I feel I know the ocean and her moods. What I was seeing was deceiving and “deadly” water conditions as current and undertow were dredging sand from the bottom in 25 feet of water. Even the strongest swimmer would have little chance in these conditions … a water escape was not an option.
Since options 1 (waiting for help) and 2 (water escape) were no longer in play, I turned around and surveyed the cliff as my only way out. I pictured myself as a rock climber and mapped out diagonal routes with “safe spots” to rest and conserve energy with my next move in mind. I also considered the path with the least amount of vertical climbing as this would be a 150ft free climb … no rope!
Once I had planned out a route, I turned on my SCUBA tank and shot cold air into my face and down my wetsuit as there was no wind, I was getting hot and starting to sweat. The suit was pretty dry by now, not that heavy while providing excellent protection abrasion from the sharp rocks of the cliff face. I wore my tattered dive gloves and hard soled dive booties. The down side was, the suit was black and would absorb heat thereby raising my body temperature causing me to lose water and risk dehydration so I took off my hood and had to get up the cliff and walk the mile to the car fairly quickly.
The first 25 ft was no problem as it just like walking up the stairs but now I had to use my mind to execute the plan according to the rate in which I was expending my physical resources.
The next 30ft went as expected with a rest stop every 10ft. I’d followed my zig-zag pattern of climbing and was progressing well however, the foot and hand holds were getting steadily smaller the higher I climbed. I was continuing my climb in a diagonal line to my left following a fracture line in the rock and reached a dead end. Reversing my pattern and climbing up would require a shear 10ft vertical climb with few foot holds and no rest stops …. “This wasn’t happening, too dangerous”.
I descended back along the fracture line which required me to look down to find any footholds and saw how high I had already climbed … “not bad” I said to myself and settled into the previous rest stop.
I had mis-judged the vertical perspective from the bottom of the cliff, was a third of the way to the top and had to re-adjust my plan on the cliff face. The perspective was much different from this vantage as I could not see the whole face of the cliff, only 8-12 ft at a time. I was going to have to improvise on the fly and remember what I had seen during my original assessment.
At the rest stop, I noticed a short vertical climb and another rest stop right above me which would put me about where I wanted to be. The footholds were not really footholds at all but a series of small, sloped ledges about the width of a bic lighter that would crumble when you put weight on them, so rather than put a toe on a foothold, I would use the whole side of my boot to try to disperse my weight evenly across the entire ledge.
The short vertical climb required I put equal weight on all 4 hand and footholds and pulling/pushing with equal torque which required a lot of effort even though it was only a short distance. The last piece of the move required I put my foot on a previous hand hold as I reached the next rest stop. I did and it crumbled right from underneath me. Luckily I had 3 other good holds, re-positioned and rested with my face pressed firmly against the cliff, sharp rock digging into my cheek and neck.
I was sweating up a storm by this time so pushed myself to continue on following the pre-planned route. I had been on the cliff face for over an hour and was making slow but deliberate progress with few mishaps. I was testing rocks as hand holds now and if they moved or pulled out of the cliff, they couldn’t be used. My hands started bleeding again but the dirt quickly dried it up. My legs were shaking from lactic acid buildup again and sweat was dripping out the tears in my booties making the rocks slippery and footholds not as sure.
I was getting a little scared as I approached my last rest stop which was a good, comfortable one with a wide ledge so I could try to loosen up a bit. I was able to turn sideways a little and lean on the cliff a bit to take some of the weight off my arms and legs. I was 30 feet from the top but there was no rest stop in between. This was going to be a straight shot with no room for error.
I started thinking that I was very thirsty, hot, wet and really needed water or at least a slight breeze …. Nothing. I looked down over my right shoulder and saw the alcove 120ft below looking flat calm and the rock outcropping with my SCUBA gear on it. “What if I fell” I thought. “Probably hit the rocks even if I jumped out as far as I could, nah never make the water…. it would be over”. I looked at the cliff face directly across from me and noticed 3 California Condors on top of it. Beautiful in flight … amazing predator … why are they looking at me? … how long have they been watching me?
“Today is my birthday and instead of diving for jade I am here on the side of this crumbling cliff ….. HOW THE HECK DID I GET IN THIS MESS?
Get it together
Suddenly I realized I was drifting and not thinking about the task at hand …. “Get to the top”. I repositioned myself and prepared for the last 30 ft of the climb. It had short vertical sections that I would have to pull myself over and no place to stop and rest. My legs and arm were cramping, I needed water badly …. “don’t think about it, just tell everything to work hard”.
I started climbing up slowly at first, looking for the right holds until I got to the last vertical section. I could feel my adrenalin pumping and my muscles and body no longer hurt as I quickend my pace in anticipation of the top. I started digging, scratching clawing at the cliff leaving a trail of loose rock tumbling over the edge, plummeting to the bottom.
I could see the dry sage bushes at the top as the cliff became less steep and I practically sprinted the last five feet to flat ground.
My knees were firmly sunk into soft dirt with dry, gray sage brush all around me. I was breathing heavily and my body was numb and tingling. I felt like I was going to lose control of my bodily functions with simultaneous nausea, bowel and bladder movements. I was seeing stars and though my eyes were open, I was losing vision and things went black.
The next thing I remember was the feeling of warm, soft dirt on the side of my face and grit between my parched lips. I rolled over to see the condors still perched on the cliff directly across from me, an audience of 3 to witness this drama. 150ft below was a beautiful panoramic view of the cove with its churning water. No longer did a calm surface mask the energy and power of the ocean that was previously hidden as the dropping tide had exposed its true character.
I saw my dive gear on the rock outcropping far below and I even gave thought of leaving it however, without my gear I would loose my main source of income and I could not afford to replace it … I would have to come up with a plan to rescue my gear which meant, I was going to have to spend more time on the cliff face … this ordeal was far from over.
I got up on my feet and began my walk back to the car, still in my wetsuit. Yes I was hot but the thick suit had protected me from countless scrapes and cuts so I needed to stay in it as I walked through a thick, chest high underbrush entwined with poison oak.
The 75 yard trek was slow as there was no trail but the suit’s protection from the dry scrub was welcome indeed. Once I finally reached the trail, I un-zipped my wetsuit and folded it down to my waist as a flow of accumulated sweat and water brimmed over the top. The air felt awesome on my skin after being in that hot suit for almost 4 hours but I knew that I would be in it for the rest of the day rescuing my gear. I proceed slowly up the mile long trail to conserve energy as this was going to be a long day.
Once I reached the car, I grabbed the 6 gallon water jug and doused myself while drinking as much as I could. It was after 10am and I had plenty of time to eat something and come up with a plan. I lay down on the hood of my car in the cool shade and took a short nap, ate something then drank some more.
The Rescue Plan
I had to hike back to the original trail head where I began my day and retrieve my rope, then hike over to the cliff where my gear lay far below. To stay as cool as possible, I wore my wetsuit to my waist on the trail and only put it on when going through the scrub and on the cliff. I had also dumped my ripped up dive gloves for a pair of brand new leather palmed work gloves. Getting them on however, reminded me of how sore and swollen my hands were but I was grateful that they were dry and would provide me better grip and protection on the cliff face.
Once I got back to the cliff, I looked down again at my gear below. I did not want to go back on that cliff face … but I had to. “It’s going to be much easier with a rope to rappel down” I told myself so I started looking for an anchor for the rope.
There was nothing but scrub sage everywhere so I found the biggest bush and tied the rope around its base. “Better test it” and with one pull on the rope, the bush easily pulled right out of the ground …. “Great! So much for rappelling … I’m going to have to climb again”. I had plenty of rope to reach the bottom and spent the next half hour snaking about 50 ft of rope through, in and around numerous bushes figuring “if one bush pulls out, the other 12 bushes will hold me … in theory”
Standing on the edge of the cliff I spent over 2 hrs free climbing to safety, I could not believe I was going to do it again however, my gear, the tools for my livelihood lay at the bottom and I had to get them if I was going to pay rent and bills at the end of the month.
I did not trust my rope anchor so I decided to climb rather than rappel down the cliff again using the rope as a safety device rather than a primary climbing device supporting my whole weight.
I made it down the cliff rather quickly as the confidence the rope brought me was comforting and supported my weight through the vertical sections. Once at the bottom I surveyed all my gear, estimated the weight and footholds I would be using and decided one trip would prove too much weight to safely ascend the cliff again. I would have to make 2 trips.
I put on my tank and shoulder harness and felt the full 45 lbs on my shoulders as I was leaving weight, fins, light, mask, bag for the last trip. I was already sweating again and needed to get cool so I took my regulator and blew cold air on my face and down my wetsuit sat there for a couple of minutes then did it again until my tank was almost empty. Compressed air has weight to it and emptying my tank made my load a little lighter for the climb back up the cliff.
The climb went quickly and I was back to the top in less than a half hour, stopping at the appointed rest stops and using the rope to support my weight as little as possible. Once at the top I checked my rope anchor and found that it was sound. Back through the scrub, up the trail and back to the car to unload and cool off, drink, eat, rest. It was now 1:00pm.
On the way back down the trail for my last load, I reflected on the day’s events and how lucky I was to be alive. I also started thinking about the danger of one last trip down and up the cliff and to not get careless or get myself back into trouble.
Standing at the cliff one last time, I noticed how the shifting sun and lengthening shadows had again changed the entire face of the cove …. “What a beautiful place”.
Back down the cliff with a back pack, packed up my gear, secured it and strapped it on. Before the last climb, I took one last look around at the watery alcove that had held me in its grip against my will, at the moment calm as a mill pond. The rock outcropping that had been both my safe spot and prison and finally, the dangerous cliff that had been my challenge to overcome beckoning me one last time.
No longer was I afraid as I began my ascent up the cliff. I was now familiar with the route, footholds and, with the safety rope, made the climb pretty quickly. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the dirt patch did I begin realizing how sore and tired I was but I still had to pull up the rope, coil it and hike back to the car … “get back to work, the day is not over”.
Finally back at the car at 3:30pm and as I loaded every piece of equipment into the back, I was thankful. “Thank you tank and regulator for providing me air. Thank you fins for not breaking and providing me propulsion in the water”. As I was taking off my wetsuit I noticed a large bruise on my right side, bruising on my upper arms, and a few cuts on my knees and legs where the rocks had torn through the suit. My gloves were shredded and my hands were covered with cuts. I thanked them too.
With the car loaded and me dressed, I tried to get into the drivers seat and my leg muscles seized up while doing so and my arms ached pulling myself into the car. I laughed thinking how much worse it was going to feel after the 2 hr drive home.
The drive home from the cove in Big Sur is an epic and scenic one but my mind was not on the beautiful sights or sounds of the California Coast but rather on re-living the 9 ½ hour ordeal I had gone through and I kept wondering … “why”.
I have been a devout and struggling Christian for many years and believe everyone has a number. On this day it looked like my number was up on many occasions but incredibly, it was not. God was with me and easily could have taken me at any time but did not … “why”? “God’s ways are not our own” and he has a purpose for all of us. I became both encouraged and excited as I thought, “God spared me today because he has a purpose for me”.
This birthday “gift” had given me a new perspective and appreciation of life, living and growing into a person both me and my loved ones could be proud of. “My ways” throughout my life have been seen as “successful” by many but in reality, they have been empty victories that bear little or no fruit. I needed to make some changes in my life that would add meaning and purpose to mine and others lives.
It has been almost a year since the events of this day and, true to my word, I have made some changes in my life that have brought peace, true happiness and progress to me and my family but I feel more is required. As my next birthday approaches, I have recently been having nightmares reliving this experience waking up just before drowning or hitting the rocks after falling.
Some had suggested that this is a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) so I sought treatment. “The only way to overcome it is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past”.
As part of my treatment, I relive the event in detail through writing this story and now tell it almost daily. I believe that I will soon have victory over this condition and yes, it is now a part of who I am. However, I also believe that the writing of this story is also part of “God’s purpose for me” and when shared with others, will serve as a story of hope when facing extreme adversity in life and how God can change our perspective and our lives.