Survive!: My Fight for Life in the High Sierras

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9780743270243: Survive!: My Fight for Life in the High Sierras

When Peter DeLeo set out one Sunday morning on a sightseeing and photography trip over the central Sierra Nevada mountains in California, he had no idea that he would soon be fighting for his life with the odds stacked very much against him. DeLeo's single-engine plane encountered turbulence, and he and his two passengers crashed in the mountains. All three survived the accident but sustained multiple injuries. DeLeo had broken ribs, a shattered ankle, and a badly damaged shoulder. After assessing their situation, they decided that the passengers should remain with the plane while DeLeo would hike out to bring back help. It was already winter; he left the limited emergency supplies with the plane's passengers; and he was hampered by his injuries, but DeLeo was determined to get help. He found or improvised shelter at night, carefully warmed himself during the daytime, drank from small pools of melted snow and ice, and slowly but steadily made his way toward civilization. Suffering from exhaustion and on the verge of collapse, he found a hot spring that provided him with temporary warmth and insects to eat. Injuries, dehydration, malnutrition, and a two-day blizzard slowed him, and a rockslide nearly killed him just as he glimpsed the valley and highway that he so desperately sought, but DeLeo's courage saw him through. Meanwhile, Civil Air Patrol planes searched fruitlessly for the lost plane and for survivors; twice, DeLeo frantically tried to signal the search planes, but to no avail. When DeLeo finally reached a highway, he found it almost impossible to convince the authorities that he was the lost pilot who had been all but given up for dead. His astonishing survival, one of the most remarkable feats of endurance on record, made national and even international news. Now, for the first time, Peter DeLeo tells his remarkable story in gripping detail. His amazing saga is destined to become a classic.

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About the Author:

Peter DeLeo spent years recovering from his injuries before resuming his adventurous life. He has raced motorcycles professionally, founded and run a software company, and now manages real estate. Since his plane crash, survival, and recovery, he has motorcycled from California to the South American Andes, a one-way eighteen-month trip of more than 30,000 miles. He now lives in Connecticut and hopes soon to fly around the world.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: The Crash of Maule N5629J

November 27, 1994

Joshua Approach, Maule N5629-Juliet, over," I say.

Both of my passengers, who are wearing headphones, listen in with me. But all we hear is static.

"It's OK, Lloyd," I say. "They can't pick us up with these mountains obstructing our radio transmission. We usually make contact with them around Owens Valley."

I scan the instrument panel. The altimeter reads 12,000 feet above sea level, a safe altitude in this part of California's Sierra Nevada, even though the tallest peaks here rise to heights greater than 14,000 feet. Our airspeed is 145 mph, and our heading, as we fly toward the Inyo Mountains and Death Valley, is 020 degrees. Holding the plane straight, I adjust the elevator trim, a wheel on the floor that helps level the plane in flight, and Maule N5629-Juliet smooths out.

"Boy, it's cold up here," Lloyd mutters through chattering teeth. "But I love it," he adds with an ear-to-ear grin. It's clear by the look on his face that Lloyd Matsumoto, a fifty-seven-year-old drug and alcohol counselor for the city of Long Beach, is having the time of his life. It's his first trip and, captivated by all these awesome views, he is not sure what to photograph first, so he snaps photos at everything he sees.

Cold air is seeping into the cockpit, so I check the exterior air temperature gauge. It reads ten below zero. No wonder I feel chilled. I pull off a glove and zip up my jacket.

Also penetrating the cockpit is the deafening roar of the 235- horsepower engine and the chopping rhythm of the propeller. Fortunately, our headsets muffle most of this extraneous noise and the three of us can communicate easily through the onboard intercom system.

"Which way this time?" asks Waverly "Wave" Hatch from the seat behind me and Lloyd. Unlike Lloyd, Wave is an experienced flyer. He knows that from our present position, we can head over to Yosemite, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, or Owens Valley. From Mount Whitney we can fly to Lee Vining, a small airport resting at an elevation of 6802 feet, slightly north of Mammoth on the shores of Mono Lake close to the Nevada state line.

"Why don't we head east and check out Mount Whitney and then go on to Owens Valley?" I suggest.

I scan the skies for other aircraft. Not one in sight. What an extraordinary view. Although Alaska can boast the sixteen highest peaks in the United States, including the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, California's Mount Whitney, rising to 14,494 feet, is the tallest peak in the lower forty-eight states. Discovered in 1864 by the American geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney, this towering peak rises at the eastern border of Sequoia National Park. Mount Whitney and the surrounding 13,000-foot peaks are magnets for climbers and hikers from all over the world. From the air, one can see the sides of Mount Whitney have been burnished by ancient glaciers that once flowed down to the valleys of the Kern and Owens rivers. These days no glaciers remain, but a ten-foot snow base, from recent snowstorms, now blankets the mountain.

Not more than a hundred miles from the lofty Mount Whitney is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Death Valley, an area the size of Connecticut, and in the summer the hottest spot in North America. Tourists flock to be photographed alongside a sign on the desert floor that reads "BADWATER, 282 feet/66 meters below sea level." At the peak of the summer season, temperatures reach 125 degrees and more.

This remote area is brimming with wildlife. As we fly over the mountains and across the high desert floor, we can spot deer and coyote in the skag brush and in the ravines cut out of the earth by the hard rains that flood the desert floor. Mount Whitney's windswept summit is home to hardy flocks of rosy finches. When they are not looking for handouts from hikers, these tame little brown and pink birds devour the insects that have been blown up the slope from lower elevations or have become trapped in melting ice or frozen on the surface of the snowfields. More visible in and around the lakeshore are the sage grouse, palm warblers, tundra swans, hawks, owls, ducks, Western bluebirds, American pipits, and indigo buntings in an array of sizes and colors. As soon as they hear the roar of the plane over the lake, they flock together in tight formation and their movements suddenly become sharp, erratic, and ungraceful.

The Maule's reflection in Mono Lake below is calming and gives me a sense of inner peace. This is one of the true pleasures of flying. Framing the view are clouds of all shapes and sizes. I scan the instrument panel, paying special attention to our fuel consumption. With a piston-driven engine that has a carburetor instead of fuel injection, the pilot must adjust the fuel and air mixture to achieve maximum engine performance, using the Lean Mixture knob. When the knob is pulled out the fuel is reduced, making the mixture "leaner." Push the knob in and the mixture is enriched. If the flow of fuel is excessive, the engine underperforms, horsepower is reduced, and fuel is consumed unnecessarily.

The plane is equipped with three transparent doors, two up front and one in back. Most people who have flown in the Maule remember the "greenhouse" visibility these three Plexiglas doors provide. To some, the Maule is a flying glass-bottom boat.

What we see all around us is breathtaking. The majestic mountain peaks are covered with freshly fallen snow. The Spanish settlers named the Sierras for Spain's highest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, which means "snowy range." Here and there, we can see giant sequoias rising a hundred feet or more above the white earth.

I follow the Kern River with its frozen waterfalls and gigantic pillars of ice. Every time I pass here I'm inspired again to take up ice climbing. Then, after I gaze across this staggering wilderness, so rugged and frozen, I'm glad to be flying up here at 12,000 feet where I am able to take the easy way out of this wilderness by a mere turn of the steering yoke. This section of the river is bounded by steep, rocky canyon walls. At the river's edge, huge boulders covered with snow and ice are positioned like sentinels guarding the rapids.

As I assimilate the mountainous landscape, I continually check for a place where I could turn the craft around, or ditch it should that be necessary. It would be a tough crash landing out here in this wilderness. I look for a clearing, a patch of white. Unknown to Lloyd and Wave, whenever I fly, I frequently scan for such a clearing, even though I am confident I'll never need one.

"OK, Wave," I say. "In fifteen minutes I'll switch tanks and start burning fuel from the other wing."

"We're right on schedule," says Wave.

In order to equalize the weight in the wings so that the plane will fly straight and level with little input from the controls, I have to burn off the fuel equally in each wing. This is accomplished by setting a stopwatch at one-hour marks, then switching the fuel petcock from wing to wing.

I am chilled to the bone. "These Maule heaters ain't worth shit," I shout out in frustration to no one in particular. Part of the problem is that the Maule's Plexiglas doors are not adequately sealed to prevent cold air from seeping into the cockpit. Moreover, I'm not adequately dressed for the cold. All I have on is a T-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a lightweight double-layer ski jacket, briefs, long johns, jeans, gym socks, and sneakers. Fortunately, I have my Gore-Tex ski gloves and sunglasses to protect my eyes from the intense sun rays. And for sentimental reasons, I have my personal Maule cap, a white baseball cap with a picture of a Maule embroidered on it.

"If you want, we can make that heater work a whole lot better," says Wave. He not only is a skilled pilot and professional aircraft mechanic, but is gifted at making and fixing anything. I yearn for the day when I can fly my Maule through cold country with the luxury of a good heater on board.

It is so cold in the cockpit that each of us exhales thick puffs of vapor with each breath. I pull up my sweatshirt hood. Within moments I feel a bit warmer. By contrast, the prop and engine love the cold. Colder air is denser, and the prop bites it better. I check the clock. It is only 10:25 A.M., an ideal time for mountain flying because the air is still dense, crisp, and cool. In just a few hours, the sun will start to warm the air and thin it out.

No matter the terrain, I always pay attention to the slightest change in atmosp...

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