Family trapped atop Central California waterfall rescued after sending SOS message in bottle
Curtis Whitson felt sick to his stomach when he realized that he, his girlfriend and his 13-year-old son were suddenly stranded on an isolated stretch of California's Arroyo Seco tributary. They had reached the most difficult part of their four-day floating and camping trip in June, and they were trapped atop a raging, 40-foot waterfall.
A rope that was supposed to be secured at the top of the chute - the only safe way down - was missing. There was no way to climb out of the gorge.
A sturdy rope had been attached to the slippery rock wall when Whitson had made the same journey seven years before. At the time, he had carefully rappelled down the side of the waterfall in 15 minutes and continued his adventure.
Thoughts raced through Whitson's mind. Heavy spring rains had likely washed the rope away. There was no other way to safely get down. He had packed a rope in his camping gear, but he estimated that the water was too swift and high to attempt to attach his rope and rappel down. Friends knew they were in Arroyo Seco, but it might be several days before a search party was dispatched.
There was no cell service. He desperately needed a plan.
Whitson looked at his lime-green Nalgene water bottle, and he suddenly had an idea: He scratched "HELP!" on each side of the bottle and scribbled an SOS note on a piece of paper with the date, June 15, and their whereabouts - then tucked it inside. He tossed the bottle over the water chute and silently begged the universe for somebody downstream to find it.
It was a very long shot.
"We've done all we can do," he recalled telling his girlfriend, Krystal Ramirez, and son Hunter Whitson after he dropped the bottle over the roiling chute. "The only thing left to do now is wait."
Remarkably, they didn't wait long.
The trio made their way a few yards upstream to a strip of sand and crafted an SOS sign with rocks.
Then they climbed into their sleeping bags. About midnight, they were awakened by a voice from a loudspeaker:
"This is search and rescue - you have been found! Stay put and we'll be back to get you tomorrow morning."
Whitson could barely fathom that his message in a bottle was discovered within hours of tossing it over the waterfall.
"It blows me away how it all came perfectly together," he said. "What are the odds?"
Whitson, 44, a self-employed glass and door repairman from Morro Bay, California, set out on June 13 with his ninth-grade son and Ramirez, a 34-year-old bartender, eager to show them the wild beauty of the Arroyo Seco - a 40-mile tributary of the Salinas River in Central California.
"It's a paradise off the beaten path - a gorgeous place to take a float trip and get away from the crowds," he said. "We were all looking forward to camping along the river, under the stars."
The first night, they built a campfire and pan-fried a steak, serving it with quinoa and having chocolate protein bars for dessert. The last thing any of them expected was that they would become stranded, Whitson said.
On the third day, when the trio realized that they couldn't rappel down the wall to continue their journey, Whitson initially carved "We need help!" into a stick with his pocketknife and tossed it down into the water. When he noticed that the stick was circling in the pool but not going through the narrows, he decided to try again, using his water bottle.