Two hikers from San Luis Obispo County were on the first of an 11-day backpacking trip on the High Sierra Trail to Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Forest when they were stopped dead in their tracks.
Between the backpackers and the path to their camp site was a mountain lion they described as bigger than a great dane and “rippled with muscles.”
“I was not sure what the cat was going to do and thought, ‘It could jump, and it might jump on us,’ ” said Brian McKinney, a project manager for a software company who lives in Atascadero.
Luckily, he and his trail partner, Sam Vonderheide, a math teacher at Arroyo Grande High School, survived the encounter and completed their hike to the top of the mountain. They returned home Thursday with a harrowing story and video proof.
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“I’ve never had any encounter like this,” McKinney said. “The mountain lion was quite unusual, particularly one exhibiting this behavior.”
The ordeal started about 6:30 p.m. July 23 when Vonderheide first saw the cat ahead on the trail, about a mile west of the junction with Alta Trail. McKinney didn’t believe him, but he started shooting video just in case.
What he captured shows the long-tailed lion trotting around a corner and up a rock, where it stared down the camera’s lens at the men. But it’s what happened after the camera was put away that added to the fear of the encounter.
“After the video, the cat was in the way of us getting to our camp, and we wanted to get by,” McKinney said. “For a good 20 to 25 minutes, we tried to scare it, to make noise, we threw small stones and nothing. It just looked at us. For 20 minutes (the lion) was literally laying, lounging on the trail.”
With the sun setting, the men retreated from their position to strategize their next move. After awhile, the lion strolled back around the corner, and the men took careful steps forward to discover the large cat had taken a new position: perched above them.
“It got a little more aggressive. He got on his hind legs,” McKinney said.
“We said, ‘forget it’ and turned around. We just hiked 2 miles in the opposite direction to camp in a different place,” he said. “It was extra tough to get to sleep that night.”
Mountain lion sightings are rare and attacks are an extremely unlikely event, although they have happened. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, there were 14 verified mountain lion attacks on humans between March 1986 and September 2014 — three of which were fatal.
Here are some tips if you do encounter one, according to the National Park Service:
▪ Do not approach a mountain lion; Give them a path to escape.
▪ Do not run from a mountain lion as it may stimulate the cat’s instinct to chase.
▪ Do not crouch or bend over, giving the appearance of a four-legged prey animal.
▪ Appear larger than you are. Open your jacket, wave your arms, use a loud voice.
▪ Fight back if attacked using rocks, sticks, tools, or even bare hands. Try to remain standing.