Boy Scouts Rescue L.A. Couple from Mountain

Aug. 14--His body tingling with static electricity and being pelted with hail as thunder rolled overhead, Eagle Scout Brian Phillips of Fresno dropped to his knees on the top of 14,500-foot Mount Whitney.

No more photos, he thought to himself, it's time to run. Hastening downhill from the Sierra peak, the 23-year-old ran into a newlywed couple, nearly at the top.

He urged them to turn back, but the wife was determined. This was more than a honeymoon hike for Jessica Aguilera of Los Angeles.

Although the 36-year-old had been vomiting, she was on a mission. Her mother died a couple years ago and Aguilera was carrying a dried rose from her memorial service. She planned to crumble the petals on the peak in her mother's honor.

She had tried to reach the summit once before, but spring snows forced her to turn back. Not this time, Aguilera thought. Not when she was so close.

Then, she fainted. Phillips caught her before she hit the ground.

"Brian looked into my eyes and laid me down and put my feet up," Aguilera said, recalling that she gained consciousness seconds later. "He told my husband I had the bends symptoms."

Prior to their ascent of Mount Whitney, the couple had been scuba diving in Belize. Now they were in real danger. They were near the top of the highest mountain in the continguous U.S. in a thunderstorm, in the late afternoon with no overnight provisions and an 11-mile hike back to the car. It was a recipe for disaster, Aguilera said.

But thanks to Phillips and other members of his Hanford-based Boy Scout troop, the couple survived the ordeal earlier this month. Now back at home, they credit the scouts with rescuing them.

It didn't look good at first.

Aguilera was dehydrated -- she'd left her water at the base of the mountain -- and was suffering from altitude sickness. Now, she could no longer stand on her own. Her husband, Rodney Aguilera, 32, was also feeling ill.

But Phillips and another nearby Eagle Scout, George Myers, 21, of Laton, gave the couple water, food and the jackets off their backs.

When they found the newlyweds on Aug. 1, the Scouts were on their fifth day of a six-day Boy Scout backpack trip. Eight boys ages 13 to 16 with Mormon Troop 496 from Hanford, were further ahead, led by two adults and two other Eagle Scouts.

Phillips and Myers knew they had to get the couple to the Scouts' campsite about four miles away -- and 3,500 feet lower. They put Jessica Aguilera's arms around their shoulders or walked near her, guarding her from a potential fall as they descended a steep, rocky ridge.

Jessica Aguilera was in a "daze." She often tried to close her eyes and sleep, but the Eagle Scouts wouldn't let her.

"They kept her coherent," Rodney Aguilera said. "They kept asking her to tell them about me. They kept asking her the same questions, and she couldn't remember that she answered them -- for almost the next three hours."

Once they got past some dangerous drop-offs, Myers went ahead -- down a series of 99 switchbacks -- to alert the troop.

The boys and their leaders mobilized. A few rushed up the trail to help -- a member of their group and two other hikers -- and the rest set up shelter.

Miraculously, the group had found a stray, bagged tent on the side of the trail hiking down. Failing to find its owner, they set it up for the Aguileras. They also found sleeping bags inside a nearby search-and-rescue tent that wasn't being used that night.

The next morning, the group shared a prayer for the newlyweds -- bringing Jessica Aguilera to tears -- and found medicine to help with her altitude sickness.

"They opened up their hearts and took us in and gave us shelter, in more ways than just physical," Rodney Aguilera said.

After the couple's symptoms eased later that day, the boys hiked with them to the Whitney portal trailhead, near the eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine, to make sure they would be all right.

And early the following morning, all the boys, except one who had to work, were at church. Their Mormon bishop, Jonathan Buckley, who helped lead the backpack trip, was near tears when he saw them that day.

Buckley is proud of many selfless actions he saw during the trip -- including boys who soaked their boots forging a stream to help younger boys cross; and one who swapped his dry sleeping bag for a wet one belonging to a boy who was shivering.

"If we had more young men like that," Buckley said, "I think our nation and our communities would be all right."

Jessica Aguilera said of her rescuers' actions: "If anything can restore your faith in humanity, that would be it."

When she thought about Phillips, who stayed with her throughout the entire ordeal, she started to cry. "He could have easily run down the mountain and made sure his troop was OK and he was OK, but he didn't leave our side."

Phillips said simply that it was "the right thing to do."

Jessica Aguilera said she and her husband should have given themselves more time to acclimate to the higher elevation after returning from their scuba dive in Belize.

"Never go scuba diving and then try to climb a really tall mountain," she said. "That was the stupidest thing that I've ever done in my life."

The Aguileras are immensely grateful to those who helped them.

"They saved our life, I have no doubt about it," Rodney Aguilera said. "I kept saying the whole way down the mountain, 'You guys need capes.' They were our superheroes that day and they came to our rescue."

As Jessica Aguilera was being helped down Mount Whitney in the rain, she was praying to her parents, who are both dead, to please make the storm go away. A beautiful rainbow soon appeared that ended at the Boy Scouts' camp.

"We didn't make it to the top," she said, "but we made it to the end of the rainbow."

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

Copyright 2014 - The Fresno Bee

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