Ironically, it is called Hell Hole. Ironic because it is the place I witnessed the most miraculous event in my life.
Deep in the Sierras directly west of Lake Tahoe as the crow flies and roughly half the distance between highway 80 to the north and highway 50 to the south, Hell Hole Reservoir is out in the middle of nowhere. A 3 hour drive from Sacramento, it takes nearly the same time to drive from Tahoe even though it is just 10 miles away over the Crest of the Sierras.
It is a good size lake and easily found on local maps. People can see it’s there. But its remote… only a handful of adventurous fisherman and a few random visitors are there on any day during the summer season. And summer is the only season. For most of the year it is inaccessible except maybe by snowmobile.
And…according to the laws of supply and demand, the lake should be teeming with trout. A big ass lake with clear fresh alpine water nestled between high mountains of forested hills and rocky outcroppings and nothing else in sight. Perfect for trout. No competition for fish… if anyone was crazy enough to drive all the way out there, surely they would be repaid with trout-o-plenty.
Despite its remoteness, you can still get there by car if you are comfortable with intuitive mountain navigation and not seeing another car (or more likely truck) for a while. Anyway, it is about a deep off the beaten path as you can get if you were driving a Prius in the mountains.
But Billy and I werent driving a Prius. Actually, for a rare time in many, it was my turn at the wheel. I was driving a 1997 Toyota 4X4 that had been through hell and back. A second hand truck purchased with rock resistant body armor, a gun rack and a little dash placard that said “Rubicon Run 1997”. The little beast had plenty of guts to make it just about anywhere, and had actually done a direct route to Tahoe through some crazy bouldering shit when it was just a pup. We fit in. Important on occasion up in that area.
The drive had begun just east of Sacramento where we both grew up and went to school together. From the foothills not far from where gold was discovered in Coloma through little foothill/mountain towns like Georgetown, our journey continued on progressively smaller roads until our destination.
We had been up in the area a few weeks prior to try our luck at some other not-so-remote fishing spots in the area. That time we were in Billy’s newer Toyota 4×4, not quite a rough and tumble as mine, but it still had some street cred up there. About an hour before Hell Hole and just beyond the turnoff from the main road is Uncle Tom’s Cabin – an old trappers outpost built in the 1850s. Only a few hundred yards off the “main” road, it was just a short drive on a fairly well maintained dirt horseshoe that connected to a small community of cabins and various structures.
it didnt look like it had changed much in the past 150 years. It is technically a bar or at least a “watering hole”, but the menu is decidedly basic. Canned beers straight out of an ice chest, and the decor is exactly what you would expect…rustic. A few barstools and maybe a bench and a few chairs….and a couch… a really tired couch against one wall.
Besides the very authentic cabin interior, the most noticeable feature inside were the hundreds, if not thousands of $1 bills with notes scrawled across them on the ceiling. It was nearly impossible to find a spot to add one.
I had come to realize over the years that the “one spot” that was open, was probably just used by the locals to buy the next round with the passersby’s money. Like much of the area, it was a place for locals…and with a few exceptions, not exactly cosmopolitan in terms of openness to city folk or anything more than superficial welcomings to outsiders. There was always a small, colorful cast of characters in the place, either up in the area to hunt, fish, shoot, or most commonly jeepers and 4x4s headed up into the mountains to play… just like Billy and I had done previously.
But Billy and I weren’t off-roading it this time. We were taking the cutoff and going to Hell Hole for trout. A week to the day before he got married, it was a great excuse to get away and a great get away destination – our last hurrah before he tied the knot and was “tied down”. It was a destination that said… “this day means something” – if anything, just because we spent 3 damn hours driving to get there.
Hell Hole reservoir was blasted out of the side of a mountain. Literally. Providing an awesome geological “hole” for a reservoir… the basin was surrounded by mountains just a ridge or two from the Crest of the Sierras. To build a lake, PG & E and/or the army corps of engineers merely had to blast through half the side of a mountain, push some rocks over, let the creek flow…and bam… lake.
Well, I’m sure it was a lot more complicated than that… but that was the gist of it. It was a basically a lake that was made a lot bigger through a hell of a lot of explosives and some engineering in the mid 1960s.
As we drove in, we kept towards the west side with the dam and figured we would fish from the shoreline and outlet area there. The vast majority of the lake was entirely inaccessible without a boat and maybe there were 10 on the water that day – most probably somewhere around a bend. We basically had the lake to ourselves…and we were going to kill it. The weather was perfect, and we could fish anywhere we could reach.
But we were going to take it easy. Today was going to be a relaxing day. We had done some crazy ass hikes before and had our share of adventures… but the drive up was about the extent of our craziness. We werent bringing backcountry gear, or a ton of beer as we often did. Just a sixpack of Sierra Nevada pale ale, a couple fishing poles, and a little backpack with some lures and power bait. Simple. As it should be on a day like this.
It was just about spending some quality “bro” time together.
We had a great talk on the way up about life and shit…things you regularly talk about with your closest friends… but seldom anyone else. Those talks were to continue as we pulled in trout after trout.
I drove in as far as I could to get us as close as possible… across the half-mountain to the northwest of the lake. I say half-mountain because when the engineers blasted, they took out a huge portion of the hillside. So, not really a mountain, but a shit ton of granite was exposed in a brutal fashion. You could see each and everyone drill hole they made as they pushed down through the sheer granite walls. The edge was vertical – maybe a couple hundred feet high in total. They drilled straight down and blasted all the rock into the center where it was pushed across the ravine to build the dam and other retaining walls. They also built a small service road part way up the side and a bridge across a sheer granite spillway tucked up against the cliff.
We got out of the truck and surveyed the shoreline for our desired fishing spot. The rocky retainment area across the other side of the bridge looked the best. Directly below us was the outlet area for the lake and actually looked like it could be a good spot too… if we wanted to repel straight down 60 feet and fish from a ledge (if we could find one).
Anyway, we grabbed our stuff and walked the 500 yards or so over the bridge and retainment wall to the “best” spot on the lake. We fished… and fished… and fished – passively, actively, always expecting some big mountain monster trout to at least bite… but nothing. Shit. Well, that was a big waste of a long drive. We struck out big time. Didnt see shit, get a bite or anything.
Well, at least we had a couple beers and some great scenery for a few hours… And so we began our little walk back to the truck.
Billy was always restless. He often overflowed with energy and emotion that counter-balanced, my generally calm, rational demeanor. It is probably why we enjoyed our times together. He constantly challenged me to push myself further, have more fun, and generally enjoy life more. I often provided the cautious nudge to keep us from going off the rails… but I must admit I was occasionally the instigator as some other friends have reminded me as well.
As we walked back to the truck and across the bridge, we looked down at the dry, empty spillway littered with debris. Mountain debris… logs, branches, boulders, rocks, more logs and sticks and bark to fill in the gaps. Moving timbers that big, this spillway must have flowed balls at some point. Dozens of logs at least 20 ft in length and a foot or two in diameter. Hell Hole definitely had a fury in the spring.
But now the lake was calm… gradually receding as the main outlet emptied into the creek a couple hundred feet below. The spillway had slowly revealed itself over the course of the summer. It was the horizontal extension of the huge granite half-mountain to my left. Nothing but rock, rocks, and mountain rubbish. Impressive in scale actually.
We were only about 100 yards away from the truck when Billy started to have his fun for the day. He started rock rolling.
There were plenty of small boulders along the blasted out maintenance road we were on and Billy was taking pride in sending them all mercilessly to their death over the edge of the cliff. Many times you could see the impacts as the boulders bounced or cascaded off the sheer granite walls to the rocky anvil below. The noise itself was entertaining though. Physics at it’s best. Mass, gravity and energy.
As we got closer to the truck, the sounds were often punctuated by splashes as the rocks found water. It was difficult to tell has deep the water was, but whether it was rock hitting rock, or rock hitting water, the sounds echoed back in a triumphant tone.
Maybe 50 ft from the truck… maybe less… the scarcity of the boulders left few victims for Billy to fell. But there were some bigger ones slightly off the road towards the edge of the cliff that appeared poised to bring us a spectacular show of thunderous impacts.
Fearlessly Billy surveyed the potential candidates. He had a few feet of gravel secured rocks to choose from… Immediately I saw him lock on to a big one. Way further down than I would be comfortable though. Hell, i was already 10 feet back from the edge.
“Billy, be careful”
….and what was quickly countered with a dismissive “Eh…wh..” turned into instant panic. Billy’s face was full of sheer terror in a millisecond.
I could see the gravel erode beneath one of his feet… then the other. The large candidate rock seemed to offer momentary relief as his fingers suddenly went from prying to pulling to pleading. It was so slow. I still remember each moment more clearly than just about anything in my life.
Maybe 12 feet of the gradual gravel ledge – two body lengths. That is all he had to work with. His feet were already 6 ft down… so he really had 6 feet of earth remaining before the edge. His panicked gaze towards me quickly turned to the task at hand as he processed every potential saving hold. His feet were missing everything. There was nothing for him there… each furiously frantic step impacted a sandy, gravely, mush and the slide continued.
His eyes and hands were doing the real work. In what could have taken hours to plan, every potential hold and secure point was checked by his hands instantaneously. Maybe 2 seconds…tops.
All failed…and no more options really had a chance. And Billy new it. He had exhausted every possible out he had and what I saw next was absolutely the most remarkable thing I have ever witnessed in my life.
Just when every single option had been exhausted and I was watching Billy slowly erode towards his horrific fate below… he recognized it. Some last split second instinct told him to try in a different way. And he did. He coiled. He coiled with every single muscle in his body. He let is upper body slide towards his legs as he harnessed every ounce of energy from his entire body to give himself a last chance. Probably the only last chance he would ever have. At the apex of his maximum potential energy… as he was momentarily crouched and still sliding towards the edge…
Billy used every reserve of life in his being to… let go.
Our eyes reconnected as he left the task at hand to the universe. We looked at each other as he unleashed the corked beast of energetic mass – and suddenly pushed away in a poetically beautiful reverse swan dive over the edge. In an instant his body was flat… hurling away from the cliff into the unknown.
We saw each other for a moment… until we couldn’t. The cliff was so damn steep. As he slid and suddenly leapt, I ran over as close to the edge as I could, but still couldn’t see him fall beyond the first 15 or 20 ft. He was gone.
I knew what was coming. I had heard it repeatedly for the past 20 minutes. I was waiting for it. But there I stood, thinking about everything. How I would get to him. If any boats were nearby… what I would tell his family…his fiancee. Everything was flashing before me as I waited.
The only way I can describe what came next was… the sound of a horrific splash. It was ugly…then silence.
Billy was completely silent as he sprang backward and didnt make any sound for the 60 feet to the bottom. There were no screams, no yelling. No cascading sound of collateral rocks or gravel. The only sound was the distinct horrific splash and then silence.
In what seemed like an eternity, I stood there. Processing everything. Silence. I tried getting closer to the edge, but could not see straight down. I looked at my options…none were good. I could run to the left and try to find a boat or run the other back the way we walked and try to make my way around to him. Each option seemed like it would take far too long. I could only imagine Billy’s contorted or lifeless body below, his family and friends, and the excruciating task ahead.
I was in shock.
A splash… and then another…
I was trying with every mental and physical bit of courage I had to get closer to see… and then I saw it. Ripples…waves… his body… he was crawling in the water. Oh shit. How can I help?… I was frantically looking at the rescue options…none were good. How can I get to him? Damnit.
He slowly pulled himself to a half submerged rock. “What’s broken? What hurts?” I yelled in desperation still trying to figure out how I was going to help, or get help.
Silence. He sat maybe in 6 inches of water, on a rock, 65 feet below me. Head down…his body seemingly intact. “What’s broken? What hurts?” I yelled again in agonizing anticipation of the futility of the moment.
Then Billy said calmly. “I dont think anything”.
“What’s broken? What hurts?” I yelled again.
…Billy calmly answered. “I dont think anything” as I watched him look at his own body in amazement.
“Holy shit! Are you telling me you are okay???” Billy simply said, “yeah, I think so”.
I was so overcome with emotion I was already jumping around at the edge the cliff. In complete disbelief I asked again “So, you’re okay?”. “Yes” Billy said. I vividly remember my next question preceding one of the best moments in my life. “So you’re telling me it’s okay to laugh?” And there I was, hysterically jumping around like a madman, yelling and laughing in uncontrolled relief for a few seconds.
Billy just sat there… I told him I would run around and see him below. I ran, and ran, practically skipping with excitement, while simultaneously sprinting unexhausted to our reunion. Everything was in a complete haze as I made my way back to where we were fishing a short time before. Miraculously, Billy was making the same journey below, walking through the water and along the shore. We finally met up not far from our fishing spot along the other side of the bridge along the rocky embankment of the dam. He had walked in what appeared to be an unhindered manner and we basically started crying when he was about 50 feet away…
Then in some surreal misalignment of events, he stumbled and hit his knee on a rock. Billy momentarily stopped to assess the damage. “F********k” he said in pain as blood ran down his leg. But he kept walking and soon we met and hugged at the shoreline.
We had both experienced something truly amazing and were overwhelmed with emotion. I expected to see the crumpled mess of a friend after the fall… but there he was standing before me… just fine. The only visible wound was the slight bit of blood running down his lower leg from the stumble I had just seen. After a long embrace, he turned around and took off his shirt to show me where he had fallen. Then I saw it. A single bruise. A single bruise that stretched across the entire length of his body. From his ankle to his shoulder it was completely solid across 60% of his back. He had landed perfectly flat on his back in God knows how much water.
We cried in disbelief and amazement for 3 hours until we got back home.
A few days later I still had trouble processing what I had seen. I grabbed my camera and jumped in my truck. A few hours later I was back there trying to reconcile what happened. I walked all the way around to the base of the cliff where he had fallen. Nothing made sense. The lake had receded further and his landing spot was now just exposed rock. The edge of a lake was another 100 feet away now. I spent probably an hour walking around through huge boulders, jagged rock ridges, and various debris trying to find where he had landed. I looked above to line up the path with the road and my truck and the spot he had likely slipped. I took pictures. The only place I was able to find as a possible landing spot was the size of a twin bed. In the area the size of a football field there was only a very small patch of sandy gravel free of any object that would have killed him instantly. And even then, had he not landed perfectly flat… he would have died. It was 65 ft and only 3 feet of water at the very most.
I still don’t understand. But I do know that had Billy not “let go” things would have been drastically different. That was his only option.