Sunday, October 12, 2008

"UFO Hunters": The Tikaboo Death March

Up at the head of the column, the director went into crisis mode and began radioing instructions on how to distribute Ken's equipment so the shoot could go on. Everyone halted and waited for orders. As the rest of us at the front caught our breath, we began to ask a simple question.

"Who's Ken?"

Continued from Part I (but read this one first)

The production company for UFO Hunters first contacted me about a month before their Area 51 shoot. I said I was willing to guide them around, and I recommended a hike to Tikaboo Peak, the last vantage point where you can see the secret Groom Lake base. We discussed camping on the mountaintop, but I recommended the Tikaboo basecamp instead, so we didn't have to haul camping equipment on foot. I said the best time to view the distant base is first thing in the morning when the sun is behind you, and I recommended making two hikes from basecamp: one in the daytime to haul the equipment, then a second hike at night without equipment, after everyone knew the trail and had gotten some sleep.

They finally decided to climb the mountain in a single trip at night, at about 2am, with all their equipment and without camping. I advised against it, since the trail was difficult enough for most people in the day; doing it for the first time at night with full gear would add another layer of risk. They proceeded with the nighttime plan anyway, so I shifted gears and tried to think through all the contingencies and do what I could to make their plan work. I would be assisted by Agent X, who was also experienced on Tikaboo, and together we would try to keep these naïve L.A. greenies from killing themselves.

I meet the crew a day and a half before the hike when we filmed scenes near the Janet terminal in Las Vegas. (This sequence would appear after the Tikaboo hike in the finished product.) The crew looked young and healthy, which relieved some of my anxiety, but I still felt trepidation as I headed north to Alamo the following night (Wednesday) for the 11pm muster.

The crew had taken over the Windmill Ridge Motel in Alamo, and when I arrived at 10:00pm, things were already in motion. Big cases of equipment and supplies were being loaded into three 4WDs, an equipment van and an RV. This was a complex production, and it was moving smoothly. I learned then that the director and three other crew members had already taken the hike the night before. I was impressed! None of the four had been to the peak before, and they had hiked after midnight without a moon, based on my published instructions and GPS coordinates from the internet. This is exactly what I would have done in their shoes: a dry run. It showed me they had taken control of their fate and were not going to be swept along by it.

The expedition headed out promptly at 11pm, getting to the Tikaboo basecamp at about midnight. At my suggestion, they were going to film an interview around a campfire. I had wanted a number of people to chat around the campfire, including at least Agent X, but the script didn't call for others to be on the mountain, so it was just me and the host supposedly camping and hiking alone (pretending not to see the other 13 people). Earlier in the day, I had prepared an unlit fire at our actual basecamp, but this was too far from the generator, so we built another fire 200 yards below. The generator was unloaded and a big overhead light was set up above the fire -- a rather bizarre addition to any wilderness campsite (photo). The host and I, both professionals, knocked off an interview fairly quickly, and the team of 15 prepared for the main assault on the peak at about 2am.

The hike would be only about a mile, but it was a strenuous mile, climbing about 1000 feet on a sometimes dicey trail. This is tough enough for most people, but we were also hiking at a high elevation, starting at 7000 feet, which can be twice as hard for those who are used to sea level.

The producers had thought of everything. They calculated the equipment they would need and the number of bodies required to haul it. To help with the operation, two extra "Sherpas" were brought in from Las Vegas. One was a certified EMT in case there were any medical emergencies. I had initially dismissed the idea of an EMT as prudish. Do you take a paramedic with you every time you hike in the woods? But as the size and complexity of the operation became apparent, an EMT seemed increasingly prudent. Both he and the other Sherpa were members of a hiking club in Las Vegas, so a least there would be two more sturdy hikers in the group.

Agent X was part of the show but not part of the script for Tikaboo, so he went ahead of the rest of us and marked the trail with glow sticks hung from trees. We figured this would be a wise measure to keep everyone on the trail and provide an escape route in case anyone needed to go down at night. Now, it was just a matter of coaxing everyone up the steep trail.

The hike began on a relatively gentle slope that didn't bother anyone, but then the trail got steeper and steeper and a few hikers started falling behind. I was leading the column, followed by those who had been there the night before. It was easier for them this time because now we were following an established trail instead of GPS coordinates. Like similar communal hikes, our expedition began to split into two groups: the gazelles up ahead and the wheezers in the rear. We in the front monitored the rear by radio.

About a third into the hike, when we had hit the steepest stretch, we had our first casualty. Word came over the radio that Ken was down. He was hyperventilating and dizzy and couldn't continue. This was barely twenty minutes into the hike, so it did not bode well.

Up at the head of the column, the director went into crisis mode and began radioing instructions on how to distribute Ken's equipment so the shoot could go on. Everyone halted and waited for orders. As the rest of us at the front caught our breath, we began to ask a simple question.

"Who's Ken?"

Turns out, he was the EMT.

As the crisis unfolded, we began to learn an important lesson: If you arrange to hire an EMT through a local hiking club for a rigorous high-elevation hike, MAKE SURE HE IS NOT A SMOKER. In fairness to the producers, these are things you don't normally put together: certified paramedic, member of hiking club, chain smoker. Crew members who had seen him light up multiple times before the hike had figured he must be made of strong stuff to both smoke and be able to swing this difficult hike with a heavy pack. Turns out, he wasn't.

So the equipment in Ken's pack was redistributed, and he headed back to basecamp. The column started moving again, and almost immediately a second man went down. He was Stu, the story editor, who twisted his ankle and couldn't go on.

I was thinking to myself: "Dear God, what are we going to do on the peak without a story editor?"

So now Stu's equipment had to be redistributed, and some non-essential equipment had to be left behind. The director was showing has mettle now, making the essential triage decisions to keep the production on track.

Stu headed back to basecamp; the hike resumed, and then a third member went down. She was Penny, the sound technician. This was serious, because the production would be crippled without sound. Penny was the smallest crew member, and early in the hike I had taken her heavy pack and given her my nearly empty one, but after Ken's and Stu's equipment was redistributed, she again had a heavy pack. She had fallen in the loose rocks, but it took a few minutes to assess her condition. (Where's an EMT when you need one?)

Penny finally decided that she could continue, but only without a pack, so now all of the equipment she was carrying had to be redistributed or left behind.

We were hardly halfway up the trail at this point, but the steepest sections were over. I wondered who was going down next, and my suspicions centered on the other supposedly experienced Sherpa, who was breathing a little too hard. (What are the entry requirements for a hiking club nowadays?) With a little prayer and duck tape, the expedition soldiered on.

Fortunately, the rest of the hike proceeded uneventfully. I asked the lead cameraman (an endearing wise ass) where his fun meter stood. He answered: "I can't lie, it's gone way up!" As we crossed a saddle, I looked back from the front of the column and counted a string of 12 red headlamps in the darkness. I knew then that it would all work out.

We arrived at the peak in darkness, but with just enough time to get our work done. We had to film the base at night in spooky night vision. Then we filmed night-vision hiking scenes and getting-to-the-summit scenes (which, remarkably enough, were actually filmed at the summit). Then the sky in the east began to glow, and we shot various early-morning scenes as the sun flooded onto the secret base.

We had a massive high-definition camera with a big telephoto lens that was the equivalent of a 1100mm camera lens, all perched on a solid tripod that the director himself had carried. (I really admired the director through all of this. He kept everything on track while still retaining his humor.)

On the peak, everyone did their job efficiently, but something else happened, too. On Tikaboo, nearly everyone on the crew broke out their own digital cameras and started taking photos of themselves on the mountaintop. This was an indication to me of how significant the journey was to all of them. Fuck the History Channel, I say! This was a great experience regardless of the product.

It was full daylight by the time we headed down. There was some grumbling, but thanks to the laws of physics, down was way easier than up. We got back to basecamp and filmed some fake scenes of arriving and setting up camp. (We had our story editor back who could keep this all straight for us.)

For me, the most harrowing part of the whole expedition was shooting "B roll" of the host and I supposedly driving to Tikaboo as we were actually leaving. The host was in the driver's seat of a 4WD, and I was on the passenger side. The director had told us to drive "like Baja 500" on a dirt road past the camera, and the host obliged. I was hanging on for dear life and trying to think of a god to pray to.

We got back to the motel and all had breakfast. Since we had stayed up all night, things were getting surreal at that point. My role in the production was over, and I got to head home to Vegas (stopping to sleep in the car along the way), but the crew had to stay in Alamo. They would have the rest of the day to recover but had to shoot again the next day. Their shooting wrapped up only yesterday (Saturday), and I understand they had a party last night celebrating the end of their second season. (Jack Daniels and cranberry juice was the official libation.)

It won't be clear for several months whether UFO Hunters will be renewed for a third season. In any case, Area 51 is expected to be the last show broadcast in the current season (probably early 2009), and it is expected to be the season's high point.

I am still debating whether I should watch the finished show. It seems so superfluous.

Don't miss my expedition photos. (Tikaboo starts halfway through the album.) Also see "UFO Hunters" on Tikaboo: Part I.
Article & Photos © Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173


  1. Simply the best! You have out done yourself with this article. It was hilarious. It is nice to see the Desert Rat back on top. The crew made the right choice! Keep the Area 51 articles coming!!!

  2. Outstanding work Glenn. Good for you. I hope that you will still talk to all us peons once your throne has been reclaimed. Seriously though, that was a very good story. The whole scripted part and that bigass light would have pissed me off too. And speaking of bigass, that camera was freaking huge. I didn't see any packmules, you guys airlift that sucker in? Hopefully the place won't get inundated with litter and crap in the months upcoming. Watch out for those mountain lions and blm agents!!

  3. Glenn -- great summary of the process! After climbing Tikaboo 24 hours before the shoot with you and my boys, I'm certain it's only your guiding prowess that kept more people from getting hurt.

    We enjoyed the trip like crazy and are looking forward to seeing the episode.

  4. Climbing Tikaboo at night is nuts! That part where you hike along the side of the mountain is particularly dangerous. The trail is very narrow, with a steep drop off on one side. The fall probably isn't fatal, but I think broken bones are a possibility.

    Funny thing about the trail markings. The yellow tape seems to vaporize. You put up new tape, come back months later, and it is trimmed. The branch still has some tape around it, but the dangling tape is gone. Now the blue flagging tape remains untouched. Unfortunately, it is harder to see.

    Missing a marker isn't the end of the world, but the hike is almost always more difficult if you wander slightly off the trail.

  5. I only climbed Tik once and that was in 2000 with Don Emory and a few people he brought out with us. I can't imagine doing it at night with full packs.....great writing Glenn, keep it up.

  6. I've climbed Tikaboo only once, but it was solo at night with a heavy I can imagine what it's like getting a whole group to do that.

    Unfortunately it inspired me to try it again solo in snow at night with two heavy packs. That one became a no-go after only 120 vertical feet of progress and losing my hat!

    The buffet is on me, the next time I'm in Vegas.