Two hikers who had a close encounter with a mountain lion on a High Sierra trail in California’s wilderness are now enjoying the attention that came with their capturing the adventure on video.
“It was terrifying,” said high school calculus and computer science teacher Sam Vonderheide.
At first, Vonderheide only saw a furry body through some bushes on the winding mountain side trail ahead. However, when he saw the tail, he knew it was a mountain lion—also known as a cougar or puma.
His hiking partner, software development project manager Brian McKinney, doubted him.
“He didn’t believe me, and in this day and age if you don’t have a great photo or video, it didn’t happen.”
So McKinney took out his phone and started filming.
Vonderheide knew cougar attacks were rare, but he was still cautious, hoping the lion had taken off into the wilderness.
As they came around a turn in the trail, they saw it on trail before them.
“Then it just kind of lightly walks around the corner,” said Vonderheide.
They cautiously rounded the blind corner, looking down the trail before them, but saw nothing.
“We then realize that it is perched almost right above us on a rock about 1o feet above us. And it was right next to the trail,” said Vonderheide.
“There was less than 10 feet between his eyes and my eyes—and it is above us, which is a lot more scary.”
Even seeing the video now is unsettling, he said.
“(I was) not only shocked, but alarmed that she had the advantage above me, which is what they do when they hunt,” he told Associated Press.
Fortunately, the two experienced hikers knew not to run away, which could prompt the lion to see them as prey and follow suit. The video captures their nervous discussion about what to do as the lion looks down at them.
They were in a precarious situation, given neither was armed with more than an ice axe and a bear whistle. Fortunately, the cougar did not seem unsettled by them.
“It wasn’t aggressive, it didn’t seem defensive, it seemed about as relaxed as it could be. At one point it was laying on a rock with its arming hanging down. It was like a house cat sitting on the back of the couch, but it didn’t take its eyes off us,” he said.
The pair were left with few options, carrying 50-pound backpacks at the end of a long day on an 11-day hike through mountains, and with few places to set up camp. So, they backed off and then decided to try their luck again later. But when they came back, they found the lion had left its perch, but not the vicinity.
“It lays down on the trail facing us, it just lays there watching us,” he said.
They decided to try to scare it off, following the best practices they’d learned for when encountering a mountain lion.
They made themselves big, waved their hiking poles over their heads and made noise, but to no avail.
“It was weird that none of it worked the way it was supposed to. It was like ‘this is boring, but I am going to stay here and watch you guys.'”
The video now going viral only captures the first two minutes of what turned out to be a 30-minute ordeal. Most of the other footage is “Blair Witch style,” joked Vonderheide.
“There is a lot more chaotic footage,” he said.
“Nothing phased it, all the crazy stuff we did, it just looked at us.”
Vonderheide even tried to throw rocks at it, some coming within a foot of striking the cougar. He was cautious not to actually hit it, since he didn’t want to anger the predator.
“It didn’t clench, it didn’t blick, it didn’t seem on-edge either.”
Vonderheide said the cougar just watched there, seeming to say “I am just laying here and you guys are putting on a show for me.”
In the end, they had to turn back and reverse course two miles to the next feasible campground where they tried, unsuccessfully, to get a good night’s sleep, knowing that a cougar that had no apparent fear of them was just a short distance away.
Rangers in the area told the pair it is possible the cougar had a large kill nearby and wasn’t chancing losing several days worth of food by moving too far away from it.
While the encounter was terrifying, it made for an exceptional video. Vonderheide said hikers on the trail that they passed kept telling them it would go viral. When they got back, they put it on social media, shared it on Facebook groups, and eventually got interviewed by local media.
Then it exploded.
Now they are getting calls constantly and have licensed the video to one of the top video resellers in the world.
Wildlife experts say the hikers exemplified the proper way to deal with such an encounter, making the video a good lesson in what to do if you encounter a mountain lion.
“It was terrifying, but I think we were able to contain ourselves—at least our physical actions—and kind of logically thin our way through it,” said Vonderheide.
Mountain lions rarely attack humans, and fatal attacks are rarer still. The last confirmed fatal cougar attack in the United States was in 2004. Another fatality attributed as likely due to a cougar was in 2008. Conversely, 12 people have died from lightning strikes in the United States so far in 2017.