Friends Brian McKinney and Sam Vonderheide hoped to see a lot of wildlife on their 12-day hike to the top of Mount Whitney in California. But they never expected to spend the first night of the trip in a standoff with a mountain lion.
Mountain lions, or cougars, are large, powerful predators that usually ambush deer. They are secretive cats though, and tend to disappear long before hikers ever come close enough to see them. (Related: “Watch a Cougar Take Down a Deer in Rare Video”)
So when Vonderheide, a math teacher, said he thought he saw a mountain lion’s tail on the trail in front of him, McKinney figured he was mistaken.
“I didn’t believe him, but I turned my phone on to maybe catch a glimpse of a bobcat or a fox,” said McKinney, who works as a software project manager.
Watch: cougar comes face to face with hikers
His friend had been right, however. Now a full grown mountain lion, which can weigh more than 135 pounds, stood between the hikers and their campsite for the night.
Unfortunately, the steepness of the terrain in this part of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks made it difficult to go around the big cat, so McKinney decided to follow it when it walked behind a blind curve.
“Mostly I was tired, and the sun was setting, and I wanted to go to sleep,” says McKinney.
“I assumed that she would have seen us and bolted and that we’d never see her again. So I slowly crept around the corner, looking down the trail. And that’s when I heard something above me.”
SLEEPLESS IN SEQUOIA
After turning the corner to find an apex predator perched on a rock just 15 feet above the trail, McKinney and Vonderheide calmly and slowly backed away. Now it was the cat’s turn to pursue the men.
After they had backtracked about 100 feet, the cat plopped itself down in the middle of the trail and wouldn’t budge. The men tried to scare the cougar off by yelling, blowing on a bear whistle, and throwing small rocks and sticks in the animal’s general direction, but the cat just sat and stared. (Related: Watch “Adorable Mountain Lion Kittens Found Near Los Angeles”)
All in all, this constitutes some rather unusual behaviour for a mountain lion.
“Mountain lions are solitary creatures and human-animal interaction is very rare,” says Mike Theune, a ranger at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. “We get reports every so often but it is far more likely that a mountain lion will see you before you ever see it.”
Finally, after about a half hour, the mountain lion picked itself up and went back around the bend. Thinking this was their break, the men tried to advance along the trail again only to find that the cat was back up on the rock. And this time, it sort of reared up on its hind legs as they peeked around the corner.
“I don’t know if it was to see us better or a more aggressive stance,” says McKinney. “But I certainly didn’t want to find out.”
At this point, the hikers gave up on their plans and hiked backwards several miles to another campsite.
“We didn’t sleep hardly at all that night,” says McKinney. And when the men returned to the spot the next day, there was no sign of the cat except for a few paw prints left in the dirt.
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“They were very calm, and that’s a good thing,” says LaRue. “And it does seem like they were trying to be pretty respectful.”
However, the decision to follow a predator is almost always a bad idea. “That’s just Hiking in the Wilderness 101,” says LaRue.
Another move the hikers got right was not running, says Theune, because running makes you look like prey.
While mountain lion sightings are rare, and attacks on humans are even rarer, the best thing you can do is to make yourself seem as large as possible, either by waving your hands or holding your backpack above your head.
“Put down the camera, and get out anything that can make noise,” says LaRue. “You want to be able to make yourself into something that they don’t want to be curious about.”
And in the unlikely event that you are actually attacked by a mountain lion? The answer is simple: Fight back with everything you’ve got.
“It’s a beautiful animal, and I’m very glad that nobody was hurt,” says LaRue. “Both human and cat.”
Header Image: Cougar comes face to face with hikers. Photo from footage by Brian McKinney/Jukin Media