The jittery cellphone video opens on a dirt trail in the dense woods of California’s Sequoia National Park. Just ahead, a fully grown mountain lion can be seen slinking around a hillside and out of sight.
The men behind the camera, two hikers, follow cautiously, looking to get a glimpse at the creature.
“Shh, shh,” one of them says as they creep in the big cat’s direction.
More than 30 seconds pass with no sign of the animal. The camera pans slowly across the trail, then abruptly swings up to a rocky ledge just a few feet away. The mountain lion can be seen crouched there, motionless, its dark eyes fixed on the hikers.
One hiker utters an obscenity. “I don’t really like this,” he says.
Heavy breathing follows.
In hushed voices, they discuss their predicament.
“What are we supposed to do, back up?” the camera man asks.
“I don’t know, I don’t think you’re supposed to run or go away from it,” the other responds.
Nevertheless, they decide to inch away. As they do, the mountain lion can be seen craning its neck and peering at them from its menacing perch. Then the video cuts off.
But the encounter was far from over, as hiking partners Brian McKinney and Sam Vonderheide told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. For the next 15 minutes, they said, they found themselves locked in a heart-stopping standoff with the animal, unable to scare it away. They eventually were forced to give up and head back in the direction they came, worrying the whole way that the predator would reappear.
The encounter happened on July 23, but the video was not made public until this week.
McKinney, 45, and Vonderheide, 40, had embarked on an 11-day hiking trip in Sequoia National Park to climb Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. They told the Times that they had read up on every potential danger they thought they might run into during the journey.
Staring down a mountain lion was, unfortunately, not on the list.
The men were headed toward their campsite at the end of their first day when they spotted the mountain lion on the trail. McKinney pulled out his cellphone and started recording.
Fear set in when they rounded the corner to find the animal looming over them on the ledge, McKinney told the Associated Press.
“I was not only shocked but alarmed that she had the advantage above me, which is what they do when they hunt,” he said.
Shortly after McKinney stopped recording, the mountain lion climbed down from the ledge and sat in the middle of the trail, the hikers told the Times. Their instincts told them to run away, but the pair decided instead to try to scare the animal away.
First they made noise by shouting and blowing the bear whistle they carried with them. When that didn’t work, they threw rocks and sticks at the animal, then tried to make themselves appear larger — a common tactic hikers use when threatened by wild animals.
The lion was unfazed.
“She just looked at us like she was entertained,” McKinney told the Associated Press. “So we gave up.”
The hikers headed back to a campsite two miles behind them. The thought of the mountain lion reemerging from the woods haunted them the whole way, they told the Times.
“Your imagination runs wild,” McKinney said.
Fearing for their lives, the hikers filmed goodbye videos for their loved ones before they set out the next day, according to the Associated Press. When they passed the spot where they first ran into the mountain lion, they saw only footprints, they said.
“It’s definitely a reminder to keep your cool, when everything is jumping inside you,” Vonderheide told the Times.
Wildlife biologist Daniel Gammons applauded the hikers for staying calm during the encounter.
“The big thing these visitors did right was that they didn’t panic and run,” Gammons said in a statement. “Probably the most important message to get out to visitors is not to act like prey if they encounter a mountain lion.”
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