‘I’m so grateful to be alive’

Seth Nidever

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Sybil Hilton didn’t let her 81 years prevent her from going cross country alone that day. Her friends, accustomed to her feisty independence, thought nothing of it when she struck out Sunday morning from the tightly-knit mountain community of Sequoia Crest for a short jaunt to nearby Hossack Meadows.

It didn’t turn out that way.

A fall and leg injury incurred during an off-trail exploration toward Hossack Creek turned a brief hike into a two-day ordeal that finally ended Tuesday afternoon when friends located Hilton in a ravine some 30 miles east of Porterville.

Hilton taught physical education at Bakersfield College from 1944 to 1980, according to The Bakersfield Californian.

Barbara Hobbs, secretary of the athletics department, said Hilton was a longtime badminton coach.

In a phone interview with The Rip on Wednesday from her hospital room in Porterville, a perfectly lucid Hilton said she was feeling fine.

“I keep hoping that I’ll come home,” Hilton said. “I’m so grateful to be alive.”

Hilton said that the daughter of a woman she’d worked with at East High in the 1940’s was the first to find her.

“She just had an instinct where I was,” Hilton said.

Friends and neighbors, dozens of whom searched for her around the clock alongside Tulare County search and rescue crews, expressed amazement at her relatively good condition after 48 hours without food or water.

“You know that she’s frail, but the girl has heart,” said longtime neighbor Aaron Kidwell, who with his wife owns a cabin on land that Hilton gave to them outright.

Kidwell, who’d been hiking with Hilton before she went off alone, said he and her close friends were convinced she was dead after seeing mountain lion tracks in the area.

“Everybody thought that a cougar had gotten her,” he said.

Hilton said confidence that somebody would find her kept her strong until Monday night, when she began moving around and calling for help.

Because of her leg injury, she couldn’t get back to road where people were searching. All she could do was get up and move a few feet at a time.

She couldn’t reach the creek either, and thirst was the biggest thing on her mind when friends found her.

“They had water, that was a godsend,” she said.

Hilton credited gloves, a down jacket and relatively warm nights for keeping her alive.

“I guess I lucked out,” she said. “I could get up, but I couldn’t move very far.”

Colleagues who worked with her at BC described Hilton as a dedicated teacher who cared about students.

“There’s an old saying: Why do you want to go into education? Well, there’s three reasons,” said track coach Bob Covey. “June, July, and August. She wasn’t that kind of a person.”

For his part, Kidwell said friends would watch over her more carefully during their frequent Sequoia Crest get-togethers.

“Oh, you know it, you know it, she won’t be going out by herself anymore,” he said.

Hilton agreed.

“I think I’ll probably stay on the road,” she said with a laugh.

– Editor in Chief Victor Garcia contributed to this story.

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