Help was on the way to an overheated, seriously dehydrated hiker when rescuers ran into two men armed with rifles.
The gunmen stole radios from the Kern County search and rescue volunteers and sent them back where they came from, leaving the ailing hiker stranded miles away for several more thirsty hours.
The armed robbers remained at large Tuesday as the investigation continued, though the section of the Pacific Crest Trail was reopened late Monday after authorities determined the area was safe.
It's extremely rare for rescuers to be assaulted, but it's not unheard of. Last year, a volunteer rescuer searching for a missing hiker was shot and wounded near the South Yuba River in Northern California.
The incident Saturday in the remote Piute Mountains about 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of Los Angeles occurred after hiker Charles Brandenburg became dehydrated in scorching heat and activated a rescue device that allowed him to send text messages to authorities.
Hikers trying to complete the 2,650-mile (4,265-kilometer) trail from Mexico to Canada have encountered several challenges from an exceptionally wet winter that left a persistent snowpack and has made for arduous plodding and presented several hazards. Several hikers have been injured, and others have reported close calls scaling icy passes and fording raging rivers.
Brandenburg had left the trail for three weeks in June so the snowpack would melt more before he arrived in the rugged high Sierra Nevada. However, the delay meant he was hiking through extreme desert heat in the past week with diminishing options for water along the way.
"I needed water really bad," Brandenburg said. "I undercut it. It was a mistake on my part."
After hiking through heat as high as 110 degrees (43 Celsius), he became extremely dehydrated Friday and began dry heaving and cramping.
He awoke at 4 a.m. Saturday to beat the heat, but only had about a cup of water left and was nine miles short of his next water stop. He only got a few miles before he called for help.
Four volunteers with the Kern County Search and Rescue team set out on foot to bring Brandenburg water and became separated, Sgt. Zack Bittle said. One pair turned down the wrong trail, where they encountered the robbers who stole their radios.
The rescuers were unharmed, but they were followed by the gunmen as they hiked back toward the Pacific Crest Trail, Bittle said. Eventually, the two men ran off.
Senior Deputy Tommy Robins said the gunmen may have been guarding an illegal marijuana plantation, but he wasn't aware if one had been found in the area.
"That is a possibility given the nature of the terrain out there," Robins said. "It is an area well-suited for a marijuana garden."
While Brandenburg waited for help to arrive, other hikers showed up, gave him water and waited with him.
What he expected would take a couple hours turned into about a 12-hour ordeal as he learned by text message about the robbery and was told to stay put until a helicopter could airlift him and the others to safety.
Brandenburg, 55, of Mendocino, said one hiker hid in the sparse forest while they waited for help. But he and two others weren't sure how seriously to take the warning until the helicopter arrived and lowered a SWAT officer in camouflage to the ground.
"Then we knew it was real," he said. "It was really a trip. It was like a movie."
Brandenburg decided to move to higher ground, hoping to hitch a ride to Kennedy Meadows in the Southern Sierra to resume his trek in cooler temperatures.