At first, the rangers at Sequoia National Park thought it was a joke.
"You keep a touch of skepticism about a report that Jane Fonda's lost in your park," admits Ranger Bill Tweed, the park's management assistant.
But what happened to Fonda over the weekend could have happened to any hiker, even an experienced one such as the actress--and often does. "The only distinctive thing here is having it happen to a celebrity," Tweed said. "That doesn't change the search at all. It just changes the talking afterward."
Dozens of journalists have been phoning the park to get the "scoop" on Fonda's overnight misadventure in the wild. "I had one reporter ask me, 'Do the rattlesnakes attack at night?' " Tweed laughed. "People were looking for more drama than there was."
The fact that there wasn't more drama is testimony to Fonda's own physical fitness, preparedness and presence of mind. "She handled herself well through this," Tweed noted. "She could have been in danger only if she had kept wandering around in the dark."
Several years ago, an incident at the park that started similarly to Fonda's ended in tragedy. According to rangers, a hiker split from his party, got lost, and kept going at night. The hiker wandered into a very steep canyon and fell to his death.
Fonda, by all accounts, remained calm and even was working out Monday afternoon at her Beverly Hills Workout, according to Dr. Daniel Kosich, her program director at the fitness center.
In fact, Ranger Tweed said it was Fonda's extraordinary agility and speed that may have caused her to get lost in the first place. "That's what got her in trouble here. She went ahead of her partner and she went the wrong way."
Fonda, through a spokesperson, declined to be interviewed.
But park rangers and Fonda's friends were able to fill in the details.
A Usual Weekend Hike
Fonda and her good friend, Femmy Deliser, who teaches the Lamaze classes at the Workout, went to the northern sector of Sequoia National Park for one of their usual weekend hikes. They set up camp at Pear Lake, a very popular backpacking destination with a 2,000-foot climb and a 6-mile trail.
On Sunday, the two women headed for the Tableland, a horseshoe-shaped ridge 5 to 6 miles long, which is rolling and flat, drops off steeply on the sides and has high points reaching over 11,000 feet. It's an area where only experienced hikers feel comfortable, Tweed noted, because it has no major land form or trees as marker points. "You have to find your own route. You have to figure out where you're navigating and how to choose directions. You have to be able to read a map and know where you're going to get back to."
Fonda and Deliser were attempting a daylong, cross-country hike over the edge of the Tableland to Moose Lake, and "this is where she got confused," Tweed said.
"The two were going at different speeds. Jane was faster."
Fonda diverged from the ideal route by only about 30 or 40 degrees on a compass but in the rolling hills above the timberline, with its lakes and meadows and patchy snow, this was "pretty easy to do," Tweed said.
"Her friend went one way and Jane went the other. And then they both got to looking for each other, and they used up a lot of time doing that. And when it got dark, Jane was still quite a ways from her camp.
"So she simply had to bivouac the night."
Luckily, there were no clouds, no storms and while the nighttime temperature was a cool 40 degrees, it was hardly dangerous. "The only real risk in an area like that is hypothermia," Tweed said.
Fonda had a jacket with her as well as a metallic emergency blanket, which many hikers throw into their packs just in case. She drank water from a spring, ate her only ration--a sandwich--and went to sleep.
A 'Routine Incident'
When Deliser returned to Pear Lake and didn't see Fonda, she went for help. "She was worried, as anyone would be," Tweed said. Fonda's disappearance was reported to the park service at about 11 p.m. Sunday.
But the rangers needed to confirm that Fonda's disappearance wasn't a prank. They went into the room she had reserved at the Giant Forest Lodge near the start of the trail and looked through her personal effects and found her identification, "to make sure this was real," Tweed said.
Ranger Freda Sherbourne was dispatched on foot to Pear Lake and arrived just at dawn. Sherbourne radioed back that Fonda was still lost and a search party was activated. Two rangers flew a helicopter the 15 air miles to the Tableland and began an aerial survey. In the toe of the Tableland's horseshoe, they spotted Fonda walking and waving her tin-foil blanket at the chopper.
The rangers brought her back to her camp and, undeterred, Fonda and Deliser hiked back to civilization.
"For us, it's a very routine incident," Tweed said. "Probably this kind of thing in that area happens a dozen times a year. Mostly people find their way back eventually, but in this case there was a request for help and we responded."