|Jack and I entering Baxter. 2003 was so long ago|
everything was in Black and White.
Note: while NHTM is for the most part a (hopefully) humorous blog, hypothermia is no joke. Please avail yourself of the helpful links in this story to learn more about it. I’ve also included some unhelpful links if you just want a laugh.
“Good judgement comes from experience. And experience? Well, that comes from bad judgement.”
There may be people who are good at learning from experience, but generally speaking that’s not true of me. Hell, I’ve completed seven long hikes on six trails and I still haven’t figured out that I don’t particularly like walking. But every once in a while — usually when I almost die — I am not The Boy Who Doesn’t Learn.
This story is one of those whiles.
In 2008 I was hiking the PCT and found myself in Washington State rather late in the Fall. I'd like to say that this was due to a late start date or severe injury or at least the vague catchall phrase “circumstances beyond my control.” But if I’m honest the real reasons would include the also-kind-of-vague but not as self-absolving “having way too much fun in California.”
|Rough (but normal) conditions in Washington|
I was a couple of days North out of White Pass hiking solo on a cold and rainy day when I arrived at Chinook Pass. And the thing about Chinook Pass is: there are very nice bathrooms there that would be excellent to sleep in. And by this point in the hike, sleeping in a warm, dry bathroom was definitely an attractive option. However, even though by this time I was walking to the rhythm of my teeth chattering, it seemed too early in the day to stop. So on I pushed, into a wet, foggy day that was getting wetter and foggier as I hiked.
|Chinook Pass, where I didn't sleep in a bathroom.|
I was aiming for Government Meadow and Mike Ulrich Cabin. Much like a bathroom, the cabin would provide shelter from the elements. In addition it had a wood stove, and hopefully also had the hikers who had left Packwood the day before me.
But at a certain point it was getting dark, the temperature was dropping further, and the fog was so thick I could no longer guarantee that I could stay on trail and end up at Government Meadow. More importantly, I was feeling the beginnings of the onset of hypothermia. I was only a couple of miles away from a warm, dry cabin. It was tempting to push on. What to do?
|Decision time. Fortunately not a last known photo.|
Foremost in my mind at that point was my poor decision making a few years earlier in 2003. Some friends were finishing their AT Thru-hikes, and I joined them for the 100 Mile Wilderness and Katahdin. This was probably my first bad decision. Have you ever tried to get off the couch, brush the Cheez-Its off your chest, and keep up with Thru-hikers finishing a trail? It seemed effortless for them; for me it seemed like something I had been sentenced to by a particularly cruel Judge. Every part of me ached for every minute and by the end I had trench foot and a simmering distrust of my friends who said it would be AMAZING.
2003 was a particularly rainy year on the AT, and that Fall in Maine was no exception. It was late on a cold, rainy day when I left East Branch Lean-To — where some of the crew I was hiking with were now safely tucked into their sleeping bags — and pushed on to meet Baltimore Jack at Cooper Brook Falls Lean-To. Those hikers looked warm and dry at East Branch. I wanted desperately to stay. But I had told Jack I’d meet him, and I didn’t want him worrying about me (or worse — backtracking in the bad weather trying to find me). So on I hiked, after one last jealous glance back at those done for the day.
|Cooper Brook Lean-To in 2015. Note the obligatory|
mystery underwear hanging on the wall.
It was only about 8 miles to the shelter. Doable, and I thought I was moving pretty fast in the cold & wet. At a certain point, though, I stopped to get water and eat a snack. I sat down, shivering. I took my gloves off. I continued to sit. In the cold. In the rain. I lost feeling in my hands. I stopped shivering. Something in me snapped me out of the fog I had fallen into and told me I had to move. I got up and started walking, but I didn’t put my gloves back on. It was dark now, but I decided that getting my headlamp out of my pack would take too long. This had the effect of slowing me down dramatically as it continued to rain, and eventually led to me blowing right past the blue blaze that marked the side trail to the shelter.
But only a hundred yards past it, as the trail went uphill to the left, that same thing that snapped me out of my previous stupor told me I had passed the shelter. I worked my way backwards, straining in the dark to see the blue blaze. I eventually found it, and made my way down to the shelter.
There was a lot of scary stuff happening in the last two paragraphs, but by this time I didn’t have the wherewithal to realize it.
Fortunately, Jack was at the shelter (which I realized afterwards wasn’t guaranteed). And from this point on I have no memory of what happened, and have to rely on Jack’s telling of the tale.
He said that I stumbled into the shelter, dropped my pack, sat on the deck, and proceeded to do nothing. Just sat there staring at nothing. Jack asked me what I was doing and I mumbled, “just resting for a minute.”
Jack said that at that point he realized from my behavior and my condition that I was showing signs of being deep enough into hypothermia that he needed to spring into action. He started ordering me around, starting with telling me to get out of my wet clothes. Which I couldn’t do. So he got me undressed and into my long underwear and then into my (fortunately) dry sleeping bag. He boiled water, put it in a Nalgene, and had me place it in my armpit. He fed me hot stew and then some warmed water. And he kept me awake through all of that.
Eventually the grogginess lifted and I remember being in my sleeping bag with no idea how I got there. Jack hovering over me, talking to me and looking at me with concern. Gradually I regained full mental function.
Now that I think about it, my friends would probably dispute whether I ever have full mental function. “You can’t regain something you’ve never had!” But at least I was thinking relatively clearly again. I believe that at the point he started treating me I was somewhere in the middle of HT II (moderate hypothermia) and spiraling downward. Did I die? That I’m writing this would suggest no. On the other hand, there’s a fair amount of evidence that I’m such a stubborn person that maybe I did die and have been choosing to ignore that fact for the past 19 years.
But I’m pretty sure I’m alive. And there’s little doubt in my mind that if Jack hadn’t been there — or if he didn’t know what to do — I wouldn’t be. Instead of dying I got a harsh lesson about the limits of my expertise, and the urge to make sure I never put myself in that position again.
Then in 2008 in Washington State I went right ahead and put myself in that position again.
But not exactly.
This time, I was aware of what was happening. I had been monitoring my hand dexterity all day. I knew the signs and symptoms to look for — I was on top of “the umbles.” And as I did mental checks on my condition my goal was to (if necessary) catch hypothermia in the mild stage when I could self-treat and arrest the progression. In other words, do all of the things Jack had done for me back in ’03 in Maine when I could no longer help myself.
So did I hike on towards Government Meadow?
|Government Meadow from Ulrich Cabin.|
My headlamp was bouncing off the thick fog and I couldn’t see a thing. In fact, the next day I found out I had passed a tent about five feet off the trail without seeing it. I was shivering, and my hand dexterity had degraded to the point that if I waited to set my tent up much longer I didn’t think I’d be able to. A warm, dry cabin was definitely a better place to end up, but I suspected that I might not end up there. So while I still had my wits about me I set up my tent, stripped out of my wets, got into my dry long underwear, and slid into my sleeping bag. I cooked a hot meal in my vestibule — not ideal, but I wasn’t going to do it in the cold rain — and then warmed up some water to drink. At no time did I fall into the deep mental fog that affected me in 2003, but I had felt a bit addled and it took me a while to warm up. I believe stopping when I did was the smart move.
|Tex, Karen, and I drying out at Ulrich Cabin|
The next day I did my shortest day on the trail — about three miles to Ulrich Cabin. I was joined by Tex and Karen, whose tent I had passed in the fog. We decided to bag further hiking for the day, chop some wood, and spend the day recovering by the wood stove and drying our gear and clothing. It was a good day, and it was a smart move.
And when I made it to Snoqualmie Pass 46 miles later, I got a room at The Summit Inn and sat in their hot tub for two hours. Which might have been the smartest move of all.
|Heading to Snoqualmie. Post-crisis but pre-hot tub.|
(for another story about what happened in my tent that night in 2008, click HERE)
Thanks to Andi Lowry for the inspiration to get off my metaphorical butt and write this story down (I was on my actual butt when I wrote it).