By Trevor Bockstahler
About four and a half years ago, just as I was just beginning to seriously get into the outdoors, I set off on an impulsive trip to climb Mount Holy Cross, one of Colorado’s classic 14er's. It turned out to be one of the coldest, dangerous, and downright scary nights that I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing, something to learn from. Preparedness is important, good decision making is key.
Rarely is it one bad decision that gets somebody killed in the backcountry. Rarely is it the one piece of gear they forgot at home that gets them killed. Typically, it is a combination of those factors, with a bit of bad luck mixed in. Fortunately, luck was on my side…
It was mid-October in the Vail Valley; I had a long night planning out the multi-month trek that I had in sight for next Summer. I overslept my early alarm but remained overzealous. In a mad scramble I threw on shorts and a t-shirt grabbed my small string backpack, threw in it a bit of trail mix, a liter of Gatorade, then ran off to my car to get going. I made it to the trailhead just before noon, what is generally considered much too late to start a 14er, especially a difficult one. But what's the worst that can happen, right? As I drove up to the washboarded forest road, I pulled out my phone to check where the trailhead was. Unfortunately, I forgot to plug it in the night before, so the already weak battery was dead. That’s fine, I’ll just pull out the map and check that… Whoops, only trail mix and Gatorade. I found what I thought to be the trailhead and rationalized my desire of continuing. I had told people I was going to do it… How dangerous could it be anyway? I’m in decent shape, if something goes wrong, I can just jog out. If I can’t do this, then how could I expect my summer trip to be a success?
Grabbing my backpack, I began jogging down the trail to make up for the lost time. Down to the river, across the bridge, and followed the undulating trail upstream. After a bit of uphill, my jog turned to a walk, and I began taking in the sights and sounds. Open evergreen and aspen lined fields, cascading waterfalls, and beautiful fall colors splashing across the rugged mountains. But something wasn’t right, I could see Holy Cross. A couple of miles in and I should be on the mountain, not looking at it from what must be 5 miles away from the other side of the river! I tried to remember what I read of the trip report and force it to make sense for where I was. But as I hiked on, I found myself in line with and eventually beyond the mountain, there was no question. So, what to do?
I had hiked a long way already, but how uneventful to turn around at an arbitrary point along the trail. I decided to press on, get to an alpine lake, a pass, at least above treeline! I made it out of the trees and was presented with a wide-open alpine cirque, and a pair of hunters walking the other direction, the first people of the day! Knowing the answer already, I asked, “Hey guys, do you know if this is the way to Holy Cross?”.
With a slightly concerned and entertained look, “Buddy, you overshot that by about 7 miles. Hell, you're 14 miles up this valley!”.
“Huh… I didn’t realize I had walked that far. Can I check out your map?”.
They showed me a couple of options over a pass to loop the hike, but that would require memorizing the map and the maze of trails that lay beyond. So, I decided against that but went to an alpine lake in a saddle a few hundred feet above the valley floor that we occupied. With a beautiful view and a tired body, I sat on a lakeside boulder for a couple of minutes and took in the view as the sun sank lower. I didn’t feel as though I was in danger of getting out before the sun fell as I sat by the lake, not until the cool katabatic winds began dropping into the valley.
I jumped back on the trail and started jogging my way down, trying to keep a healthy pace for the 14 miles out. I passed the hunters in a rush and wished them luck as the sun dipped below the ridge. Not too long after that brutal side cramps and hip pain halted my jog and turned it into a fast hike. But that wasn’t good enough… The valley became darker and darker, the clearings were still clear, but in the trees, with no headlamp, it was becoming difficult to see.
Then, about 4 miles out from the trailhead, pitch-black settled in the wooded valley floor, eyes open or eyes closed, it made no difference. The only saving grace was in the clearings where the faint moonlight left a shadow of the trail that could barely be seen. I continued to hike in the dark, straining to see in the clearings and going by feel in the total darkness of the woods. The cold air was sharp as it entered my lungs, the sweat on my skin was chilling, I paused for a moment to take in what was happening. Things just became very real; the wilderness was no longer safe.
There were a couple of moments where I lost the trail and had to ask my already dead phone to give me a half-second of light before it died again, just to find my way back on the trail. I felt lost, spun around and scared. The clearings slowly became smaller, and the trail was becoming less rutted and distinct. I started to fear that I would lose the trail for good, and my phone was at the point where the quick flash of light it could emit wasn’t enough for my eyes to be able to take in the surroundings. The situation was made to feel even direr shortly as I was dropping back into the total darkness of the woods from a short clearing. The trail dropped steeply and thus cut deeply into the earth, I had been tripping and stumbling over the rocks, and roots these trails hid the whole night. So, stepping carefully and slowly I scanned the darkness instinctively. Terror struck me when I saw a massive shadow of a boulder right where I suspected the trail dropped, it was just a slight shade darker than the surrounding woods, just beyond the first trees.
“This is bad, how did I make a wrong turn?!”, I thought.
“What am I going to do now?! Is this even the trail?! Is it even a trail?!”.
As my panicked thoughts took my focus the ground suddenly dropped from under the next step of my foot. It was a two-foot drop in the trail, I managed not to fall, but when my foot came crashing down it cracked a small dead tree branch. At that moment time stopped as the boulder in front of me slammed its hooves into the hollow Earth, a sound that will always stay with me. Then in a powerful charge, the nearly one-ton moose decided not to head in my direction, but instead perpendicular to the trail as it echoed sounds of shrubs and small trees crashing down in its wake. After that I decided I must stop, but where?
My mind strained to come up with ideas of places to stop for the night under the stress of the situation. “I’m going to die, it's too cold, I have nothing”, I thought.
“Hey, moose! Is anybody out there?!” I shouted.
My fate felt sealed, I will get lost and die. I tried speaking to my family between shouts for the moose. I couldn't cry, it was a surreal feeling of shock bordering on surrender. Then it hit me! Just the week before, my Grandpa told me a story of how he would set up his tent on the large boulders surrounding high alpine lakes to stay warm. As he put it, sometimes too warm, even when the air was freezing. There was a boulder on the way up, one that dwarfed the moose. Perhaps the size of a small house, it hid amongst the trees 50 feet off the trail, but no trees grew atop it, leaving room for ample sun exposure. It had to be coming up shortly! This is how I could survive tonight! It took perhaps another 20 minutes of stumbling along and questioning my sanity as I tried to mentally prepare for the night before finally getting to the house boulder. Amazed that I did, I got to work immediately creating a clearing from the damp leaves and sharp rocks by feel. I grabbed for branches off the nearby pine trees to add some insulation to the ground, figured Survivor Man would be proud. But all the branches that were in reach were dead, with all the needles shedding off as soon as I would break them free from the trunk of the tree.
“Well… Ground insulation couldn’t be that important”, I thought, as I laid down on my back as if I was laying down in bed.
“I guess it is actually pretty important”, I thought, as I turned to my side and curled up seconds later.
“It’s actually really important”, as I sat back up and pulled my shirt over my bent legs. Tucking my arms into the shirt to join my legs, I pulled my shorts as far down my legs as they would stretch. That was a bit warmer… I figured I would sit here and try to sleep, then do jumping jacks when I got too cold. But I was still getting too cold, way too fast.
I hung my head and exhaled, once more feeling a spike in the desperation of the situation. The warm moisture of my breath could be felt on my knees through the stretched t-shirt. That was it, how dumb I felt that I didn’t think of it earlier! I would breathe on myself to stay warm tonight! So with my face now buried in the collar of my shirt, I managed to retain enough warmth to fight off the uncontrollable shivering.
Having found a way to get through the night I relaxed a bit and tried to get some sleep. I would fade in and out of a pseudo sleep as shivering would wake me up when my body relaxed, then when I warmed enough, I would drift off again. Shifting from side to side to sitting, the cold, hard ground made my body ache where my bones pressed against it. As the night dragged on, I began either hallucinating or dreaming of a warm deer laying down beside me, sometimes close enough to share its warmth, other times it would be just out of reach.
Some sort of small rodent paid me a visit and woke me up as it scurried around my head and in my hair before darting off through leaf debris. Waking up freaked out that something was playing around me in this vulnerable state I began to hear footsteps on the trail only a couple dozen feet from where I laid… No, not footsteps, hoof steps. The moose from earlier was on the trail, I couldn’t see it in the blackness of the night, but it was there, and I was as exposed as ever. I stayed silent at first as I tried to sit up, but it lingered in the area, and my fear of another encounter grew. I let out a series of weak and dampened yells, “Hey moose!”. After a few yells, the moose left, slowly walking away as it did what sounded like plowing over Aspen trees with its mass as it dragged on uphill.
My movements were stiff, and my body ached. I figured that if the moose came back, I needed to be able to move. Attempting to stand up to do some jumping jacks, I hoped to shake this stiffness off. But it was too cold to jump, barely warm enough to move, and getting colder now out of my shirt. I sat back down helplessly, curled up, and stayed awake for a while before returning to my cycle of dozing in and out of consciousness. “This must be how people freeze to death", I realized, “A slow, helpless chill until it becomes too much”.
Shortly, or not so shortly afterward I heard soft steps slowly moving closer to my head as I lay in my side, and looked up to see the face of a mountain lion as it stood above me. It sniffed and pawed at my hair as I played dead, there was nothing else I could do. Then after a short pause, I felt its eyes sharpen and it struck! I woke up with a jolt as the rodent from before scurried off away from and out of my hair again. Only a dream!
Wide awake for the rest of the night in a lethargic and hypothermic state, I stared at the night sky. Wondering if it was getting lighter, if it was in my head, or maybe it was even getting darker… I would die for sure if the night hadn’t yet had its darkest moments. As stars slowly began to fade, the black slowly began to fade to blue and while it didn’t warm the air, the light began to seep below the forest canopy. I tried to get to my feet but was much too stiff and exhausted from a night balled up and shivering on the hard ground. So, I lay there a bit longer contemplating the idea of letting the sun warm me up before getting up. But that would take too long, I just want this to be done, and my parents probably think I’m dead.
Crawling up the boulder behind me to help myself stand, I made it to my feet. The stiffness was so bad I could barely walk, on top of that I had a nasty limp, so I grabbed a large fallen tree branch nearby to use as a cane and proceeded to make my way home. Once I left my boulder, passing through the trail I had seen the evening before, I saw nothing but frost sprinkled in the woods, and fully coating the grasses of the open fields. The only place it seemed there wasn’t frost was where I slept. The understanding of what that meant was hard to process at the time as my drowsy eyes took it all in. Humbling disbelief and the feeling of cheating death washed over me as I approached my car at the trailhead a couple of hours later. I made it, I survived the night, and as uneventful as it could be, I turned the keys and drove off.
On the way home I stopped at a bus stop to borrow a stranger’s phone, where I learned my parents had already contacted the authorities and had been calling my work all morning. That was the next stop, where I was told I was too blue to work and to go get some rest. So, I curled up in bed for the rest of the day as I felt the extent of the cold slowly, over the course of hours, wear off. My first experience with hypothermia and my first brush with death was now just a story. Relief.
Preparedness is important, good decision making is key. The wilderness always has the potential to become a dangerous place, and whether you're 1 mile or 100 miles away from civilization, the proximity of help might not matter. Have a plan, have the proper gear, and know where you're going, but know your limits, your abilities, and most importantly know when to turn back. All it would have taken was one of the many variables that were on my side that night to turn against me and instead of me writing this, it would have been a journalist writing a column in the local newspaper. Safety is in our hands.