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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Caught in a Colorado Snowstorm

An autumn climb turns life-threatening when a hiker endures a night in a whiteout at 12,000 feet in the Rockies.

by: Steve Howe

"When my water bottles froze solid before 10 p.m., I knew not to fall asleep," says Boyd Severson, 56, of the night he spent huddled between car-size boulders a thousand feet below the summit of 13,245-foot Mummy Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. As frigid ridgetop winds reached 50 to 70 mph, he wormed into every piece of his clothing–a shell, fleece, hat, spare socks, and trash bag for a vest–then wrapped Ace bandages around his ankles and neck for extra insulation. Alone, afraid, and with no help coming, he braced himself for a night out in a September snowstorm.

Severson rarely hiked alone, but partners had been tough to find that Monday. And the day had dawned gloriously, so he'd headed up the trail, sending periodic messages to a friend from his BlackBerry as a safeguard. By 1:30 p.m., he was standing on the summit.

Despite clouds racing in from the west, Severson didn't yet realize how severely he'd blundered in neglecting to check the forecast. He could still see cairns through the decreasing visibility, so he descended swiftly. It wasn't until he reached an unfamiliar draw that he realized he'd gone off course; he hadn't been in the broad gully he climbed up, after all.

Severson had followed a different set of cairns, heading east rather than south, and landed in a narrow tundra bowl between Mummy and Mt. Dunraven. He laid low in the timber, but the storm kept building, so he started back up the 2,000-foot slope, hoping to retrace his steps to the trailhead by flashlight. When darkness fell, snowfall absorbed his beam. With zero visibility, he found a crevice between three boulders and hunkered down.

In wind chills down to -30°F, he flexed his muscles to stay warm, wishing he could call his wife. But neither cell phone nor BlackBerry connected. "I never thought I was going to die," he says. "But I was worried about severe frostbite."

By dawn, when Severson emerged dazed and weak, a search was in full swing, but the 50 ground searchers, several rescue dogs, and two helicopters were unable to locate him. "We began to theorize that he was hiding from the helicopters, perhaps from embarrassment," says ranger Cindy Purcell, incident commander for the search.

Severson initially waited out in the tundra because he knew his wife would call a search. But at around 1 p.m., he began moving again. "There was no way I was going to spend another night out," he says. At one point, he spotted a helicopter and waved, but the pilot missed him. Severson gained the south ridge, found his original gully, and, just before dark, encountered searchers on the Lawn Lake Trail.

Near-Fatal Flaw: "Boyd's last text message said 'I probably should turn back,' so summit fever was involved," says Purcell. "Instead of forging on, he should have trusted his common sense. Plus, he relied too much on devices. He should have paid more attention to his surroundings."

Voice of Experience: "Don't hike alone, and create a secondary plan," says Severson. "I generally carry too much clothing and emergency gear, but this time I wish I'd had even more. And I should have relied more on my GPS–instead of my phone and BlackBerry."

Tips from a Pro: "Survival, first and foremost, is about good decision-making," says Greg Davenport, author of Cold Weather Survival. "But once you're in a situation like Severson's, it's about staying warm and hydrated, and finding shelter." His recommendations:

  • Stay below timberline, where you have protection from body-heat-robbing wind, plus shelter, firewood, and water.
  • Always carry firestarter. Butane lighters weigh (and cost) nothing.
  • Use your gear, but don't forget to think "outside the pack." Nature provides shelter and insulation in the form of caves and timber stands, pine needles (for bedding), and leaves to stuff down your shirt.
  • Do squats, sit-ups, and arm swings to maintain core circulation.

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Reader Rating: -


Apr 11, 2014

its awsome

Star Star Star Star Star
Dec 09, 2013

Good article but I disagree with not hiking alone.
Maybe, don't hike alone when a storm that can kill you is brewing would have been a better way of getting the point across.
I love hiking and backpacking alone and won't stop. I also know that when I'm hiking alone there's no safety net and it forces me to slow down, think and understand that I'm responsible for my own safety. Best way to stop summit fever.

Star Star Star Star Star
Jan 04, 2013

when was this?

Star Star Star Star Star
Jan 04, 2013

when was this?

Oct 31, 2012

I'm black, so what?

Jun 08, 2012

i am black too

papy jason
Mar 15, 2012

good story i liked it

Nov 16, 2011

i'm black

cher bro
Nov 16, 2011

blah blah blah awesome

Nov 18, 2010

Nice story. Things like this make life interesting.

Al Walton
Oct 15, 2010

How about a compromise between: carry a bunch of extra stuff and carry not much useful gear? An emergency mylar bivy sack, a couple heavy duty trashbags and an fire kit that fits into an Altoids tin! Inside your makeshift shelter, you could put a fire starter or two on a square of aluminium foil. That's a start. Or a couple of small candles...

Tyler O.
Feb 24, 2009

I'm a backpacker and I never go without a proper survival kit. I've never actually gotten lost but I've read plenty on survival.

Dec 13, 2008

In my opinion a mistake is a mistake, and no one is exempt from making them. I appreciate the ability to learn from others' mistakes so I can hope to prevent at least some of my own. After all how did the correct practices become so in the first place; someone had to make the mistakes for us to learn, or we had to make them ourselves.

Dec 06, 2008

There's lots of what ifs in this story but about the butane lighter that the winter survival expert recommended. Yes pack the butane lighter but make sure it is in an inside pocket. At low temperatures it will work poorly if at all. The winds also blow out most run of the mill lighters. Invest in a $12.00 hardware store
"pocket torch" and keep it in your inside layer. Add to that an emergency blanket (I prefer the bag shape over the blanket shape) and your adding valuable degrees to your unexpected overnighter.

Dec 05, 2008

I'm glad Mr. Severson remained calm and kept a positive attitude. To all who arm chair critique his actions, he did what many of very experienced people do, he made a mistake and if he had not taken the few precautions that he did the outcome could have been disastrous. I'm sure everyone reading this has taken a few unnecessary risks so please remember practice what you preach.

Aaron K
Dec 05, 2008

I can't understand why people do not pack the emergency items they need for the given weather and/or geographical area. Most of the time people I hike with are saying "why do you pack so much stuff?" well, I will be the one who survives a catastrophe, won't I? I would rather carry more weight than die because I don't have enough.

Dec 05, 2008

What about a topo map and a compass even though one might have hiked the area before? An area can look different given time of day, daylight length, time of year (vegetation/stream flow changes), and if it's cloudy, forget relying on "sense of direction".

Dec 05, 2008

I agree with Carolyn, if you don't know how to spot a storm on its way you shouldn't be out in the bush in the first place.

Carolyn H
Dec 05, 2008

Funny, but my first thought was that if this man had known more how to read the weather in the sky, he wouldn't have needed to pay attention to a forecast or rely on his techno-gear. He'd have been able to tell that a storm was on the way.

Carolyn H.


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