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December 2007

Backcountry Survival: How to Survive in the Backcountry

There's a backcountry killer on the loose, and it's not hypothermia, grizzly bears, or rockfall. The thing mostly likely to maim you on your next hiking trip is living inside your head.

On August 4th, 1999, Raffi Kodikian, 25, and David Coughlin, 26, best friends since college, backpacked into Rattlesnake Canyon in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southern New Mexico. They made camp a couple miles down the trail and boiled hot dogs for dinner. In the morning, they packed up and headed back to the car, but somehow got turned around. They had a topo map, but neither of them could read it. Suddenly lost in the Chihuahuan Desert, Kodikian and Coughlin began wandering among the ocotillo cacti, passing several cairns marking the trail out of the canyon. They drank all of their water, but it rained in the afternoon, so they slurped from pools, refilled their water bottles, and prepared to spend a second night out.

Although they knew their car was parked on the eastern rim of the canyon, that night Kodikian thought he spotted a light on the western rim. So the following morning, stumbling through 90F heat, they crossed the canyon floor and scrambled up the far rim hoping to find a road. Surrounded only by more cacti, they slumped into the shade and watched vultures circle overhead. An hour later and parched with thirst, they struggled back to their camp, sucking prickly pear cactus fruit for its sappy juice. Later that night, Kodikian gagged trying to drink his own urine.

By the third morning, Kodikian and Coughlin convinced themselves they were going to die, and made a suicide pact. They tried slitting each other’s wrists, but their hunting knife was too dull. Then, according to Kodikian, Coughlin began begging Kodikian to kill him, to spare him the agony of dying of thirst. Kodikian obliged, plunging the knife twice into his best friend’s heart.

Park ranger Lance Mattson found the men less than six hours later. Kodikian was lying in his tent.

“Where’s your buddy?” Mattson asked.

“Over there,” Kodikian said calmly, pointing to a pile of rocks atop a shallow grave. “I killed him.”

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