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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.

“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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