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A Dozen Ways to Die

How do hikers meet their maker in the backcountry? The answers may surprise you.

4. Hypothermia
Exposure attacks both body and mind, quickly compromising your dexterity and decision-making ability.

On Saturday morning, November 30, 2002, Arthur Birchmeyer, a 58-year-old outdoors enthusiast from Syracuse, NY, ventured into the swampy Moose River Plains in the western Adirondacks. He was familiar with the area, but still carried a map, three compasses, and a GPS unit, in addition to a lighter, matches, a flashlight, and hunting equipment. Around midday, a cold front swept through, dumping 2 feet of snow and dropping temperatures into the teens. When Birchmeyer’s wife reported him missing on Monday, an intensive search began.

“By the time we got in there, we were dealing with subzero temperatures,” says ranger Will Geraud. Two days later, a helicopter pilot located Birchmeyer’s body less than a mile from the snowmobile trail he’d hiked in on. “Our initial assumption was that he had screwed up, that he didn’t know how to use the GPS,” Geraud recalls. Then searchers found his Garmin still on, recording data. When they combined that with evidence from his tracks, a far more tragic picture emerged.

Before he died, Birchmeyer had made several attempts to intersect the gated road that led to his truck. Unfortunately, he hit it in a whiteout, after heavy snow had bent the trees, obscuring the narrow track. A few hours later, he crossed back near the same place again, less than 300 yards from the road. He then climbed over a high ridge to the banks of the Indian River, where he built a fire under an overhanging spruce.

The next morning, Birchmeyer beelined northeast, heading for a waypoint labeled “end of road.” At 8:30 a.m., a “man overboard” waypoint appears on his GPS. He’d fallen in a beaver swamp up to his waist. To start a fire, he pried a bullet apart, but the gunpowder flashed too fast. His fingers probably weren’t working. “He was less than a half-mile from the gate,” says Geraud. “His vehicle–another mile and a half up the road–had a stove, sleeping bag, insulated one-piece suit, food, and water.”

But Birchmeyer thought he’d been wrong before, so he turned and headed back to his previous night’s camp on the Indian River. Failing to relight his fire, he died soon after.

Analysis
Hypothermia always ranks among the top three killers in cold-weather and mountain environments, and it’s a contributing factor in many other fatalities. In spots like Mt. Rainier and New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, cold is villain number one. But you don’t need winter to die of exposure. From the Smokies to the Sierra, hikers have been felled by the pernicious combination of wind, humidity, and 45°F temps.

Advice

  • Rehydrate and rest Dehydration and fatigue accelerate hypothermia, so don’t plod along in a single-minded effort to escape the cold. Stop regularly to eat and drink, and find a pace that will keep you warm without exhausting your muscles.
  • Pack some heat Like Birchmeyer, many hypothermia victims are dayhikers who leave their sleeping bags behind, expecting to return before dark. That may be a fine strategy in summer, but always pack a bag in winter. Chemical handwarmers and a thermos of hot soup are also wise, and a reliable supply of firestarting material–not just a lighter–is essential.
  • Learn winter tricks Leaves stuffed in your shirt make good insulation. A south-facing slope is warmer and less snowy.
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