Access Special Backpacker.com Features, Register Now!

True Tales: Flipped, Soaked, and Freezing

Two readers shiver for their lives through a cold, Alaskan summer night.
Flipping leads to cold. (by J. Dombrowski)

Survivors Matt and Agnes Hage, 38 and 29, Anchorage, Alaska
Predicament Hypothermic after a dip into icy whitewater near Girdwood, Alaska
Lesson learned “If things don’t seem right, bail early. The compounding effects of bad decisions can kill people in the wilderness.”

Escape Plan:
Treat Hypothermia

"In moderate conditions, the Twentymile River is a straightforward, beginner-level packraft trip with only a few rippling corners near the put-in. We were going on a mild July weekend with nighttime temps forecast to stay in the high 40s, and noaa.gov’s river gauge reported that the flow was mellow. Things looked perfect for our inaugural 15-mile float down the glacier-fed waterway.

"The first few bends were supposed to be the crux of our trip. We hesitated because the water looked more aggressive than we’d expected, but we proceeded anyway, think- ing these waves would be the day’s biggest thrill. What we didn’t know was that in the 24 hours since we’d checked the water level, the river’s volume had doubled.

"Within minutes, Agnes hit a sweeper and her packraft flipped her into the 44°F water. By the time we regrouped on the river’s far side, she was shivering and had lost her paddle—an essential piece of gear for ferry- ing her boat across the rapids.

"We couldn’t cross the river back toward the trailhead without a major bushwhack, so we plodded through the shallows toward the flat lower valley. It wasn’t until evening, after we’d spent the day knee-deep in the frigid water, that we realized the river was flooded and impassable. Our lips and skin were blue, our fingers and toes were numb, and we were shaking violently. Hypothermia was setting in, and we realized we’d be stuck overnight.

"At that point, we knew we were in trouble, and we focused on getting out of the water. It took two more hours of panicked bush- whacking and waist-deep wading to do it. We finally found a spot on a hillside to build a fire. We had almost no food, but the flames and spare dry clothes (thankfully, we each carried a drybag with a wool base- layer) warmed us enough to allow blood to flow back into our extremities. We even rested a bit before the all-day bushwhack to get home. Now, when in doubt, we turn back. There’s always a next time.

Leave a Reply