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Worst Nightmare: Breathless

A hair-raising tale of wilderness terror that will haunt your backcountry dreams
OCT12_istock_snow14647132XL_445X260.Snow (iStock)

Snow fell in large flakes, each landing without a sound on the sheet of crystals that blanketed the Wyoming forest. Rob watched a cottony wisp the size of a postage stamp settle on the dark blue of his jacket sleeve. His thermometer read 16°F, and that was sure to drop soon. He wished he could snap a picture of his finished snow cave, a modest hump rising above the drifts, but his iPhone had weakened in the cold and he’d used its last juice navigating with his GPS app, and—a silly indulgence, he knew—flipping through pictures of Micronesia he’d downloaded the day before. He hoped to find some clarity in those dreamy shots of palm trees fringing white sand beaches. Instead, he’d gotten cold.

Still, so far this trip was exactly what he’d been hoping for: solitude in the crystalline forest, hard work building a snow cave. A vision quest, he supposed you could call it. He needed insight. He felt paralyzed by the hardest choice he’d ever faced. It had even been disrupting his formerly rock-solid sleep.

Of course he’d been thrilled when he’d opened that Peace Corps envelope and unfolded the letter offering him the chance to spend the next two years teaching English in the South Pacific. Coconut palms, tropical beaches, snorkeling, and actually making a difference—he couldn’t think of anything he’d rather do. Except, perhaps, accept the other offer on his plate: a full scholarship to medical school.

His decision was due in two days. Hence his escape to this clearing, an easy five-mile snowshoe, recommended by the guy in the gear shop near his aunt’s house in Pinedale. He’d never been winter camping alone before, but he’d brushed up with a book on snow shelters.

Building the cave had been harder than he’d expected, especially since the instructions were locked in his dead phone. Luckily he remembered most of it. It took him five long hours. He’d considered giving up as the sweat in his hair froze into salty icicles. But he’d been counting on succeeding; he’d brought no tent or tarp.

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