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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)

Then the edges of his vision started to darken, and he lay back as the stove roared next to him, a hunk of snow melting slowly in his pot. He knew he shouldn’t leave the stove unattended, knew he ought to clean up before dozing off, knew he ought to get out his list of pros and cons. But just a moment couldn’t hurt. Maybe sleeping on it would help. He finally felt tired, for the first time in a week.

It seemed like the dream started right away. He was underwater, sinking slowly through a bluish-green sea, as fish nibbled his toes and waves crashed above him with a faint whoosh. It was hard to breathe. A deep dread pulled him even further down.

He awoke with a start. The cave smelled of burnt metal; the water in his pot had all boiled off. That feeling of drowning stayed with him, each breath not enough. He reached to turn the stove off, and tried to sit up. Somewhere, from an underground, muffled corner of his brain, the word “monoxide” bubbled up. He struggled to locate its meaning. Bio class. Diagrams of blood oxygen being replaced by carbon molecules. Odorless, colorless gas. Corpses still looking rosy and alive.

A doctor would have known better. He needed to know better, do better. He’d be more help to the world with some actual skills. If he could ever get out of here.

He swiped at his pack, too dizzy and weak to do much but flail his arm. His finger caught on one of the straps, and he managed to rock the whole thing a couple inches toward him as his hand fell. He hoped the gap he’d created was enough; he thought he could feel fresh, cool air seeping in.

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