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June 2002

Trapped! The Mike Turner Story

Deep in Wyoming's Wind River Range, an accident with a sliding boulder makes a hiker confront his life, his fate, and his faith in God.

Photos by Todd Meier, Mike Turner (inset)

I feel so foolish taking this longer pass,” Turner wrote on the Wednesday after he was trapped. “So lonely, more than I imagined…Who would have guessed that 4 days would have gone by and no one has come this way?”

Although the loneliness was difficult, the weather was his most immediate threat. Records from the weather station at nearby Big Piney show that temperatures during that time broke 100°F during the day and dropped to 39°F at night. Five thousand feet higher in the mountains, the cold nights would have seemed endless, the midday sun brutal. The merciless cycle of cold and heat wrings the water from a human body. At rest, a human male loses about 2 1/2 quarts every day through sweat, urination, and respiration. Heat, exposure to sun and wind, and physical exertion such as struggling with a boulder can double the loss. Thirst begins at just a .8 percent drop in body weight from water loss. A 3 to 4 percent loss, which can easily occur in just 24 hours of exposure, can cause fatigue and confusion. At 10 percent, physical and mental deterioration begins. A 15 to 25 percent drop causes death.

At first, Turner melted snow, but the few pockets he could reach soon ran out. Once, he tied a length of cord to the lid of his water bottle and tried tossing it into the lake. It jammed in the rocks just a few feet short.

Another night. The dead cold of the boulders sucked the warmth from his body. He woke again and again, shivering.

Another day, hours on end with nothing but the sound of the wind shoving against the mountains, an occasional whistle from a pika in the talus. Without water, exposed to the elements, Turner soon began feeling the effects, hallucinating once that he could see Diane and Katie standing nearby.

“They had been on the rock. I cried out aloud for you. The rock seemed to have moved…[I]t is like others are present, only it is Andy and then I am doing something because ‘they’ suggested it.”

But there was no “they.” Every moan of the wind must have seemed like a human voice, every clatter of rock like an approaching footstep. Still, no one appeared. Mike Turner was alone, almost.

“God is with me but I am angry with him. Why this terrible injustice, or is it the product of pride? This sense of wrestling against God or the angel of God is distressing. What can I do against God?…I don’t want to be fighting against God’s will. How am I failing him or what does he need me to teach? What is the purpose of this ordeal? Will I ever know, or continue to be puzzled, angered, and feel quite abandoned by the one I serve?”

To a man who had spent most of his adult life teaching others the joys of God’s eternal presence in their lives, the sense of abandonment must have been gut wrenching. Steeped in biblical teachings, he could not help but recognize the parallels between his entrapment and the imprisonment of Paul or the Old Testament sufferings of Job. He understood that even a lifetime of faith and obedience did not keep a person from pain and suffering, but this was more than even he could have imagined.

“Last evening I was getting my bedding set around my feet, my bedding can’t get down there normally, when I noticed something like a cast on the front of my leg. It was my leg without feeling. I felt like I had to get out and began working from 9 p.m. to 12, slowly levering the rock. Now it is tighter. I cried out and cried out to God who doesn’t seem to care about my suffering, struggling, and pain, and the loss of my left leg. I begged and prayed for some help in moving the rock but none seemed to come.”

He was, in a sense, living out his own parable deep in the wilderness, alternately wracked by guilt, anger, hope, betrayal, and yearning. The question of faith must never have seemed so stark, so simple, and yet so difficult. Alone in a way few people experience, Turner had only the biblical promise that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels…nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.”

Sometime after the 5th day, as Turner shifted his body or struggled against the boulder, the journal slipped out of his reach. In the time he had been trapped, the notebook had kept his voice and hopes alive, providing him with a thin, frayed connection to his family and friends, to a life beyond the pile of rocks. Now it was gone. Frantically, he dug for anything to write on. In his first-aid kit he found a pocket New Testament, and over the next few days he filled the blank pages at the front and back. When those were full, he used the margins of the only piece of paper he had left, the instruction sheet for his one-burner camp stove.

These notes are less organized, less legible. “Shutting down,” he wrote as he passed a week trapped in the rocks. “Getting low. Thought I would be found yesterday…Many thoughts, most of church, future for kids, some friends…I love you Diane, terribly sorry for stupid [unreadable word].”

Even with the scrawled, undated entries in the Bible and on the instruction sheet, it is impossible to imagine what the last days of Mike Turner’s life were like-the burning dryness of his throat, the cramping muscles, his mind losing track of time and place. “3,” he wrote, and then circled it. “Journal, the Bible, and this,” clues to be sure all his notes would be found. “Fading to nothing. So skinny.” He removed his wedding ring and set it on a rock nearby so that it would not slip off his finger and be lost.

As a pastor, Mike Turner had been called upon hundreds of times to comfort others in the face of death. At funerals and in the hushed living rooms of mourning families, he had overseen the passing of others. Now, alone in one of the wildest places on the continent, he was, in effect, overseeing his own.

“Fill me with peace, Lord. May the conditions not deny my love for you…I am ready to die, though missing my family. To live is Christ. To die is gain…I will trust in God though he will slay me, yet will I trust him, he is the way, the truth, the light.”

As his final hours approached, Turner’s body was shutting down; but it was as though his spirit was opening up. All the questions, all the doubt and anger seemed to dissolve like so much morning mist on that unnamed lake. What remained was the unbreakable bedrock of belief.

“God loves [unreadable word] Love Dad, Mike,” the last legible line reads. A boulder could crush his legs; it could not crush his faith.

And then, 10 days after he was pinned, Mike Turner’s journal goes silent.

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