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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.

The nameless lake sits at 11,400 feet in Wyoming’s Fitzpatrick Wilderness, tight up against a ridge known as the Brown Cliffs. This high in the Wind River Range, there is no gentle fringe of trees, no sprigs of wildflowers to soften the sharp angles of the rocks, nothing but a few wind-blasted banks of snow. The blue eye of water stares straight up from a cracked bowl of boulders into a remote, seldom-visited land of wind and rock and sky.

At 1 o’clock in the afternoon on August 2, 1998, a lone hiker with a black dog was making his way through the chaos of boulders along the eastern shore of the unnamed lake. He was a tall man with a gait that was used to eating up the miles, but here he was moving slowly under the weight of his pack, picking his steps carefully and sweating under a chocolate-brown floppy hat. It was day 4 of a 9-day hike, and the going was tougher than he had hoped for. Snow and ice in the passes had rubbed the dog’s paws raw, slowing the pace. And now all this rock.

Nearing the lake, the hiker stepped onto a large boulder that shifted precariously under his weight. Instinctively, he leapt. The rock ahead was solid but tilted up at an awkward angle. His boots hit, and slid. The boulder behind kept coming, closing the gap. Just as his legs slipped off the edge, the boulders slammed together, catching the man above the knees, pinning him as if in the jaws of a trap.

There would have been pain, panic rising hot in the back of his throat, a swirl of dust in the air like smoke. There would have been the gunpowder smell of cracked rock and the ricochet of smaller pebbles clattering down the slope and splashing into the lake. And then nothing. As suddenly as it all had started, the rocks stopped rolling. The deep silence of the wilderness flowed back in like the water that closed around those few small stones settling without a sound on the bottom of the unnamed lake.

In the first moments following the rockslide, Mike Turner lay stunned. His breath came in ragged gasps choked with dust and fear, his heartbeat thumping against the rock. The dog, a Labrador mix named Andy, pricked up his ears at the commotion, waiting for his master to get up and move on.

Turner checked himself for injuries. Miraculously, his legs were trapped but not broken. With his bare hands and then using his tripod as a lever, he heaved against the tremendous weight of rocks, trying to pull himself free. At first, the boulder moved enough to ease the pain, though not enough to free him. A flicker of hope rose in him like a flame. He tried again, the tripod nearly snapping under the strain. Nothing. And again.

For more than an hour, he pried and shoved. But caught facing away from the boulder that pinned him, legs dangling in midair, even a big man like Turner could not gain enough leverage to move a piece of granite the size of a small car. The flicker of hope began to fade.

Exhausted, he rested, mind racing. This didn’t make sense. People don’t get trapped this way. How many thousands of times before had he stepped on boulders that wobbled? Perhaps he could dig himself out. He couldn’t reach the ground. Maybe he could yell for help. The wind swatted the sound from his throat.

He looked around. His view was nothing but rock, sky, and a glimmer of lake. He had almost made it; a dozen more steps and he’d have been at the lake’s edge, resting, filling his water bottles, the dog lapping happily at the water, nudging him to move on around the lake. Below, he noticed a few scant pockets of snow in the shadows. He needed to calm down, take his time, and think this through rationally. And so the Reverend Mike Turner reached for his journal and began to write.

“About 2 hours ago a large rock rolled upon me and trapped my legs,” the journal entry reads in scrawling, jagged letters. “I was very careful, be sure of that, but I hurt… I am in your hands Lord…I don’t know what I face.”

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