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One last crossing. That’s what I told myself. I’d ford this one, the third or so that day, and set up camp on the other side, right in the middle of Yosemite’s backcountry.
I was almost 1,000 miles into a northbound thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d been hiking hard for two months, and I was eager to keep putting in long days to finish by the time law school started in August. But, thanks to a big snow year in the Sierra, I’d spent the whole day postholing. It didn’t bother me too much—as you might expect of a PCT thru-hiker, all I could think about was dinner.
So when I came upon Return Creek, I didn’t think twice. The water was moving fast, but I’d forded plenty of other streams in the same conditions. Just one last crossing. I stashed my glasses in my pack and unbuckled my hipbelt.
I stepped in, feeling the water gush around my ankles and into my shoes, already soaked from the snow. A few steps in, the river bottom fell away. My confidence faltered, but I was committed: I had a schedule to keep, and this was the only thing standing between me and a hot bowl of chicken and rice.
The water rose to my navel. Too deep. Just as I was thinking about turning back, a loose rock rolled beneath my foot.
I went under for a split second before my pack bobbed to the surface, pushing me forward and shoving my head into the freezing water. The current sucked my trekking poles from my hands. I fought gasping to the surface and tried to orient myself in the chaos. It didn’t take long to remember the series of 5-foot waterfalls just downstream.
The distance between me and the brink was shrinking fast. If I get knocked out on those rocks, I’m done for, I thought.
I clawed at the rapids and stretched my legs toward the riverbed, but with the floating pack, my feet wouldn’t stick. I squirmed out of the straps and struggled to shore just in time to see my pack dip over the edge of the falls—taking my food, gear, and glasses with it.
I sprinted downriver after my belongings, turning a corner near the base of the falls. My pack! With a burst of hope, I saw it caught in a vortex, hovering in the middle of the river. I dropped to my belly, leaning out over the bank. Just as my fingers grazed a strap, the pack caught a current and was swept away, out of sight.
I lay still. That was it.
I was wet and gearless, and the sun was sinking fast. With Tioga Road still closed for the winter, it could be days before I’d see another human.
In the snow, routefinding had been hard even with a compass. I’d passed a shelter 15 miles away in Tuolomne Meadows, but I knew I didn’t have enough time to make it before dark, and navigating at night was out of the question.
I remembered a bare spot in the snow about 8 miles back. That, I could get to. Suddenly, accomplishing that small objective was all that mattered. I started running, eyes glued to my own footprints—without my glasses, those tracks were about as far as I could see.
I can do this, I told myself. I’m not going to die out here. I’m not that Into the Wild kid. No one’s going to write a book about me because I’m going to make it.
The snow petered out just as the light did. Without a headlamp, my hiking day ended with the last of the sun. Temps had now dropped into the low 30s. I found a patch of dry ground under a pine tree and lay down in my wet clothes to sleep.
After 20 minutes, my hands and feet were numb. If I fall asleep, I realized, I might not wake up. I shook off the growing fear and focused on my new objective: Make it through the night.
I set my watch to go off every 20 minutes. When it did, I ran circles and did jumping jacks and squats. Between sets, I’d conserve energy, curling up on the ground until I lost feeling again.
During those nine hours, I lost track of time—but not of my situation. What if I slept through the alarm? Or got too exhausted to keep moving? Even if I survived the night, I could get lost hiking out. If I did, would Search and Rescue ever find me? Would they even be looking?
I thought about my family, who I hadn’t spoken to much since I’d started hiking. I thought about my late grandfather and his garden. I almost smiled remembering the war stories about his battles with the perpetually hungry neighborhood deer. I thought about having my own family one day. The thought of missing out on that, on life—that’s what kept me going.
When light leaked into the sky between the trees, I smiled. I did it. I told myself the hard part was over, but I’d forgotten about the two river crossings I had ahead of me.
I snapped off branches for makeshift trekking poles as I waited for the sun to rise higher. If I fell in again, I’d need it to warm me back up. I paced the bank at the first crossing for an hour, thinking about
the people I loved. When I finally waded in, hip-deep,
my heart was in my mouth. But I made it.
After two more hours of hiking, my footprints came to a halt on snow too hard to hold tracks. The world beyond them was too blurry to see.
Fear seeped back in. You’re not lost, I told myself. You’re getting out of this. But I wasn’t convinced. I looked to the sky, hoping my grandfather was watching over me, and asked for a sign.
A few feet away, a set of deer tracks caught my eye. Those damn deer, I heard my grandfather say. I knew it was risky to leave the spot I knew, but I didn’t have any other options. Maybe this was the sign had I asked for.
I followed them through the trees for about 100 yards. There I stopped short: my own footprints. The deer had led me back to the trail. Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone.
I followed my tracks to Tuolumne Meadows, where they disappeared into a dimpled field of sun cups. I knew I was close to the shelter, but it could be in any out-of-focus direction I looked.
I picked one bearing after another, each time finding nothing and tracking my way back to the start. The day was ending, and I’d failed. It had been a good run, but this felt like the end. I was hungry and exhausted. I didn’t know if I’d survive another night without shelter. Even if I did find it—what then?
I was fighting panic when I heard buzzing. I turned around. I could barely make out a column of snow shooting above the trees.
Then I heard it. Beeping. A truck backing up. I started running—straight to the edge of the icy Tuolumne River.
There was a plow crew on the other side, but they couldn’t see me. Just one last crossing. I could have laughed. There was a bridge 3 miles back the way I’d come, but I couldn’t risk missing this crew, a one in a million chance this far in the backcountry. You just got handed your life, I told myself. Don’t mess this up.
I ran upstream, took a deep breath, and jumped in. My chest tightened with the cold. I swam harder than I ever had, shot through with adrenaline.
Blue-lipped and shaking, I hobbled over to the plow and banged on the window. The cab door swung open and for the first time since I lost my pack, I knew I was going to make it. My hike might be over, but my life would go on.
Fight the cold
Know the signs.
Shivering, clumsiness, and numb skin are early signs of hypothermia. When shivering stops and stumbling begins, things are serious.
Remove wet clothes, add dry layers, and get out of the wind. Wrap yourself in a sleeping bag or tarp with hot water bottles.
Exercise to raise your core body temperature. (Stay away from rocks and ledges if clumsiness is severe.)
Feed the shiver.
Keep the furnace fueled with quick-burning carbohydrates and warm drinks.
Mental confusion and apathy are the most dangerous symptoms of advanced hypothermia. Warming can take hours, so be patient and keep fighting.