Lost, Injured, and Cold

For George Brown, 68, a morning trail run in August 2018 became more than 40 hours stranded in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness with a broken leg.
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broken leg

George Brown survived two nights in the Montana wilderness with a broken bone.

I shivered in the darkness, leaning against the barren hillside, my broken leg laid carefully in front of me—positioning my body just like the voices in my head had told me to. They offered advice and encouraging words. Maybe they could help me. “I’m really cold here. Anyone got a blanket?” I asked. No answer.

Three days earlier, I had embarked on a guided group horseback journey through the Montana backcountry. After we pitched camp in the morning, I decided to go on a solo trail run. It had been years since I’d been in the backcountry, but I often trail run near my home in Marin County, California. I figured this would just be a small step up. I picked an 8-mile loop on another guy’s map and showed him my intended route so he would know where I was headed. Then I packed a bag with snacks and water and planned to be back by midafternoon.

I departed under a clear sky, but after about 1.5 miles, dark clouds rolled in. Charred, fallen trees from a wildfire were covering the trail. It disappeared under the debris and I lost track of it. I began to feel uneasy; everything felt much more remote than I had anticipated. As I contemplated backtracking, it started to drizzle, so I crouched under a log to stay dry.

When the rain let up 20 minutes later, I still couldn’t find the trail. I knew it ultimately passed through the canyon below, and I was pretty sure that I could take a shortcut down the slope, through the canyon, and back to camp. I was so eager to feel at ease that I scampered down the hill without paying attention to my footing. I slipped on a slick, burnt log and careened into a tree trunk with tremendous pressure on my shin--—crack. I sat stunned, legs splayed in front of me.

When I reached forward to investigate, I saw that above my ankle, my sock bulged unnaturally. I lifted the leg with my hands, and my foot dangled. Pain shot upward when I moved the foot side to side. I could only lay it straight in front of me, motionless. I didn’t even bother trying to stand.

I knew from survival stories I’d read that staying calm was crucial. Surely the group would notice my absence tonight and start searching in the morning. All I had to do was wait, hope, and stay alive.

But that was easier said than done. For a brief moment, the reality of my situation cut through my resolve. “Help me!” I shouted, only to hear an echo in return. I suddenly felt hopeless, imagining my own death. Then I thought of my wife and daughters. I sucked in a deep breath and gave myself a pep talk. It was a clear choice: Submit to the cold and the pain, or commit 100 percent to survival. There was no room for negativity.

Daylight diminished and the temperature dropped into the 40s. I was wearing only running shorts and a T-shirt—no match for an August night in Montana at nearly 6,000 feet. I held my backpack against my chest, put my face in the opening, and sealed the flap around the brim of my cap. Each breath filled the backpack with hot air to warm my body. Though I don’t remember sleeping, I must have drifted in and out. The more time passed, the more optimistic I felt.

In the morning, sunlight crept across the valley and finally warmed my back. I wondered how long it would take for rescuers to find me off the trail—because the trees were mostly burnt, I was in a fairly visible spot. But as the day progressed, I worried about dehydration. I decided to head downhill in search of a stream. I lifted my leg and placed my foot flat on the ground, then propped myself up on my hands and pushed my bottom forward. Carefully, I moved downhill, placing my leg ahead of me and crab-walking after it. It was slow going, but this method kept the pain to a minimum.

Around 4 p.m., I heard the distant thunder of a helicopter. Excitement shot through my veins. Someone was looking for me. The helicopter appeared over the canyon, then turned my way. I waved frantically, but it passed overhead and disappeared. By moving, I had hidden myself in a graveyard of fallen trees and shrubby vegetation. I was disappointed, but I had to continue. If I stayed here, nobody would ever find me.

Around 8:30 p.m., I stopped on a ledge for the night. By the time it was completely dark, I started to hallucinate. The voices instructed me on how to sit to keep warm. They calmed me, and I felt like I was surrounded by friends. I drifted to sleep.

I woke before dawn, disappointed to find myself alone again. At sunrise I began moving toward the canyon bottom. Two hours later, I found the trail. As I sat considering my options, three men on horseback appeared down the path. My heart leapt. “I’m over here!” I shouted. The SAR team rushed over. As they talked to me and I chugged water, I realized just how sluggish my mind was. They told me I should be proud of myself, helped me onto a horse, and escorted me to safety through the canyon that had almost killed me.

Skill School: Manage a Broken Bone

Duncan Adams is the Rescue Operations Sargent for Lewis and Clark Search and Rescue in Helena, MT. He was crucial to Brown’s rescue. Follow his advice to stay safe in the face of an injury.

Control pain. “Find a position of comfort for the injured limb and keep it there,” Adams says. Use any materials you have—extra clothes, trekking poles, sticks—to fashion a rigid and padded splint.

Stay warm. Bundle up and build a fire if you can, and shield yourself from heat loss to the ground and wind. If you can’t make a fire and are able, move in place: “Physical exertion can generate heat for the body, but only as long as you have energy reserves and aren’t perspiring or in pain,” Adams says.

Help the rescuers. If you’re on a trail, stay there so searchers can find you. Stay positive—a clear and optimistic mindset can make the difference between life and death.