Out Alive: Severe Hypothermia

Lost in an Alaskan blizzard, one man struggles to stave off hypothermia.

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I was in a rocky meadow, 22 miles into Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, when the cairns I was following disappeared. It was fall, the temperature was close to freezing, and night was coming, casting the rock field in a flat, dusky shade as if all the world was in a shadow. Without a map or compass, I could only trust my gut.

Earlier that day, I had started the 24-mile-long Crow Pass Trail from Eagle River to Girdwood. Most people take two days, starting in Girdwood and losing 3,100 feet of elevation by the time they arrive in Anchorage. But I planned to do it faster, and in reverse, by myself. My friends were going to an Oktoberfest celebration in Girdwood and I intended to meet them there.

I’m just a casual Alaskan hiker looking to get in better shape and thought pushing myself on a big dayhike would help make that happen. The few friends who might have gone with me weren’t available, but I went anyway; I love enjoying the outdoors alone. I’d heard the hike would take about 14 hours, so I packed a headlamp because I figured it would be dark by the time I rolled into Girdwood.

Morning was breaking when my buddy dropped me off at the trailhead. Just in case, I’d packed my down sleeping bag, an insulated jacket and pants, a raincoat, and an emergency blanket. I didn’t bring a tent, though, or a map and compass—it’s a popular route and I thought the trail would be easy enough to follow.

DARKNESS SPREAD as soon as I lost the trail, which had been following a stream. I deduced that if I just continued along the stream, I’d soon encounter the trail again. But, when I reached the end of the meadow, the creek splintered. I kept pushing. I knew I was lost but I wanted to get to town that night.

As I hiked, I wanted to blame anyone but myself—the meadow really needs cairns—but I knew I was the one who didn’t bring a map.

I climbed a slope to a ridge, expecting to see the lights of Girdwood twinkling on the far side. But it was all dark. I was exhausted now, and miserable, but still in good shape. I knew I’d need to sleep out and temps might get below freezing. I dug under a huge rock that’d block the breeze, got into my sleeping bag, put the emergency blanket on top like a bivy sack, and put rocks on the corners to keep it in place. My bag was rated to -15°F. It got a little wet, but I was warm.

I woke up before sunrise and climbed on, thinking Girdwood had to be just on the other side of the ridge, but it wasn’t. At daybreak, a blizzard blasted the ridge and I had to trudge through knee-deep snow. I was wearing uninsulated hiking boots and my feet got cold and started aching badly.

I climbed another ridge, thinking that this time, Girdwood lay on the other side for sure. Reaching the ridgeline felt like a moment of victory. But on the other side there were only more ridges and peaks. I knew I was in trouble and started to beat up on myself for being unprepared. But to turn around would be to admit defeat, so I had to move forward.

I slid down a steep, snow-covered slope on the far side. I got going pretty fast—faster than I wanted to—and lost a glove. When I stopped, I knew right away that I was on a glacier. I was surrounded by steep ice with nowhere to go but down. I walked carefully for an hour, picking my way around crevasses, until I reached the base. At this point I was really tired and one of my feet was so cold I could feel pain to the bone. I was off the snow by now and took off a shoe—I don’t know why—and walked like that for 30 minutes. Maybe it was adrenaline, maybe numbness, but the pain faded.

I came across a huge creek that I figured drained into Turnagain Arm and could at least lead me to the Seward Highway. I followed it through steep terrain, dense alders, and downed trees. My feet got really wet crossing several small streams and I ate the last of my food. I bushwhacked along the creek, climbing to avoid the densest vegetation and descending to make sure I stayed by the creek. Progress was really slow, and I began to feel more and more defeated. I thought about throwing myself to the boulders in the creek. They would rip me apart. It would be over so fast.

Finally, I reached a moose trail. There were some flat sections and I put in several miles very fast. I pushed into falling darkness until I was unable to see, turned on my headlamp, and kept going to get as much distance as I could. When I came to a fallen tree, at about 3 a.m., I decided I needed rest. Everything I had was wet but I crawled into my down sleeping bag and again wrapped it in the emergency blanket and put rocks on the corners, which made the thin material start to tear in the wind. For several hours I shivered badly, sometimes going numb. I hardly slept. I just lay there in a trance.

Sunday proved to be the most challenging day because I was utterly spent. The vegetation got thick again, and my legs were so tired I could barely lift them. I was delirious. I sang songs and recited poems. One was the epigraph of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild: “Old longings nomadic leap, Chafing at custom’s chain; Again from its brumal sleep Wakens the ferine strain.”

By the afternoon, I still hadn’t found a road. I realized that I could die out there. Around 3 p.m., I felt like I needed sleep. I removed my wet shoes and socks and pulled out my soaked-through sleeping bag. I got in and 10 minutes later, I was shivering crazily. I could feel my arms and legs going numb. The veins in my hands were bright blue.

I was thinking of my mom, of her hearing the news that her son died. I’m an only child. I thought about my friends, too, but mostly my family. I knew if I was to stay that night, I was not going to wake up. I said to myself, I’m not going to go out without a fight. I put my shoes and socks back on and wrapped my hands and feet in the shreds of the emergency blanket. I could barely feel my knees or ankles. I was staggering like a drunk.

My headlamp was dead now, but just then I saw something magnificent: a little piece of orange tape hanging on a branch. It had been two days since I saw anything man-made. A little while later, I saw a cut I knew was made by a chain saw. Sure enough, minutes later, I found another piece of orange tape and then a trail. It wasn’t well-maintained but it led to a tiny parking lot for ATVs.

I followed this trail in complete darkness, guided only by dim moonlight reflecting on pools of water in the ATV trail. I was crying out loud for help. Eventually, I saw another magnificent sight: lights in the windows of homes. I was in a lot of pain. I cried for help but no one came outside. In my delirium, I decided not to bother these people because I knew the highway was close by.

I tried to hitchhike but no one would stop at 10:30 p.m. I looked like a miserable, beat-up homeless guy. Probably 100 cars went by and none stopped. Finally, I made it to a rustic motel, the Birdridge Motel & RV Park. I saw people inside the living room. I said, “Please help! I’m not a bandit.” After five minutes of this, a man opened the door. He was the kindest person. He was with his wife and three kids—one was a newborn baby.

He poured me chicken broth and hot tea, and lit the wood stove. It only took 20 minutes for me to start feeling better. It was the best cup of chicken broth I ever tasted.

[Key Skill]
Self-Diagnose Hypothermia

Here’s the thing about hypothermia: If you have it, like John Carlos Mann did, your brain will be too fuzzed up to realize it. Here’s the other thing: If you don’t actively treat hypothermia, it only gets worse. When hiking with a buddy, check in with your partner and diagnose hypothermia’s telltale “umbles” (stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles). Not so easy by yourself. We asked Jennifer Dow, medical director for the National Park Service’s Alaska region, for her best tips on how to do it solo.

1. Think of hypothermia as a continuum. Cold is the first step. If you feel chilled and/or your clothing is wet, stop, adjust your layers or change into dry clothes, and eat sugar and protein for fuel.
2. Pay attention to your fine motor skills. Dropping your gloves? Can’t tie your shoes? Having a hard timet zipping your jacket? Don’t brush off these warning signs. “The early signs of intoxication are very similar to the early signs of hypothermia,” Dow says
3. Take shivering seriously. This may be your last chance to head-off more severe hypothermia. Shivering is the body’s frantic effort to heat itself and it burns a ton of fuel attempting to do so. Consider this your final warning.
4. Above all, know when hypothermia could affect you. Hypothermia is more common at milder temperatures than subfreezing ones, because people heading out into freezing conditions are generally prepared for them, Dow says.