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Stranded in the Alpine Zone

Shuei Kato, 37, survived wind, cold, and hallucinations for four days in the Colorado backcountry in October, 2017.

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Nothing looked familiar, and yet, it all did. I thought I was headed in the right direction, but when no trail appeared, I realized something was wrong. By the time I turned around to retrace my steps, my bootprints had been erased by the blowing snow.

Earlier that morning, I’d set out to hike 14,067-foot Missouri Mountain on what the forecast said would be a bluebird fall day. It would be my 15th Colorado Fourteener, and by this point the climbs felt comfortably routine.

My usual hiking buddy was unavailable, but the 10.5-mile out-and-back seemed straightforward, albeit steep. I packed a daypack—including a stove, layers, and a day’s worth of food—and told my wife I’d be home that afternoon.

I started the ascent just after 7 a.m. Soon, the meadows and willow-lined creeks gave way to the treeless alpine.
Snow covered the trail, but with the peak in my crosshairs, routefinding was easy. I hiked on, reveling in the solitude—unusual for a Fourteener on a weekend.

With mountain views sweeping away to either side, the time passed quickly. After just over four hours, I finished the final scramble to the summit. I was already daydreaming about tackling the mountains to my left and right on future hikes as I settled down on the ridge. It was windy, but I wanted to linger amid the views as long as I could. Besides, I was sure the descent would be fast.

But as I started down, I found the windblown snow had filled in my tracks. With the peak as my landmark, the route up had been easy to find. But after sitting and looking every which way for an hour, I might as well have been blindfolded and spun in a circle—I had no idea which way I’d come up. I followed one snowy furrow after another, but each path led me to loose rocks, deep drifts, or steep drop-offs—nothing resembling the class 2 terrain I’d come up.

I decided to reevaluate. The sun was directly overhead, and I hadn’t packed a compass (I’d figured my phone screenshot of the route would be enough). But I knew the trail followed the west ridge before circling back to the north. With all these cliffs, I figured I was on the steep north side—if I could only pick my way down, I’d eventually hit my approach trail. I’d been on the peak for over an hour now and still had 5 miles to go. I felt nervous and rushed, and I was afraid of missing my descent trail altogether. Aiming to intersect it seemed like the surest way of finding it.

I started down, looking for familiar landmarks. I referenced photos I’d taken during the ascent, but it was little use—I couldn’t distinguish one tree or ridge from another.

After a few hours, I spotted a sign, labeled Elkhead Pass, and relief washed over me. But my map screenshot was too zoomed-in to show where the trail might take me.

Still, it was a path, so I headed downhill. I saw a bridge I thought looked familiar, but the rest of my photos didn’t match up. Frustrated, I powered down my phone to save the last of my dwindling battery.

At sunset, I was still hiking, but I was so sure I was close to my car that it didn’t make sense to stop—I just knew I’d stumble out of the trees and onto asphalt any minute.

But after a few more hours, I wasn’t so sure anymore. My flashlight quivered in my hand as the temperature dropped. I thought about my wife, and about my promise to be home before dark. Suddenly panicked, I hiked faster—I needed to get out and tell her I was OK. I knew it would be easier to navigate in daylight, but I couldn’t sleep, or reign in my anxiety enough to make myself stop moving. Plus, all the activity kept me warm.

At dawn, I heard a helicopter. I tied my red jacket to my trekking pole and waved, but the chopper was on the far side of the mountain. After a few hours, I gave up—until it came to my side of the ridge, I was on my own.

I left the trail and headed up a nearby knoll, hoping I’d find cell service to send a message with the last of my phone battery. After two hours, I got to the top and turned my phone on. I watched the signal bars as it powered up, hope soaring in my chest. Just then, my phone died. My one chance to make a call, and it was over before it started.

Until then, I’d been in denial. Now I realized this wasn’t just about finding my car—it was about finding my way out at all. I took a deep breath, reminded myself I still had plenty of snacks, and started back toward the trail. By now I knew it was the wrong one, but I still thought I was headed north. If I kept going, I figured I’d reach a familiar landmark eventually.

That night, I started to hallucinate, sure the sound of the water was a car blaring music. Every tree looked like it had a trail sign. Low on food and lured by the mirages, I stumbled along through the night, certain I’d reach the right trail any minute.

The next morning—day three— the wind kicked up again, and snow started falling. Cold and exhausted, I tried to light a fire with my Jetboil, but the wood was too wet.

Nothing to do but keep moving, I thought. I left the trail for a hill, hoping views would get me oriented.

When I got above treeline, my heart sank. There were no roads or trails in sight. Oh man, I thought, I’m on the wrong side of the mountain.

At sunset, I made a shelter of pine branches, nibbled at the last of my food, and tried to stay awake—I was shaking so violently I was afraid I’d die if I slept for too long. When the sun rose, I was still shivering. I got out my stove.

Then: the whir of a helicopter. Three tries and my pile of tinder lit. I saw the chopper turn toward me. I was getting out. 

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