Worst Nightmare: Breathless

A hair-raising tale of wilderness terror that will haunt your backcountry dreams

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Snow fell in large flakes, each landing without a sound on the sheet of crystals that blanketed the Wyoming forest. Rob watched a cottony wisp the size of a postage stamp settle on the dark blue of his jacket sleeve. His thermometer read 16°F, and that was sure to drop soon. He wished he could snap a picture of his finished snow cave, a modest hump rising above the drifts, but his iPhone had weakened in the cold and he’d used its last juice navigating with his GPS app, and—a silly indulgence, he knew—flipping through pictures of Micronesia he’d downloaded the day before. He hoped to find some clarity in those dreamy shots of palm trees fringing white sand beaches. Instead, he’d gotten cold.

Still, so far this trip was exactly what he’d been hoping for: solitude in the crystalline forest, hard work building a snow cave. A vision quest, he supposed you could call it. He needed insight. He felt paralyzed by the hardest choice he’d ever faced. It had even been disrupting his formerly rock-solid sleep.

Of course he’d been thrilled when he’d opened that Peace Corps envelope and unfolded the letter offering him the chance to spend the next two years teaching English in the South Pacific. Coconut palms, tropical beaches, snorkeling, and actually making a difference—he couldn’t think of anything he’d rather do. Except, perhaps, accept the other offer on his plate: a full scholarship to medical school.

His decision was due in two days. Hence his escape to this clearing, an easy five-mile snowshoe, recommended by the guy in the gear shop near his aunt’s house in Pinedale. He’d never been winter camping alone before, but he’d brushed up with a book on snow shelters.

Building the cave had been harder than he’d expected, especially since the instructions were locked in his dead phone. Luckily he remembered most of it. It took him five long hours. He’d considered giving up as the sweat in his hair froze into salty icicles. But he’d been counting on succeeding; he’d brought no tent or tarp.

Now, knowing his small palace awaited him, he felt the joy he’d come out here looking for. He took one last look around and crawled through his narrow entry tunnel.

Inside, the shelter was eerily quiet. He had just enough room to sit up, and it was long and wide enough that he could stretch out and have room for his stove next to him. The wind whistled across the entrance, so he stuffed his pack into the doorway, sealing himself in. Next came the finishing touch: He lit a candle and stuck it on a small snow shelf. The light sparkled. It was like being inside a chandelier.

His Whisperlite’s flames made the room shine even brighter. Once the beef stew was in his belly, he felt warm and started to get drowsy. He was like a bear, he thought: holing away for the winter, snug inside his little cocoon. There were no bears in the South Pacific. Of course, in med school he’d probably be too busy to go camping anyway. He sighed. This wasn’t helping.

Maybe a cup of cocoa would revive him. Sleep heavy on his eyes, he fired up the stove again. His head started to ache, so he took a few swigs of water, the trickle cool and soothing on his throat as he watched the stove glow.

By the time he was ready to sip his chocolate, he felt positively lethargic, like the air itself was pressing down. It was a nice feeling.

Then the edges of his vision started to darken, and he lay back as the stove roared next to him, a hunk of snow melting slowly in his pot. He knew he shouldn’t leave the stove unattended, knew he ought to clean up before dozing off, knew he ought to get out his list of pros and cons. But just a moment couldn’t hurt. Maybe sleeping on it would help. He finally felt tired, for the first time in a week.

It seemed like the dream started right away. He was underwater, sinking slowly through a bluish-green sea, as fish nibbled his toes and waves crashed above him with a faint whoosh. It was hard to breathe. A deep dread pulled him even further down.

He awoke with a start. The cave smelled of burnt metal; the water in his pot had all boiled off. That feeling of drowning stayed with him, each breath not enough. He reached to turn the stove off, and tried to sit up. Somewhere, from an underground, muffled corner of his brain, the word “monoxide” bubbled up. He struggled to locate its meaning. Bio class. Diagrams of blood oxygen being replaced by carbon molecules. Odorless, colorless gas. Corpses still looking rosy and alive.

A doctor would have known better. He needed to know better, do better. He’d be more help to the world with some actual skills. If he could ever get out of here.

He swiped at his pack, too dizzy and weak to do much but flail his arm. His finger caught on one of the straps, and he managed to rock the whole thing a couple inches toward him as his hand fell. He hoped the gap he’d created was enough; he thought he could feel fresh, cool air seeping in.