Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In



Worst Nightmare: Cold

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.

Derek eased his legs into the cockpit until his soles felt the firmness of the kayak’s foot braces. Somewhere out there, five miles across the Strait, was Blakely Island.

“Who do you know on Blakely?” he asked.

“Gordon Manicker,” said MK. “Starbucks CFO.” Unserved by ferries, Blakely was an isolated island of compounds. “Said we were welcome to go hiking. Stop for coffee. Gord’s got his own Clover press.”

Derek checked the map. “Northwest heading should get us there,” he said, pointing into the curtain of drizzle. MK stroked past him.

A week ago when MK suggested a New Year’s trip, half the SONEN staff signed up. A winter paddle-and-hike in the San Juans with the boss and his new boat. Bracing! Fun! Kind of not optional! So Derek borrowed his neighbor’s kayak. And then it rained. Which it did every day in winter. But apparently the drops turned his co-workers to jelly. In the end it was just Derek and the man.

He doubted MK even knew his name. The way he used phrases that elided the proper noun. Everybody knew MK’s name, of course. Michael Kee, director of the SONEN Biomedical Institute, formerly of Goldman Sachs. The Vanity Fair piece hinted at some dark incident behind the pretentious initialism, but Derek just assumed the guy didn’t like the Life cereal sound of “Mike Kee.”

MK broke the ice. “So you keep our checkbook balanced, eh?”

“Yeah.” Pause. “Derek.” Nip the bud.

“Of course,” said MK. Smiled. “So how we doing, Derek?”

“Good,” he said. “A stray thread here and there. Probably nothing. An errant zero. Happens all the time.”

MK let it drop. He wasn’t a numbers guy. He was big picture, famously so.

They paddled on. Drizzle turned to hard rain. As they moved into the Strait, Derek sensed a change in the water. It grew thick and pushy. Half an hour in, all sign of land disappeared. They had kayaked into a ground cloud.

“Let’s see where we’re at,” said MK, pulling out his iPhone.

“The hell!” said MK. “We’re going in the wrong direction.” Half accusatory. The iPhone showed a bounce northwest, then a long plunge south. Derek thought for a moment. Of course. The tidal current. How stupid. The moon was draining the ocean through the Strait, sucking them south at three knots.

“It’s not our heading,” Derek said. “It’s—”

From the west, a gust. An unexpected push.

Derek caught himself with his paddle. MK didn’t. He splashed into three o’clock. Head and body submerged. He used both hands to yank his spray skirt, escaping the death trap but flooding the cockpit.
Derek grabbed hold of the keel and righted MK’s craft. Easier than he expected. A rush of relief. Derek helped MK climb back on.

MK gasped. He held his fingers as if trying to warm them by a fire.

“Your hands,” said Derek, pulling alongside. “Here.” MK’s palms to Derek’s belly, ice to skin. In MK’s eyes, fear and contempt. The fright of losing control. Disdain for Derek. That the well-hedged investment of MK’s life should depend on this bearded underling, this mediocre annual review. MK changed worlds. Derek changed tax depreciation estimates.

MK jerked his hands back. Finding his paddle, he dug into the water. And got nowhere. The kayak’s buoyancy bags and flooded cockpit, having battled to a draw, left the craft deckline-low.

“We’ll have to angle the current back to shore,” Derek said. “First let’s get that water out. Here’s the bilge pump.”

Ten minutes pumping. MK’s boat still rode too low to paddle. The wind picked up. A shiver started at MK’s limbs and made its way to his core. The pump slipped from his hand and floated away.

Derek rafted the kayaks. He reached over and peeled off MK’s shirt. Working quickly, he stripped his own jacket and shirt and dressed the boss. Derek tied MK’s bow to his own stern and paddled bare skinned through the storm. We’ll be all right, he told himself.

But the current was winning the battle. The barge behind him turned sluggish. Derek looked back. Wind-driven water slopped over MK’s cockpit rim. An anchor.

Derek untied the towline. “Climb onto my kayak,” he said. “Quickly!” The boat sagged with the extra weight. It almost went over. The craft couldn’t handle them both in the wind-churned water.

Numbers. Balance. Numbers. Derek made MK at 230, maybe 240 pounds. Derek rarely topped 170. If he put MK at the center point, maybe… “Switch with me,” he said.

Derek levered himself out. He crouched forward while MK moved into the cockpit with his paddle.
Better. But still too heavy. Derek rode the kayak like a rocking horse, facing MK, his hands gripping the cockpit rim. Water sloshed into the boat as MK paddled, first feebly and then with more force. At least he was coming back from the brink.

But the tide was still pushing them in the wrong direction. “We need to lose weight,” Derek said.
MK nodded. He raised the paddle. A shift of the hips, the soft thunk of the hard shaft on soft flesh. The wind wiped away the shouting, the frantic splashing of broken fingers.

The older man swung the kayak east toward shore and paddled with renewed energy. They felt good, the dry clothes, the steady motion, the problems solved, the natural order restored.

How to Pack for Backcountry Skiing

Get to know the winter safety gear you need in your pack.