HYPOTHERMIA- A Close Call In Colorado
Tom and I had been exploring a new trekking route on the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado. It was late March and a major weather front moved into the area during the late afternoon of the first day of our 3-4 day trip. We were traveling in a primitive mode, with limited gear consisting of items such as wool and polypro clothing, waterproof ponchos, limited food supply, maps and compass, shelter building materials, and low-tech fire starting methods. We both had significant outdoor and guiding experience and our medical background and education were good.
By mid-afternoon of the second day we had taken a physical pounding. We had not adequately recovered from the previous day's trek. Our calorie reserves were down and we hadn't completely dried out during the night. The weather had partially cleared during the morning but now the sky began to gather black and it looked as if our sunny reprieve was over. Looking up the canyon, the low misty clouds began to shroud the rim of the canyon. There was no break in the storm ahead and we decided to exit the canyon at the first opportunity, concluding that there would be better shelter and firewood on the rim. The creek now twisted wildly back and forth in the canyon bottoms. The banks of the creek were higher now and soft. The flats were filled with thick wiry willow brush and wild rose. Crossings became almost unbearable and struggling through the flats painful. It was through this terrain we traveled for more than an hour, when we finally reached a point on the south bank that would lead us to the crest of the rim. The long rocky slope extended up from the creek bed, covering the red stony cliffs and ridges, making a steady steep pathway to the top. These slopes don`t occur frequently in the Dominguez Canyons, and are usually the only way to reach the rim from the canyon bottom. We were glad to see it.
As we started up the long slope the rain began in a light mist. As we climbed higher the wind began to blow. At first it came as a light breeze, refreshing and delicious, then suddenly it transformed into a hateful gale, carrying away our body heat and precious little energy reserves, which were already dangerously low. The hill was long and seemed to stretch forever upwards into the darkened mist. My legs ached and my lungs burned with each successive step. My fingers and ears were numbed from the howling cold and I cursed the ugly wind. I could feel a deep burning in the pit of my insides and I knew I was running on empty. The wind roared and the rain began to fall heavily. We finally reached the top, feeling hollow and empty. The mesa was rolling and covered with Pinion and Juniper trees. As we moved further from the edge of the rim the wind stopped and the air was still.
Traveling south we stepped onto an old jeep road. I recognized the road from a previous trip a year before. I knew the country well to the south towards Escalante Canyon. I suddenly felt better at this discovery. The rain intensified as we followed the road into a wide grassy meadow, where it divided and went in opposite directions. We stood at the crossroads with the cold rain pounding the red mud, our bodies soaked to the bone, shivering, hungry, and in bad need of food and sleep, wondering which way to go. Following the road to the east would take us to the upper reaches of the Gunnison Gulch and Lightning Basin. From there it was all unknown country and our route would be without trails and in the dark, possibly dangerous. To travel south would eventually lead us down to the fertile grasslands of the Escalante Breaks. I knew there was a cabin in the Breaks and our route to it would be all jeep trails and could be followed in darkness. It would be a desperate journey, but the route was familiar to me.
To return over the same route we had followed for the past two days was now impossible. Darkness was soon to be upon us, our strength was drained and hypothermia had already begun taking it's silent toll on our beaten bodies. There were several choices before us and none of them the least bit desirable. No matter how hard I tried, the rain still hammered my tired head and my body still shook with cold and exhaustion.
Tom suggested we build a shelter and start a fire and spend the night where we were, on the Dominguez rim. We knew our situation was dangerous and just couldn't see any way to go on. We began collecting materials to construct our shelter and soon I found myself standing with a small twig in my hand watching Tom do all of the work. I couldn't seem to make myself go. I knew what was happening to me, and I was helpless to stop it. I was sinking into the mid stages of hypothermia and all I could do was stare at the small twig in my hand and watch Tom work. We knew that a fire was what we needed. It appeared that the rain had been falling heavily for the past two days on the top of the mesa. All of the possible hideaways for dry tinder had been saturated, and we were unsuccessful at creating a fire. In retrospect, I know if we were in better condition and our judgment sound, we could have started a fire. We have both done it several times, before and since, under similar conditions. Tom looked at me, realizing that my condition was deteriorating and suggested we make another decision. We didn't need to discuss it. The impression was strong and clear; to go to the Escalante Breaks and find the cabin. This decision proved to be life saving. All of the others would have been fatal, as we later discovered.
The thick gray sky darkened with the coming of night. The sun was sinking in this cold and darkened land and I was carried away in a strange thought, remembering what is was like to stand on a warm southern beach and gaze out at the immense horizon and watch the dying sun as it suddenly exploded into fiery crimson on it`s way to the other side of the world. I almost felt as if I were on that beach, drinking in the warm sea breezes and feeling the fading rays of the friendly sun. I was suddenly brought back to reality as I slipped in the cold mud and fell to one knee. It was now twilight, that strange time between night and day when nature seems to hold her breath and everything stands silent and still for a instant. As used up as we were, we could still sense the soft beauty of the moment. The road seemed to stretch endlessly before us and we silently continued on. The only sound was the drizzle of rain, the sucking of our boots in the red slop, and the far off muffled rumble of the lingering storm.
The moon provided an eerie light through the thick clouds. The dim glow outlined the edges of the old road as we walked endlessly on. Our bodies were running on guts now, for long before we had run out of calories. We trudged forward like old monks on a sacred pilgrimage to a holy mountain, only our pilgrimage was survival and our destination, life. Lights from the far off towns created a glow in the clouds and my thoughts again drifted. I imagined people in warm cars driving to the movies and slinking down into soft warm seats, I could see people in restaurants gorging on a variety of foods, I could almost hear the country western band playing at the local bar as people held each other close and moved with the music across the floor. One time during the long night we heard the low, rolling sound of a passenger jet as it pierced the high, clear skies and I thought of all the people sitting comfortably in tall, cushioned seats drinking their drinks from those funny little cups, and talking to the stewardesses with the permanent smiles. And there we were, somewhere between Wyoming and New Mexico with mud up to our chins, and not a dance hall, restaurant, or movie theater within 60 miles.
Its an odd thing how the human mind can turn off the signals from the body. Sometime during the night we transformed into automatons, taking one step after another, senseless instinctive machines moving forever forward. Driven by an uncontrollable desire to live, we pushed ourselves closer to the Breaks, and also closer to collapse. We were on the brink, the very edge, that razor thin line between the living and the dead. Time was a blur and we went into periods of incoherency. I remember distinctly seeing people with flashlights coming up the trail to meet us, to rescue us. I excitedly told Tom, but he didn't see the rescue party. I looked again and they had disappeared. Later, Tom saw a street light down the road, but I didn't ,and knew there was no electricity in the whole region. So we traveled on through the darkness, alternating between lucidness and delirium. It was in this condition that we finally reached the winding cutoff that led to the Escalante Breaks.
The Palmer Gulch road, barely passable during the dry summer months, was now a flowing river of mud. When we arrived at the crossroads we felt a twinge of dull hope. It was now the middle of the night and we had not rested or sat down since before we started the long climb out of Little Dominguez Canyon. Using a fallen log as a backrest, we slumped in an exhausted heap of flesh and bones.
I felt as if I were floating, somehow detached from reality, and I could feel that my energy and my very life were flowing out of me, being consumed by the thick night. We both fell into a dreamless sleep immediately. Slowly I awoke to the sound of the steady drizzle. I fought for a piece of reality, something to bring me back to life. Thoughts sifted through my ragged brain and I finally locked on to the image of a cracker box house. In the house I could see a beautiful lady and 2 small girls, my family ! Suddenly, like being shocked by a bare wire, I realized what would happen if we stayed slumped against the log. We would fall into a stuporous sleep while our bodies lost precious heat and energy until finally we would slip off over the edge to death. Somehow that idea just didn't fit into the future I'd planned for myself. I fought for every tiny scrap of will I had remaining, and woke Tom. After a long time we stood up, clutching each other for balance. Our beaten bodies had stiffened during our rest, and we groaned mournfully as we stepped onto the slimy road.
Each step on the steep slippery road was a test of balance. We slid from one side of the road to the other, frequently colliding with one another as we continued down our slithery trail to salvation. Time and distance had become distorted and the few remaining miles to the cabin became an agonizing ordeal. Maybe a hellish torture for an unknown sin, or maybe we had died several hours before and were enjoying our eternal reward, we thought. I could feel my feet swollen in my wet boots, and every step brought a dull pain to my hips as my weary bones pounded out the endless steps to a fading destination. During the last miles we were frequently incoherent, but somehow kept going. We stumbled in the thick red slop and cursed the cold wretched night. Finally the steep road led to low grassy flats and I knew we were getting close. As we rounded a great bend through one of these grassy meadows, we saw the outline of buildings about a mile away. Not trusting our senses we kept walking until we reached a wooden gate near the house. We both touched It, not believing it could be real. We had somehow made it to the long awaited cabin in the Breaks.
The remainder of the night in the cabin was short. The third morning was cool and lonely as we left the cabin. The sky was broken with gray, yellow, and blue, and the sun shone through on the familiar sandstone walls of Escalante Canyon. We sullenly turned from the Breaks and began pushing eastward through the red mud. We were weak and hungry as we resigned ourselves to the agonizing 20 mile walk ahead. We had traveled about a mile down the road and had almost gone into the robot mode again, when I heard what sounded like the low hum of a vehicle coming from behind us. We continued on, not believing it could be a vehicle. Neither of us trusted our senses any longer after the ordeal of the previous night. The sound increased and when it seemed to be directly behind us, we turned and gazed with astonishment at what appeared to be a real pick up truck with real people inside it coming toward us. We immediately waved the truck to a stop and the driver knew what we wanted without asking. We pulled ourselves into the back of the truck and hung on for our lives.
If hiking out seemed painful, the ride in the back of the truck was even more so. Flailing wildly back and forth from one rut to another the truck made it's way out of the long canyon. Like a blue, steel bucking bronc we hurtled eastward down the road toward home. When we reached the highway the rodeo abruptly ended. Thanking the driver, we headed south while the blue pickup rolled north.
There we were standing, on the dry grassy flats of the Colorado desert. The yellow sun was shining brightly and a chilly wind blew. Looking back to the west and the vast plateau, we could see the terrain from where our struggles began. The place where we would have built our shelter was now covered with 3 or 4 inches of new snow. When I turned and saw this, a cold shiver went up my spine and my mouth went dry. I knew that if we had stayed, we would have never come down alive. To the north lay the rolling drylands that make a wide low sweep toward Grand Junction. Dry adobe hills faced us to the east, and beyond, the far blue hills of the Grand Mesa were visible. To the south the mighty peaks of the San Juans pierced the rolling sky, stalwart sentinels of enduring stone. To the southeast, the knife edged ridges of the West Elks were sharply silhouetted by the new sun. On the western horizon that familiar blackened line of storm clouds could be seen regrouping, preparing for another rainy attack on the land.
The hard gray road was before us now. We stood on the brink of two worlds, they both had good and bad to offer, they both had pleasures and pains. We had had our share of both. As tired and worn as we were there was a hesitation as we stepped onto the shoulder of the highway. Reluctantly we slowly turned and faced the traffic with our thumbs in the air. Soon, a cattle truck stopped and we loaded in. Although the truck lumbered slowly down the highway It felt to us as if we were traveling at breakneck speed. It seemed almost immoral to travel so many miles so painlessly.
It was late morning when our last ride dropped us off. The last five blocks were an easy walk. The graveled street was muddy and there were many large puddles, indicating it had rained a lot while we were gone. The sun was out and the warmth of it pierced deep into weary muscles and bones. The town looked different somehow, like maybe it had changed during my absence, or maybe it was me that had changed. We had gone out a few days before seeking adventure, but adventure has it's price. It can't be readily found in the campground or picnic area, or on the highways or experienced from the plush air conditioned seat of a car or movie theater. Adventure, it seems, is always beyond the end of the road, beyond the reach of the madding crowd, beyond the grasp of highways and picnic areas and restaurants and theaters. Adventure is just a mile beyond where you feel like stopping, it's around one more bend in the river, it's beyond the next ridge, it's at the top of the snow capped peak, it's at the source of the crashing alpine creek or at the bottom of the dark desert canyon. It's always been there and always will be, for those willing to pay the right price.
We had sought adventure but returned having found our fortune. It's tucked away in the quiet hidden canyons of our minds. The treasure will grow richer with age, and can never be stolen or traded away. Walking toward home the town seemed quiet and still. As we approached the tiny house we were silently happy. Standing on the road outside we turned and gazed off toward the far blue slopes of the Uncompahgre plateau. There were other secret canyons, and plateaus; mountains and rivers; deserts and wide sweeping places that I hadn't seen. I knew that I would go again and would always go, seeking that familiar feeling, seeking a new adventure.
We stood outside my tiny home savoring the feeling. It had been a long three days, and as we opened the door I was suddenly hungry and exhausted.