A story of survival at 11000 feet in the Rocky Mountain National Park
27th May 2013 – a memorable unforgettable day for me – a day of intense struggle and survival against all odds!
It began with me and a friend beginning the hike from 9000 plus feet at the Longs Peak Trailhead in the Rocky Mountains National Park, with the destination being Chasm Lake (11,760) – half way through, my hiking partners decided to return to the base, since they had work to do @ Estes Park – and I chose to continue on with other hikers headed to either Chasm Lake or further up to Longs Peak (the tallest peak in the Rocky Mountain National Park and the 15th highest Fourteener in Colorado).
Having reached Chasm Lake and spending an hour there it was time to turn around by 4PM – further up to Longs Peak would have required crampons, and overnight camping for an early morning start.
On the way back, the trail was easily discernible up to a certain point – a mile from the Chasm Lake, just above the tree line, there were several large patches of trail completely covered up by the snow, and only the tracks made by other hikers guided me. Just above the tree line were two particularly large patches of snow, which had tracks all over them and eventually led to a dead end – the trail could not be found beyond the second large patch of snow.
As if that were not enough, a quick snow shower lasting 20 minutes compounded my problem further.
Having already done some very strenuous hiking of 4 plus miles above 10,000 feet with much less oxygen than at lower elevations, I had no choice but to go back to the T-junction (where the trail goes towards Chasm lake on the left, and to the Battle mountain on the right) – from this point the trail downhill towards the Longs peak trailhead was clear up to half a mile or so, before the snow patches begin covering up the trail completely.
Absolutely desolate landscape, with heavy winds, and the prospect of another storm, forced me to keep moving in search of the trail, even as the Sun was going down.
After going back up and down the trail trying to locate where it was, and failing to do so, under the gathering dusk and the temperature rapidly plummeting down, legs craving for a rest, eyes drooping for sleep and the water and extra clothing in the backpack on the shoulders a burden, I was exhausted beyond words.
The only thing that kept me going was sheer will power plus the gathering thunderclouds forcing occasional adrenalin surges.
There were a few occasions where I had to give in to 5 min of sleep on rocks not covered by the snow, before moving on.
Once the trail was not be found, the risk of going down using only my compass was too high, since off-trail routes often end up in steep cliffs and the snow below the tree line can be deceptively powdery – plus the bears and mountain lions that are not the vegetarian type!
I do like them, mountain lions and bears – make no mistake about it – but I was not entirely sure if their likes prowling the mountainside that day thought the same of me and I must confess am not skilled enough in lion-bear linguistics to find out from them either.
My only options at that point of time were to hike back up to Chasm Lake (2.5 miles from where I was at that point of time) and take refuge with a few who have camped there, or, hunker down in a portable restroom a mile before the Chasm Lake – I know portable restrooms may not smell much like lavender or jasmine, but at least it would have given me some protection from the wind.
The Sun went down quickly, and a 200 yard treacherous winding and steep part of the trail loomed ahead – my legs by then had gone past exhaustion and I was thinking with a clarity that even surprised me!
Not wishing to risk the 1 mile to the portable restroom either (its hazardous going up the snow covered path even in the daylight), I was forced to resort to another option.
I began looking for a rock formation that gave shelter from above in case there was a thunderstorm for protection from lightning, which is the main killer above the tree line. Eventually found a few of those, and chose the one closest to the visible part of the trail. By then, the initial sense of isolation, or the apprehension about the bears/mountain lions went away to be replaced by a profound need for sleep/rest – the temperature was then below 30 deg F.
The next concern was to avoid hypothermia – my feet were wet thanks to soggy socks from the snow – huddled inside the makeshift stone cave, I replaced the soggy socks with a fresh pair, the few minutes of exposure numbingly painful to the feet.
I then used up every bit of cloth I had in my backpack to cover myself, and then adding chunks of snow to my camelbak hydration reservoir – more than food, water is a primary need, since dehydration at those elevations often is more dangerous than hunger.
Using a piece of rock as a pillow, I forced myself into a fetal position – temperature by now was going down even further and before I knew it, I was asleep – the mini rock shelter was not exactly a Holiday Inn suite but not bad at 11500 ft. on a mountain side – the body just could not take the 6 hours of hike at that elevation and temperature.
The towering peaks of Mt. Washington, and the Longs and Meeker peaks and the brilliantly star-lit sky (the sky had cleared by then) – nothing romantic about any of that – they might look that way in movies/books, but not when you are looking at them from under a rock at 22 deg F and 11500 ft. !
Close to two hrs. of sleep interspersed with wakefulness when I hear first telltale sounds of tiny creatures (most likely marmots and pikas) scurrying around me and then drifting back to sleep – and then faint sounds of human voices in the remote distance – dismissing them as hallucination/imagination, or just a frozen cold-induced dream. Another 30 minutes pass and I hear the sound again that sounded like my name from the distance!
Fully awake now with a rush of adrenalin, ignoring the biting wind/cold, I get up, cup my hands around my eyes to look into the distance and notice a pair of tiniest lights bobbing up and down in the far distance somewhere down below in the trees – from my vantage point high above the tree line, it was as eerie and ethereal as it was thrilling.
My hiking partner, who had returned back to Estes Park earlier and with whom I had planned to have met with later on, had decided to come looking for me (along with her brother) hiking up the mountain at half past 10PM in that heavily snow clad trail !
The next hour or so was spent with me guiding them (my cellphone battery had died) based on the location of their lights, towards me – me cupping my hands to shout out to them and vice-versa. In an hour or so, they were with me.
We trudged back to the Longs Peak trailhead with only sheer will pushing me on – and by the time I hit the bed, I was so tired that I was fully awake and the deep slumber would come the next evening.
I might have most likely survived that night all by myself – maybe thoroughly starved by next morning, or, might have lost a few fingers to hypothermia (it wasn’t cold enough to get frostbite) – or in some remote way, I might have died – that’s a different thing altogether.
But, besides having learnt the hard way not to risk hiking after noon, there were other more important lessons I learnt :
1. It was truly a humbling experience !
2. What mattered to me is the fact that I found within me, an incredible amount of strength to not give up even when faced with obstacles – temperatures plummeting down by the hour and the chances of finding a safe place to sleep for the night totally gone – there were times, I was walking half asleep from total exhaustion and yet as if an automatic switch was on inside me, I kept pushing myself on and on.
3. There were many instances, where I had to think like how I would at my workplace / lab, or, on the cricket field, when faced with limited options and backup plans, or, in the swimming pool, when the body tries to trick you into getting out when only half the targeted no of laps have been done for the day – these I think and realize are very important – to think out of the box, and on your feet and to believe in yourselves.
4. Never panic or at least do your best NOT to panic – panicking takes away the ability to focus and think out a solution – even if it means some little bit of extra time is consumed, it helps to breath, focus and move on – there was one stretch of 10-15 min, when I almost panicked – panic leads to a sense of despair and self-defeat and loss of self-worth – the moment I got rid of the panicking, my thinking got clearer.
5. Never ever give up! there is immense strength deep within us that just has not been tested or tapped – all my years of playing cricket, swimming, biking, problem-solving at work, helped me that day.
And of course, the thought/gesture from my friends (Stephane and Sean) who came looking for me – something I will never forget the rest of my life – they are the newest additions to my family.
Perhaps what makes this experience so significant is that the same year, at least a dozen people died on the same route, and the year before and after several people died as well. My luck was definitely more than just random.