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When Disaster Strikes! True Survival Stories
Quote:Caught in a Colorado Snowstorm

“When my water bottles froze solid before 10 p.m., I knew not to fall asleep,” says Boyd Severson, 56, of the night he spent huddled between car-size boulders a thousand feet below the summit of 13,245-foot Mummy Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. As frigid ridgetop winds reached 50 to 70 mph, he wormed into every piece of his clothing–a shell, fleece, hat, spare socks, and trash bag for a vest–then wrapped Ace bandages around his ankles and neck for extra insulation. Alone, afraid, and with no help coming, he braced himself for a night out in a September snowstorm.

Severson rarely hiked alone, but partners had been tough to find that Monday. And the day had dawned gloriously, so he’d headed up the trail, sending periodic messages to a friend from his BlackBerry as a safeguard. By 1:30 p.m., he was standing on the summit.

Despite clouds racing in from the west, Severson didn’t yet realize how severely he’d blundered in neglecting to check the forecast. He could still see cairns through the decreasing visibility, so he descended swiftly. It wasn’t until he reached an unfamiliar draw that he realized he’d gone off course; he hadn’t been in the broad gully he climbed up, after all.

Severson had followed a different set of cairns, heading east rather than south, and landed in a narrow tundra bowl between Mummy and Mt. Dunraven. He laid low in the timber, but the storm kept building, so he started back up the 2,000-foot slope, hoping to retrace his steps to the trailhead by flashlight. When darkness fell, snowfall absorbed his beam. With zero visibility, he found a crevice between three boulders and hunkered down.

In wind chills down to -30°F, he flexed his muscles to stay warm, wishing he could call his wife. But neither cell phone nor BlackBerry connected. “I never thought I was going to die,” he says. “But I was worried about severe frostbite.

” By dawn, when Severson emerged dazed and weak, a search was in full swing, but the 50 ground searchers, several rescue dogs, and two helicopters were unable to locate him. “We began to theorize that he was hiding from the helicopters, perhaps from embarrassment,” says ranger Cindy Purcell, incident commander for the search. Severson initially waited out in the tundra because he knew his wife would call a search.

But at around 1 p.m., he began moving again. “There was no way I was going to spend another night out,” he says. At one point, he spotted a helicopter and waved, but the pilot missed him. Severson gained the south ridge, found his original gully, and, just before dark, encountered searchers on the Lawn Lake Trail.

Near-Fatal Flaw: “Boyd’s last text message said ‘I probably should turn back,’ so summit fever was involved,” says Purcell. “Instead of forging on, he should have trusted his common sense. Plus, he relied too much on devices. He should have paid more attention to his surroundings."

Voice of Experience: “Don’t hike alone, and create a secondary plan,” says Severson. “I generally carry too much clothing and emergency gear, but this time I wish I’d had even more. And I should have relied more on my GPS–instead of my phone and BlackBerry."

Tips from a Pro: “Survival, first and foremost, is about good decision-making,” says Greg Davenport, author of Cold Weather Survival. “But once you’re in a situation like Severson’s, it’s about staying warm and hydrated, and finding shelter.” His recommendations: 

Stay below timberline, where you have protection from body-heat-robbing wind, plus shelter, firewood, and water.

Always carry firestarter. Butane lighters weigh (and cost) nothing.

Use your gear, but don’t forget to think “outside the pack.” Nature provides shelter and insulation in the form of caves and timber stands, pine needles (for bedding), and leaves to stuff down your shirt.

Do squats, sit-ups, and arm swings to maintain core circulation.
Governmental dependance makes for poor self reliance.

"What could possibly go wrong with a duct tape boat?"  Cody Lundin

The best defense against evil men are good men with violent skill sets.
Quote:Lost in the Olympics
A gym teacher's speed hike becomes a five-day bushwhack in Olympic National Park.

Mary O’Brien didn’t set out to hike Washington’s High Divide. But when a friend canceled their planned climb up Mt. Rainier, the Massachusetts PE teacher and former Seattle resident was already packed for an adventure. Besides, the 18.8-mile loop in Olympic National Park had been on her to-do list for years. Now, 30 hours into what would become a five-day survival epic, the fit 45-year-old was scratched, bleeding, and hallucinating. In the dark, with whitewater frothing beneath her, she fought to focus on her umpteenth log crossing of Cat Creek. "I kept telling myself, ‘You can’t get hurt! No one’s going to find you here,’" she says. O’Brien had left her tent and sleeping bag back in the Sol Duc Campground the previous morning, setting off at 11 a.m. on an impromptu trip with food, clothing, ice axe, crampons, headlamp, and space blanket. A strong hiker, by 4 p.m. she had already powered up 3,800 vertical feet to the top of Bogachiel Peak, the usual halfway point on the High Divide loop. "It was summer, so I knew it wouldn’t get dark until 10 p.m.," says O’Brien. Deep snow obscured the trail, but she kept on hiking. "The descent trail was close," she recalls. "And I figured by nighttime I’d be hiking good trail along the Sol Duc River, following my headlamp light."

Fog, rain, and sleet moved in. Then darkness hit. O’Brien fell on steep snow, but self-arrested and climbed back to the ridge. Hiking by headlamp, she missed the left turn down to Sol Duc Park and shot east onto the Catwalk, a thready trail that eventually forks and dies. She realized her mistake and backtracked. Then backtracked again. At 1 a.m., she bivouacked briefly, then regained her route in Sol Duc Park, only to find the trail and route signs obscured by darkness and snowbanks. At dawn, she hoped to find the Appleton Pass Trail. Instead, she dropped into trailless Cat Creek.

"At first, it wasn’t bad," she recalls. "Then it turned to vertical jungle." Hanging off branches and using her ice axe as a hook, O’Brien descended 2,000 feet to the creek, and ran into thick nettles and devils club. She kept stumbling into pits hidden by fern. "It was a nightmare," she says. "I had so many shin-whacks. My left hand went numb from nettle stings."

O’Brien remembers the following two days as a combination of sleep-deprived hallucinations and suffering. She kept seeing people, hearing music, and spotting visitor centers. Thick vegetation and deep gorges forced her onto animal trails that traversed steep slopes. Crossing talus, she slid 25 feet. When she stopped to light a signal fire, she realized the hipbelt pouch containing her matches had been torn off.

From one high vantage, she dismissed distant houses along nearby Whiskey Bend Road as just more hallucinations. Thinking she was still in a remote location, she climbed 3,800 vertical feet up the north ridge of Mt. Fitzhenry.

Near the summit, O’Brien spent two days signaling with her compass mirror and headlamp. She’d been drinking frequently; now she finished the last of her food, some freeze-dried pasta she warmed up on her space blanket. From her perch, O’Brien could see Lake Mills and the lights on Elwha Dam. When no one responded to her signal, she took a compass bearing and plunged north.

Arriving at the lake, she was less than a kilometer from safety, but couldn’t cross the massive Elwha River, or, to the north, raging Boulder Creek. "I didn’t want to get killed trying to ford either," O’Brien explains. "I’d come too far." She walked to the lakeshore to signal. Within a couple of hours, O’Brien saw a motorboat and started waving frantically. The couple piloting the boat cut the engine, but they wouldn’t land at first. "I could tell they were thinking, ‘No way, she’s psycho,’" says O’Brien. "And believe me, I looked the part."

Near-Fatal Flaw: "Mary wasn’t aware of current conditions," says Kathy Steichen, information affairs officer on the search. "It had snowed, which is why she got off-route in the first place. Without a topo map, she didn’t know the lay of the land, so she couldn’t identify key landmarks that might have helped her stay on track."

Voice of Experience: "I left Seattle without a topo, hoping I could buy one at the ranger station, but it hadn’t opened for the season," says O’Brien. "And I should never have taken off without at least leaving a note in the car stating my plans."

Tips From a Pro: BACKPACKER map editor Kris Wagner specializes in identifying the best route from point A to point B. Here’s his take:

Plan your day wisely. Hikers typically walk about 2 mph–on flat ground. Mary’s route clocked out at 9.5 hours–but it also gained 3,800 feet, which would add even more time to her journey. By leaving the trailhead at 11 a.m., she guaranteed she’d be navigating for several hours by headlamp, a tricky thing even if she had stayed on the trail.

If the trail disappears, backtrack to your last known location. Still can’t find the correct route? Locate a high point to get your bearings.

Completely lost? Use a map or your memory to create an escape route (e.g., I know the main road goes through the south end of the park). Pick a corresponding compass bearing and stick with it.

No map and compass? From a vantage point, use a mirror or signal fire to attract attention. Or, wait until night and look for the nearest lights or city glow. Draw your bearing in the dirt, then follow it the next day by picking off intermediate points (trees, lakes) along the way, using weather signals (the wind is blowing south) to keep on track.
Governmental dependance makes for poor self reliance.

"What could possibly go wrong with a duct tape boat?"  Cody Lundin

The best defense against evil men are good men with violent skill sets.
Fighting Death on Mt. Foraker
Stunned by the loss of his friends, a stranded climber struggles down one of Alaska's toughest peaks.

Disaster struck for Tom Walter, Ritt Kellogg, and Colby Coombs on a steep snow climb up Alaska’s 17,240-foot Mt. Foraker. Nearly finished with their new variation on the Pink Panther route, the trio topped out on a 1,000-foot cliffband just as a storm broke. With winds rising and visibility plummeting, they abandoned their summit plans. But the escape route wouldn’t be any picnic. They had to gain the spur 1,200 feet above them, traverse left, and descend the Southeast Ridge, a tough route in its own right. The ramp was easy climbing, but the porous ice was too hard for snow pickets (a kind of anchor) and too soft for ice screws. Unprotected, the men moved quickly up the 50-degree slope, tied together and climbing simultaneously.

As they ascended, Coombs, who now owns Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna, stared up at the line running to his friend Tom. “Then the rope suddenly went slack,” he says. Coombs looked up just as an avalanche hit him. “I remember sliding really fast and trying to self-arrest, then hitting something and going airborne. That’s when I passed out.”

Coombs came to hanging from his rope, wracked with pain and deeply chilled, his pack and mittens gone. It was morning. He’d been dangling for at least six hours near the top of a rock buttress, 800 feet below where the slide had struck. Walter hung on the other end of the line, counter-weighting Coombs. The rope to Kellogg, his longtime best friend, ran limply over the brink. Walter was dead, his face a snow-covered mask. “It was a blessing in some ways, not seeing his face,” says Coombs. “It allowed me to separate myself a bit.” Coombs was in bad shape. His ankle and scapula were broken. His neck wouldn’t twist, and it was excruciatingly painful to recline or sit up. Dizzy from a concussion, he scrabbled to a small ledge, wormed inside Walter’s sleeping bag, and went to sleep.

When he awoke, Coombs realized the helmet he was still wearing had been shattered. He rappelled to find Kellogg dead, wound up in the other rope. It took nearly 36 hours for Coombs to assemble gear, cook food, and melt snow to drink. Alone and desperate on a technical ice face, he traversed toward the Southeast Ridge, his only escape. He could barely use his fractured foot, but he had to focus on the next step. “I remember thinking ‘I don’t care if my foot falls off,'” he says. “I had to get into an unstoppable mentality.” Coombs also drew from his faith in God. “For anyone who’s religious, being able to lean on something bigger than you is helpful.”

The descent took six days of dead ends, frustration, and splintered-bone agony. Coombs fell and made an excruciating self-arrest. His frayed rope kept snagging on rocks. When a steep snowfield settled beneath him, the exhausted climber inched back up and around the hair-trigger avalanche slope. Finally, reaching the Kahiltna Glacier, he zombie-walked across its crevasse fields and entered the airstrip camp.

Search planes spotted Tom Walter’s ice tool planted only 100 feet from the ridgetop and safety. Coombs spent three months in a wheelchair, and another three on crutches. Neither Kellogg nor Walter were ever found.

Near-Fatal Flaw:“Tom must have climbed onto a wind-deposited avalanche slab near ridgeline,” says Coombs. “Because of the zero visibility, we didn’t know what we were climbing into.”

Voice of Experience: “In retrospect, we should have camped at the top of the buttress and waited, but it would have been a tough sell at the time. If we had talked about the risk of poor visibility and the possibility of walking unknowingly onto an unstable slab, maybe we would have forced ourselves to dig a cave,” says Coombs. “Instead, we kept climbing. Optimism was our mistake.”

Tips From a Pro: Few people experience what Coombs did and live to tell it. Here, he offers advice on self-rescue and mental toughness:
  • If you’ve lost consciousness, your actions once you regain it are critical. Try not to move until you assess the situation; you could be hanging by a thread, seriously injured, or on unstable ground.
  • Come up with a plan for your evacuation. Don’t move unless there is an imminent threat or you are sure no one knows your location.
  • Control fear by consciously avoiding thoughts of dying. Control pain by disassociating yourself from your body. Control your emotions by shelving them until later. Promise yourself that you won’t give up until you’ve tried everything in your power to make it home alive.
  • Courage is really just controlled fear. Fear is good as long as it doesn’t turn into panic.
Governmental dependance makes for poor self reliance.

"What could possibly go wrong with a duct tape boat?"  Cody Lundin

The best defense against evil men are good men with violent skill sets.

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