I spent three summers in the mountains in Alaska. I've only almost frozen to death once.
It was my first summer working in Denali National Park, and I had already fallen desperately in love with the mountains. There are too many peaks to be named, and so many paths that in a hundred summers you couldn't walk them all. That first visit, I was only there for the month of May. Knowing how limited my time was, I was desperate to begin exploring.
My husband, who was in Alaska with me, is also an avid hiker and is usually willing to give in to my wanderlust. So we used all the contacts we had to find out which trails were clear. Word came back to us that a park ranger had declared a 9.6-mile ridge hike to be passable — the trail that had been on our season's bucket list — so we were thrilled.
There was still snow on the mountaintops, but with the trail sitting a thousand feet below the peaks and assurances from a park ranger that the trail was clear, we set out for our afternoon adventure.
It didn't even occur to me to be worried about anything. I've hiked in the desert and in the cold. I grew up in scouting and had done hikes much longer and more technically difficult than the one we were heading out for. With plenty of water, snacks, and some warm mittens, we caught a ride to the end of the trail and started hiking.
The path was muddy but beautiful. We passed lakes and a beaver dam. The wind was cold and invigorating. It was a really great hike.
At about mile four, we started to see snow on the ground. It was only on the shaded parts of the trail, and even when it was about a foot deep, the patches were only 10 to 20 feet across. It was inconvenient but not impossible to get around. Snow began to drift down, and it looked like we were living in a little snow globe. We pressed on, cold but unconcerned.
At mile five, the patches of snow started getting longer and deeper. Soon, the snow was two feet deep and continuously covering the trail.
By mile six, we knew we were in trouble.
The wind had picked up, and our boots were soaked through. We stopped in the closest thing to a sheltered place we could find to figure out what we should do. Hiking back meant six miles of trail and 10 miles of road to get home. Going forward meant three miles of unknown trail and then one mile of road to get home. We decided to press onward, and using the last bit of cell service we could find, we called friends, told them where we were, and begged them to pick us up when we hit the end of the trail.
Not long after the fateful decision to push forward, we hit the ridgeline. It was slow going. With the wind howling, getting through the snow was painful and took every ounce of energy we could muster. It didn't take very long for me to get frostbite. It had happened to me in the past, and I recognized the feeling before I even took off my mittens to check my fingers. Sure enough, they were purple and white.
I knew I wasn't going to make it to the end of the trail without first aid, and the time for calling for rescue had passed with the loss of cell service. I could hear my mother's voice in my head, yelling at me for not being more prepared. I should have had space blankets and emergency heat packs. But I didn't. I had two rain ponchos, a lighter, and an applicator-free regular tampon.
Digging through the snow, we managed to find some pine needles and bark, but everything was soaking wet. Luckily, my husband had a tiny pocketknife on his keys and managed to strip some of the wood to be at least a little dry. We piled all the driest things we could find and used one of the ponchos as a windscreen while kneeling on the other to stay as dry as possible.
I, for lack of a better word, fluffed the tampon as much as I could and set it on fire, gently feeding kindling to the flames. (In case you didn't know, tampons — and most other feminine hygiene products — are highly flammable and make great fire starters.) Slowly, the fire got big enough for us to pull off our shoes and socks and get them, if not dry, then warm.
My loving husband let me put my freezing hands and feet on his stomach to warm them enough so we could continue hiking. We pushed farther down the trail, stopping a few more times to warm my feet on my husband's sacrificial stomach. I desperately wanted to make another fire, but alas, the one life-saving tampon was gone.
When we finally reached the base of the ridge, I cried. I was so happy to be out of the wind! But it wasn't the end of the trail. We couldn't even find the trail. We knew we needed to get to the other side of a creek, but we couldn't see where we were supposed to cross.
My fingers had gone back to purple, there was still no cell service, and we had to make a choice or face camping in the snow overnight. We found a place that looked like it might have been a trail, and just as we were about to cross, we heard a whistle. And then another.
The friends we had called hours before had gotten worried and hiked out into the snow to find us. If they hadn't whistled right then, we would have crossed that creek in a very bad place, and who knows what might have happened? Our dear friends helped us the last two miles to their car, drove us into town, and took us to the warmest restaurant with the best pizza we could find.
You may be wondering why we didn't go for medical attention. Well, the nearest doctor was three hours away, so pizza and beer was the best medicine on hand.
We hiked that same trail when we went back the following year and found the remnants of our emergency fire. In fact, we've hiked that trail about ten times, and it's one of my favorites in the world. And not just for the beauty, but for the lesson it taught: never take being prepared for a walk in the wild for granted. Mother Nature creates some beautiful things, but she'll also kill you if she wants to.
And if you don't respect the land you're hiking, you might be a tampon and a lighter away from freezing to death.