It Happened To Me: I Nearly Got Hauled off a Deadly Mountain in a Body Bag

I stopped giving a damn whether the people I encountered were real or imaginary and started asking everyone I passed if they had radios. Neither of the first two groups I asked did.
Publish date:
August 31, 2014
near death experiences, climbing mountains, rescue missions, park rangers

"Let's get you out of those pants."

I eagerly agreed. In spite of my commitment to singledom, this guy was maybe 23, ruggedly athletic, and sporting his U.S. Park Ranger uniform.

But at that point, I would have eagerly agreed to anything anyone suggested. By then, my body temperature was 87.1 degrees Fahrenheit, my blood glucose was 3.5 times what it should have been, and the fact that it was now 9:30 p.m. meant I'd been stumbling around on a pitch-black trail for over an hour, a trail that I'd begun 17 hours ago.

In my diminishing moments of lucidity, I knew I could only blame my selectively obsessive tendencies for this predicament. Rocky Mountain National Park's famous high point, 14,259-foot Long's Peak, had haunted me for two years. It was the only one of six fourteeners (Colorado hikers' affectionate nickname for the 14,000+ foot peaks that dominate the Rockies) in the Front Range that I had yet to summit. Two years ago, plagued by a bum knee as well as fears of what would happen when I got to the gruelling section of the route that resembled a full-on technical climb, I turned back a mile and a half from the summit.

My best friend, who I consider to be on my hiking level, made it to the top that day, in spite of the fact that the 16-mile roundtrip Keyhole Route was considered a difficult Class 3. If it were any harder, climbers would need ropes and rock axes in order to ascend over the collection of often-loose boulders, sheer rock faces, and narrow passages over sheer cliffs that made up the final push to the top.

His success convinced me I could do the same. He wanted to return with me when conditions availed themselves, which, due to consistent rainstorms culminating in Biblical-level flooding, was not 2013.

After waiting two years, nothing was going to force me to turn back before the summit. Not even an insulin pump that quit for no apparent reason when I was halfway through the technical part. (I usually turned the device off anyway on hikes to prevent frequent attacks of low blood sugar. I rationalized, 'So what if my blood sugar was a little elevated when I finished?')

I only had a few minutes to bask in the glory of summiting before my friend and I needed to get a move-on. Climbers begin at the unholy hour of 2 a.m. because it is the only way to avoid being caught on exposed rock when afternoon storms hit. Doing otherwise could easily land one on the National Park Service's statistics list of Long's Peak deaths, which averaged out to two a year and made it the deadliest fourteener in Colorado.

I struggled through the technical portion, finally making the 1.6-mile trek to the "easy" part of the trail four hours after starting my descent. Even on the comparatively gentle grade and boulder-free path, I needed frequent rest stops. My leg muscles felt like death. I'd brought up and already consumed twice as much water as I usually pack on hikes, and still I was so severely hydrated that even trying to swish some saliva around my mouth caused me to retch spastically.

I'd known there were storms predicted for 7 p.m. But with such an early start, I thought I'd be back at my car well before then. I was still above treeline with three miles to go when the clouds hurtled in. Even when the first tsunami of thunder threatened to level me for good, I could still barely move to save my life. My friend bolted down the trail to get help.

I trudged on as fast as I could as the hail began pelting down around me and ice water began rushing past my feet. Although the hail instantly pierced my supposedly waterproof clothing, I wasn't worried. Storms in Colorado rarely last longer than five minutes. Besides, I could now sort of relieve the dehydration by sucking icewater out of my clothes!

After 45 minutes of hail, I'd had enough. "PUT A CORK IN IT!" I bellowed at the stormclouds. "I GET IT, MOUNTAIN, YOU HATE ME! GUESS WHAT, THE FEELING'S MUTUAL!"

I was shaking. I could swear I heard my friend calling my name, but each switchback I rounded was devoid of life. I started conflating parts of my life with details I'd read in books or online forums. People would pass me or I them, and I wondered if I'd actually seen them as soon as they were out of sight. I couldn't remember why I was sloshing down this trail-turned-river or if I had anyone waiting for me at the bottom.

I cannot fathom how I remembered that I had my headlamp in my backpack or how I turned it on once the sun set, especially considering I'd overlooked the other contents of my backpack like the rain poncho, emergency thermal blanket, and extra batteries that would have fit perfectly in the thought-to-be-useless radio I had in my pocket. I also cannot fathom how I stayed on the trail, especially considering that I'd developed tunnel vision.

I stopped giving a damn whether the people I encountered were real or imaginary and started asking everyone I passed if they had radios. Neither of the first two groups I asked did.

I heard the beeps, hisses, and staticky voices before I saw the next group. "You sound like you have a radio!" I gibbered as they came into view.

Ranger Studmuffin's colleague spoke into hers while he looked me over. "Blue jacket," he muttered. "You look like the person we're trying to find."

Since my lips matched my jacket, they promptly got down to the business of ensuring my survival. The first step was getting me into dry clothes instead of my wet ones. This sounded like an excellent plan, as my pants were causing me particular discomfort due to having retched so hard earlier that I'd pissed myself. Ranger Hotpants didn't need to know that, however, since I was not about to jeopardize any chance of letting him warm me up.

My friend waited anxiously as my stretcher rolled to the parking lot. Since I'd driven, he needed my car keys to follow me to the hospital and then go home. Since they were in my pants, Ranger Hottie tossed him the bundle and left him to figure it out.

Had I been in a non-hallucinatory state, I would have asked my friend to take the keys and leave the pants. Sadly, I thought of that only after my transfer from the local hospital to one nearly 50 miles away that was affiliated with my insurance company.

Thus I wound up in a hospital in the middle of nowhere with no pants, no wallet, no phone, and no car keys, ergo no way to get home. After resolving the immediate threat of the hypothermia, I also wound up with a diagnosis of diabetic ketoacidosis (a condition in which prolonged high blood sugar leads to development of blood acids) and, likely resulting from that, rhabdomyolysis (muscle death -- yes, DEATH; I wasn't exaggerating! -- resulting in such a large breakdown of dead cells into the bloodstream that the kidneys can fail).

I spent two days in the hospital getting stabbed with needles and fighting with the IV's flow-disruption whenever I had to bend my arm, which, since the admitting hospital had put the IV in my dominant arm, happened roughly every two seconds.

Thankfully, the two days gave me enough time for my friend and relatives to join forces to bring my pants and their contents. It also gave my body enough time to recover from the trauma I'd inflicted and develop new trauma as a result of a surprise allergy to the adhesive tape medical professionals use to hold down IVs.

Nonetheless, all the physical traces of Long's Peak had disappeared from my bloodstream by the following week, leaving only a nagging doubt that my expedition counted as a success -- though I'd avoided being carried off the peak in a body bag, I still had to be carried. There's also the renewed conviction that, regardless of a given man's sexiness, I will from now on always keep good track of the whereabouts of my pants.