Tuesday, November 9, 2010


There is nothing more ominous than flies buzzing around your head as you lay dying.

Dehydrated and completely exhausted, I lay in my poorly erected tent in the middle of a dry creek bed swatting weakly at the desert flies that had gotten in through the open vestibule. The morning sun was now racing into the shadowy creek from the surrounding ridgeline and I felt the heat instantly on my skin. I had learned to hate the sun in the past two days, wishing secretly for a world that saw only hazy dusk. Like the night before, where I lay in the same tent, shivering and heart racing due to an electrolyte imbalance while Jens and Logan went on in the night to try and find help. And water.

What had started as an ambitious three day hike through Big Bend's "Outer Loop" had turned into an impromptu rescue mission that split three hikers into search team and dehydration victim. It became apparent on the second day that we had underestimated the amount of water needed to sustain ourselves with our pack weight through a 33 mile mountainous desert hike. In retrospect, the textbook signs were all there: fatigue, a sudden midday argument, salt-encrusted clothing, muscle cramps, slurred speech, wandering off the trail at times... But the constant flaying from thorny plants, twisting of feet on loose rocks, and screaming muscles turned our attention to just moving on. By darkfall on the second night, we had no idea if the Homer Wilson Ranch water cache was 1 mile ahead or 11 miles ahead. Maps, compass, and GPS were utterly useless when we didn't know the exact scale of what we were traversing. Every topographical feature on the supplied park map looked just like where we were standing at the time. The trail would suddenly turn into a dry wash and we assumed we were in Blue Creek, just near the ending. Then the scenario would repeat about a mile down the trail and you started losing faith in your navigational skills. It didn't help that the surrounding vista for miles around was nothing but desert and brown rolling mountains. The only recognizable topography was the red rocky cliffs of the Chisos Mountains to our North, and their South Ridge had taken on a bad habit of looking "finished" the further West we walked.

"Can't be far now," I would say numerous times as we stumbled through the murderously thorny Dodson Trail, "the map shows we are on THIS ridge and THAT is the westernmost end of the South Ridge. GPS shows us at mile 19, and we need to get to 22 or 23 to see the water cache!"

In reality, we were more than 7 miles from the water cache. At our rate of travel, that would have meant seven more hours of hiking to even get close and it was already late in the afternoon. The situation was made worse when we finally ran across a rusted metal signpost in the waning sunlight proclaiming "Homer Wilson Ranch" to be just up the trail. No distance was indicated.

I still cannot believe how hard it is to set anything in the desert on fire in an emergency. In the moments before I fell into my tent on the last morning, I learned that anything yellow burns with so much speed that the surrounding green vegetation will hardly singe. My attempts to pull up tufts of dead grass and lay them in a pile in the creek left me nauseous and weak. When I held a match to the pile and watched the fire race across it with little or no smoke left behind, I was devastated. Not only had I already crossed the moral boundary that prevented me from setting fire to a precious landscape, but it had failed to work as expected and I was at a loss for what to do next. So I went to the tent and collapsed amongst the buzzing flies.

I couldn't think of much, except the flies and the sun crawling up the side of the blue rain cover. I wondered if I'd be found dead with the same amount of flies on me or worse. All at once I realized how useless money was. I would easily spend $10,000 for a helicopter flight out of here at that moment without batting an eyelid. How long until they sent a helo? Three days from right now was my guess, and it would probably be used to spot my dead body on the desert floor.

A wave of panic washed over me, and my heart began racing uncontrollably again.

I began thinking frantically of what I should do next. I have to put a plan together - but WHAT?

Option 1: Lay here and hope that someone finds me before sunset. While seemingly easy, it was my worst option since laying in the heat without water would leave me weakened to the point that I wouldn't be able to hike out even at sunset. I was already barely able to walk up the slightest incline without stooping over and gasping for air.

Option 2: Rest for a while. Drink a few mouthfuls of water. Then attempt another mile of hiking. This option would expose me to heat and direct sunlight that would likely dehydrate me fastest and deplete my last cup of water in the next 30 minutes. I liked this option the least.

Option 3: Discard everything and hike freely until I can't walk another step. This seemed like the last thing I wanted to do, since I would be leaving shelter and water behind in favor of encountering another living soul on the remainder of a 33 mile trail. But there was an end out there somewhere. And the trail only went in two directions: forward and back.

It was at this moment that I was awestruck by how still the desert was. The only noise was that of the flies and an occasional wind gust that swept through the creek bed, making the tent's rain flap pop and roll. The first night on the mountain I could hear only crickets and an occasional wind gust. But in the early hours of the morning, a phenomenon I call the "desert ocean" would begin where rolling waves of air would blow off the desert floor and smash into the mountainside some 2000 feet above. It was eerie, since there was about a 10 second delay from when you heard the gusts winding up on the desert floor to when they actually crashed into the campsite. The second night up on the ridgeline by myself was constant gusting wind, preventing me from sleeping more than several minutes at a time. I remember thinking how warm the air was that night compared to the night before. I was worried that the weather pattern was going to get hotter over the next several days.

A tiny whistle hung around my neck on a red lanyard. I had broken it out on the ridgeline that morning, telling myself that if things got bad enough I would start blowing on it at intervals in the hopes that someone would hear me. I already knew that yelling for help across such a huge expanse of land was useless. The whistle seemed to make sense. What I didn't know is that even a whistle can't be heard more than several dozen yards across rugged terrain.

Around 9:44am (as I remember it) I heard something that sounded like a human voice after my last whistle blast. I paused and listened hard.


I definitely heard someone talking, so I sat up in the tent and blew long on the whistle one more time. Then I heard what sounded like my name being yelled!

It was Jens and Logan! I could hear them yelling for me and the sound of their feet shuffle-running across the rocky trail just above and to the right of the creek's edge. I attempted to work the vestibule zipper flap when I suddenly saw someone materialize from the scrub brush - a hiker wearing a pack!

At this point, I was up and out of the tent completely exhilarated and oblivious to my exhaustion. It indeed was Jens and there was Logan behind him, and they were carrying two full packs of water! I was shouting something incoherent as Jens stopped to unpack the first plastic gallon jug and handed it to me.

"Drink up!"

I downed half the jug without breathing, then looked up at both of them standing against the unforgiving desert landscape and said, "Let's get the fuck out of here NOW."

We packed my tent so fast that small bits of rocks rolled out when I unpacked it the next day in my garage.

As it turned out, I was less than 200 yards from the metal box containing the water cache for the trail. Above that some hundred feet or so was a paved park road. It had all been obscured by the gradual ascent out of the creek and lay just below the towering mountain vista in the distance. If I had just kept walking rather than deciding to collapse in that creek, I'd have been hydrated and next to a road where I could have flagged for help.

None of this mattered though as we walked up the flat gravel trail to where the car was parked. I briefly examined the metal bear-proof box that held several precious gallons of water, set there by hikers as insurance against death by dehydration - should they make it this far. There were names and dates attached to some, and there were two that had been replaced by Jens and Logan with a note thanking the finder for the water that saved their friend's life. I closed the door and walked on to the next sign of civilization - a metal handrail next to the road.


On the night Jens and Logan left me on the ridgeline, they hiked 6 more miles before finally reaching the water cache. They nearly missed it in the dark. After replenishing their water supplies and spending half an hour next to the park road without seeing anyone drive by, they decided it was in my best interest to complete the Outer Loop trail back to the visitor's center at Chisos Mountain Basin where they could get the car and return to start looking for me. This was at least another nine grueling miles of hiking along steep terrain in the dark and I still don't know how they did it. Logan admitted all he saw for the last few miles was his own feet as he shambled along in a stupor. They reached the visitor's center by 4am, feet covered in blisters and muscles cramping painfully. Jens stumbled over to a nearby vending machine and bought a Coke. Then they both collapsed in the car and slept until being woken by a park ranger at daybreak. Upon explaining my situation to the ranger, they were notified that a volunteer had been sent out to look for us the previous day but that volunteer had apparently started AHEAD of us when we had just turned onto Dodson Trail. Logan remarked that he had seen a solitary tent on the mountainside during the forced nighttime hike and he assumed it was the volunteer's. After buying several gallons of water at the local gift shop, both Jens and Logan repacked and drove out to the Sotol Vista Overlook, below which I had just begun setting up my tent in the creek bed for the last time.

As I write this, it is my first day back from the trip to Big Bend and I am still recovering from the effects of dehydration, puncture wounds to my legs and arms, a sunburned face and neck, fatigue from muscle pain and a lingering headache. I have lost 10 pounds.

At times, I am gripped by the fear that I am still lying in that tent in the creek bed and have yet to be discovered. I am still trying to convince myself that I am home.


ciao said...

Wow!! You really have quite the penchant for exaggeration!

First off, I just want to say that if you choose to tell a story including me and my cousin that is so exaggerated and littered with inaccuracy, I would ask that you refrain from referring to us by our real names.

Secondly, seeing as you have already referred to us and published the story online, I feel the need to remind you of some details you may have misremembered as you were in very poor mental and physical states during the hike.

1: “…we had underestimated the amount of water needed to sustain ourselves…”
You seemingly forget that Jens and I brought enough water for the two of us to complete the entire hike. It was only until we began funneling water to you by the liter (about 1.5 gallons in the end) that Jens and I started to worry if there would be enough.
I do not see how YOU could have “underestimated” how much water was needed seeing as you were warned how long this hike was going to be, and through what environments it was going to take us through. Also, you have been hiking before and know how much water you fly through because of your “fast metabolism.” Jens specifically told you that, at the minimum, a gallon a day is recommended, as per the park’s website. So three days hiking means bring AT LEAST 3 gallons of water. Even after all of this information you were provided, you chose to bring only 6 liters of water… That is, for you, a one day’s supply of water in these conditions… So the first thing Jens and I did to save your life was to each bring more than 3 gallons of water for you to rely on.

2: “…wandering off the trail at times…”
Here your penchant for exaggeration shines through again. We never wandered of trail. Jens walked no more than 6 feet off trail ONE time, at which point we all recognized the obvious path to the side.

3: “…they were notified that a volunteer had been sent out to look for us the previous day…”
This may be a simple misunderstanding, though I must rectify this tidbit as it only serves to further inflate your already swollen perspective of the events of the hike. The volunteer’s presence on the trail was completely unrelated to our being there. It was one of their random surveys of the trail. The ranger only radioed in your plight so that the volunteer on-trail would just keep an eye out if he passed you.

Also, the “…metal signpost in the waning sunlight proclaiming "Homer Wilson Ranch"…” actually read “Blue Creek Ranch,” which was not our destination and gave no false hope of being near our actual destination, Homer Wilson Ranch.

Burt, you would make a fine fiction novel writer. You are able to pull forth emotionally charged descriptions of events that slide readers to their seat edges… Unfortunately, you failed to make note that your story was BASED on true events, and instead, used your descriptive ability to reflect negatively on the preparedness of your fellow hikers. Speaking for myself at least, I do not appreciate being made to look the ignorant fool, ESPECIALLY considering the fact that much was endured in order to assist in your wellbeing.


If you find yourself in the desert again:
1. Take off your black sweatshirt or expect to fly through water and reach a state of premature heat exhaustion. Deal with the sun by using sun block, light breathable shirts, or by hiking in the earlier and later hours only…
2. Accept help from fellow hikers who find themselves in a more balanced physical state than you and are insisting on reducing your 55 pound load…
3. EAT food along the trail to maintain adequate mineral/chemical balance. Sodium+Potassium pills are only part of the equation. Steady calorie and carb/sugar intake is also vital to maintain basic performance.
4. Last but not least, when hiking through mountains and desert, bring LOTS OF WATER!!!!!!!!!!!

San Antonio Lament said...

Hey Logan, thanks for the feedback.

You are right in that the story is told from my perspective, and you are definitely entitled to a different opinion.

It was a very rough hike for me and, from what I gather by your frequent pausing and stooping over on the trails complaining about calf and glute pain, for you as well.

In the interest of fairness, I did want to point out that even though you gave me about 3 liters of water during the trip you mentioned that both of you had to stop at the Homer Wilson water cache on the second night in order to "resupply" using unclaimed containers before continuing up the mountain to the parking lot. We ended up relying on that cache just as Ranger Dean pointed out we would during our first-day briefing. To have disregarded his suggestion that we cache our own water at that location as we walked out of the visitor's center was extremely cavalier. But I chose to go along, so I cannot cast blame.

In the end, I feel we were all fortunate that no one was seriously injured. Hiking that trail during the day was bad enough, and I still can't believe we discussed pushing on at night in order to make up "time". I'm glad I was stubborn and stayed behind on the ridge the second night, since I would have probably caused more injury to myself and possibly to you guys if I had fallen.

I don't think you'll have to worry about dragging me along on another hike anytime soon. I know my physiology and pace very well after many camping trips and it definitely does not match yours or your cousin's. I only ask that one day when you are 40, you take the same trail with someone 15 years younger than you and see how you do. You might soften your criticisms...

: )

Anonymous said...

I read this story and I seriously was reading it on edge. As Logan stated, you have a way of telling things in such an ellaborate way. I too don't agree with the use of someone's name and the way it made the group look unprepared. Knowing the other two hikers, I'm sure they were well prepared physically and supplies wise. I recognize the difference in ability with age, as you stated Lament, but that should also be a factor of planning before the hike takes place. If you choose to try and keep their pace, then there's no need to make an age reference at the end of your rebuttle to Ciao's comment. Good read regardless, glad I wasn't on the hike, I'd probably be out by the 1st mile, lol.

ciao said...

There is no question that the hike was quite painful! My blisters are still pretty ugly. And for a 40 year old, with a 55 lbs. pack no less, you are in hella-good shape to climb up that mountain and hike as far as you did through the desert.

Even so, Jens and I went through just under a combined three liters worth of water from the cache, so we did bring just enough water... Though, there is no need to argue about it as it really was only CHANCE that Jens and I had enough water, as the experience of making this particular hike would have been the only sure way for us to have known how much liquid we REALLY would need to start with. The safe bet of at least a gallon a day, as recommended, would have been an uncomfortably low amount even if we all had each brought that much anyway. Therefore, I agree that anyone who hikes that route should absolutely cache water, and that it was indeed a bit cavalier not to on our first atempt. This is just as important as bringing the recommended amount on your person, and is a lesson I will strongly adhere to on future hikes. It is a simple matter of safety!

Have you completely recuperated yet? My muscles are pretty much back to normal... I am just waiting on them blisters... No more breaking boots in on crazy hikes!

San Antonio Lament said...

I'm glad this post has spurred further discussion, and there are definitely good points all around.

I've definitely learned a few things, and plan on taking them with me on my next hike! ..er, not to Big Bend though.

For those folks reading this story who have never been to the park, don't let it put you off! The Chisos Mountains are awesome and truly provide spectacular views of the Chihuahan Desert as you ascend. Just choose your trails carefully and plan your day(s) out there well ahead of your trip.

Skye said...

Just glad you're safe, H.

San Antonio Lament said...

Well howdy, Skye! Hope you are doing well in the land of Oz, and thanks for the sentiment.

Hiking the Outer Loop Trail at Big Bend was the single most extreme thing I've done in my life. Yet.

: )

Glad to be home.

For those wishing to read more about misadventure and death in Big Bend National Park, I recommend "Death in Big Bend" by Lawrence Parent.