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Don't Panic. Don't Sleep. : 'If You Had Built the Fire on a Stump,' I Thought, 'It Would Have Burned All Night and Day. You Should Remember That the Next Time You Die in a Blizzard.'

March 01, 1987|EDDIE FERLISE

The temperature was already dropping when I got separated from my ski group at 4 o'clock.

There were 10 of us descending Jean Peak on Mt. San Jacinto, near Palm Springs. Suddenly I was alone in the forest, at 10,000 feet, trying to get off the mountain before dark, before a storm due in at midnight.

By 5, I began looking for caves or boulders for shelter, just in case. I'm in trouble, I thought, feeling agitated though unable yet to accept being lost. By 5:30, I accepted the reality of having to spend the night on the mountain. Keep calm, I told myself. This is just another camp-out. Ahead was a felled log with a belly-high snowdrift beside it, and I settled for that rather than squander more energy. Under my feet the snow, icy and hard, made crunching sounds magnified by the calm silence of the forest. Let the storm be a mild one, I thought.

Darkness rapidly overtook daylight, and with it the temperature, already below freezing, fell still lower. I took off my backpack and checked my supplies; I had some extra clothing, including a second turtleneck and a vapor-barrier jacket, which I quickly put on. Now I had six layers of clothes on my torso and four on my head. A heavy plastic trash bag with holes for my arms and head became a poncho. At the bottom of the pack, because it had never been used, was an emergency bag, containing matches, candles, a whistle, a space blanket, a compass, a flashlight and a bag of precious dates.

The storm hit early, about 6, and with a vengeance. Snow began to fall. The wind tossed my gear haphazardly, sending me chasing after my ski gloves. No, this is no ordinary outing, I finally acknowledged. And for the first time the possibility of hypothermia and death occurred to me. Mental discipline and presence of mind, I told myself. No negative thoughts or emotions. And no accidents--no bumping my head on a low branch or spraining an ankle. Above all, don't panic, and don't sleep. Stay awake and keep the blood circulating by gathering firewood, I told myself.

Assessing the wood situation did not take long. Three feet of snow from a previous storm covered both the ground and felled trees. A few pine trees had dead branches, but that was it. I broke off several boughs from nearby trees, dumped them by my pack and set out for more. Under the felled log were some dry pine needles--my fire starter. So far, luck was with me. My matches were dry, but when I tried to light them they were immediately blown out by the hostile wind. Several times the wind teased me by letting a few needles ignite, only to blow the flame out. In the emergency bag I found a stubby candle, and its flame stayed alive long enough for the needles to catch. I placed twigs on top and, fanned by the storm, they burned long enough for big branches to catch fire. The flames danced frantically, but they did not die, and to my surprise, the fire was blazing.

Quickly, I went for more wood. The snow was knee-high in most places and thigh-high where drifts accumulated. The winds were getting fiercer, and I was taking a beating. After several trips plodding back and forth through the snow, I came back to the fire and collapsed, exhausted. I had to rest, even if it meant risking that the fire might die. And because the high altitude was dehydrating me, I needed water constantly--more than I was getting. All my gear was buried in the snow; to get to it I had to brush the snow off with my gloves. Finding my water bottle, I thawed it over the fire, drank a mouthful, then replaced the water with snow.

As the night passed, the storm strengthened and the snowfall became heavier. About midnight, a plane passed overhead; my first thought was that no search plane would be out in a storm this bad. But when, moments later, a plane came from the opposite direction, my cynicism turned to hope. The third pass persuaded me to gamble on a bonfire, using up the surplus wood I'd garnered on my last few trips--an emergency supply for when I became too tired to get more. The bonfire warmed me up nicely, but the gamble was a bad one. The planes must have been commercial flights flying in and out of Palm Springs. After that fiasco I couldn't trust my judgment.

By 2 in the morning, after eight hours of trudging through snow for wood, I was tiring. Eating two dates every hour or so helped, but my strength was abandoning me. On my forays into the forest my steps were getting wobbly, and breaking branches became difficult. I started putting the midsections of 15- and 20-foot branches into the flames, waiting for the fire to burn them, then taking the two end pieces outside of the fire and tossing them back in.

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