Cold Is My Teacher: That Night I Almost Froze to Death
“There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. It’s not easy to recognize where that line is, but you know when you cross it.” ~ Leo Houlding, Fine Lines
Let me tell you the story of my trip into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico in late winter 2020. I began this trip on Feb. 20th in winding, hour-long security lines at the SeaTac airport in Washington State, with just a few people wearing masks among hundreds of tightly-packed, equally-impatient travelers. In the northward direction, I book ended the trip on March 3rd, arriving back in SeaTac to a relatively empty airport, less than two weeks before the Great Coronavirus Lockdown. Now, just two months later, most everyone in Bellingham, WA is wearing masks to the neighborhood grocery store. Looking back, the timing was eerie. It feels like another generation ago at this point. Fortunately, before this was old news and the world completely changed, I managed to ‘put pen to paper’ and record these memories of a profoundly personal experience.
When I planned this trip, I purposely designed it to be an experience well outside my existing knowledge base and standard comfort zone. This made the logistics planning seem scary for months in advance, which is likely my main reason for choosing this trip for a two week vacation. I don’t know the desert environment like I know the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. There’s no doubt the temperate rain forest I interact with on a semi-regular basis is a rather difficult mistress, but I know basically how she plays. I have a strongly imprinted concept of where the primary difficulty lies, and just as important, where the sweet parts can be found. We don’t go outside just to suffer! We are in search of that elusive state of bliss — the rainbow over the cliff band, the sunset on the desolate beach, the glimpse of rare wildlife. By being shielded from the majority of nature’s built-in challenges, we also miss her near constant beauty. It seems this historically unique “human” being we have become — softened by society’s constant comforts and enhanced by technology — is seeking more authentic forms of suffering. More rawness!
In contrast to the ‘known unknown’ of the Pacific Northwest’s wildest places, the unknown and unfamiliar can be the most difficult thing for our emotions to navigate, and for me the desert environment represented that contrast. Will it be the cacti I need to worry about? Will it be the insects? Will it be a lack of water? I would not be able to tell you honestly until I tried it out and struggled for myself. This is how learning works, even at 43 years of age.
So I went on a solo journey into the high southwest desert wilderness in winter, bringing only the things I could carry in one backpack on an airplane (plus a few supplies — like stove fuel — acquired in Silver City, NM just before departing). You could call it a mid-life transformation. I can tell you now with hindsight, at least in this particular week in late February 2020 (spoiler alert), the main risks were exceptionally high rivers and very cold nights.
On my first night camping out near the trailhead by the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, even before hiking into the wilderness, I got my ass handed to me. It was a perfectly clear night with zero wind. I clambered into my 20 degree F rated bag with no tent to shelter me because I wanted to sleep under and witness the incredibly vibrant stars. We don’t have dark, clear skies at night like this back home — sandwiched between Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC, the light pollution is noticeable, even in the Mt Baker Wilderness! My sleeping pad was not very thick, and it was difficult to get comfortable throughout the night. I suffered through because I was having an intentional ‘hardening’ experience.
I woke up around 7am and found my water bottles were all frozen. My water filter was also frozen. My camp stove even had a hard time getting a concentrated flame and was just spewing fuel, wasting my supplies even before I ventured off into the backcountry. A perfectly good river, the West Fork of the Gila, flowed nearby clouded with silt, but I could not filter the water and my stove was struggling to boil it. I managed to get it working but wasted a lot of fuel. The next night I resolved to sleep with everything stuffed inside my bag at my feet. I found out later it dropped to 11 degrees F that night.
The next day, I headed about five miles into the wilderness to meet the Middle Fork of the Gila River. The rangers with the greatest knowledge and access to data of the daily water levels in the area told me plainly it was not recommended. It had rained hard about five days earlier and the rivers were still at abnormally high levels. The trail along the Middle Fork river canyon I had originally planned required 32 crossings. I packed up, walked down to take a closer look at the first crossing, and quickly abandoned that idea! I opted for a recommended shortcut up & over the mesa — the only recommended trail in the area — and down into Little Bear Canyon to meet the Middle Fork much higher up. This would trim down my ultimate objective, the Jordan Hot Springs, to only 10 crossings in each direction.
In just a few hours of easy hiking, I reached the terminus of Little Bear Canyon at the Gila. There was one couple camped out on the river’s edge in a strange tipi-like structure constructed from branches and tarps (pictured above). I asked them how long they had been there, and if they had seen anyone cross the river recently. They said about a week, and no they had not. I said, “Well, you’re about to see the first.”
I realized no other human had attempted this strange form of hiking in at least a week, evidenced by a complete lack of footprints in the soft mud left behind by receding waters. It was now Wednesday, and it hadn’t rained since the previous Saturday. The water level was mid-thigh deep and very cold, but I was safely across at least an hour before dark. I distanced myself from the other campers enough to feel truly self-reliant (I found out later they hiked out anyways, likely to resupply or simply escape the extreme cold exposure in their van). I faced another long night alone with my thoughts contrasted against the void.
It took a few hours to set up a cozy campsite: one-man tent, stout fire ring, and a hot dinner. Later that second night, I chose to fall asleep close to the campfire because the element of fire is fundamental to an experience of safety as humans — it cooks our food, it scares off predators, and it warms us in the cold northern winters. This connection for our species goes back possibly a million years and likely drove our evolution towards being the high-powered mentalists we are now, one that could even create a written language by which I can even share this tale with you. I was in contact with a primal feeling of security akin to a father’s arm over my shoulder, even though my feather down sleeping bag encased in plastic sheathing was at risk from sparks, and my neck resting on a log was not my ideal form of comfort. With a fire nearby, I feel safer.
I woke up early in the night trembling uncontrollably, yet I felt hot. Not shivering, where it seems like your body is trying to warm up. Trembling, like it is going into shock. It’s now comparable to sneezing or coughing during a pandemic — you used to not really think about it, but now you’re asking yourself a very serious question: “Am I seriously sick? If so, where am I going to go?” The fire had only recently died and I was wearing every article of clothing I had brought in my backpack. There were many hours of night left to wrangle with dark thoughts. Am I so cold I cannot properly feel it? Is this a Christopher McCandless moment from John Krakauer’s Into the Wild?
Perhaps an important backstory on my relative physical condition: I had recently completed a six-week fitness & nutrition challenge started on Jan 1st, 2020. By the final weigh in, I had dropped as much as 18 pounds from my peak weight in 2019 and, according to my trainer’s U.S. Navy Body Fat calculations, 8% of my body fat. My waist diameter was 2" narrower and I was maxing out my existing belt holes. I hit my skinniest on this trip — around 162 lbs at 5'10" height. I was proud to get to such a lean & mean state for a backpacking trip — where every pound you have to haul matters — but now I was just lean & scared!
I had recently read about Syrian refugee children freezing to death in their camps, and started to believe I knew what that might feel like. I remembered reading To Build A Fire by Jack London when I was a boy. A naïve character gets so cold walking a few miles in the Alaskan winter that he can’t even light a perfectly good match to save his life. Eventually, he just wanted to sleep, and then he died. It was a very impressionable book to me at a young age, perhaps a foreshadowing in my own life story.
What should I be doing before I get too cold and lose function? I could always hike the five short miles back out, but what if I become so debilitated I can’t safely cross the river even once? Taking a ride down a frigid river at night with all your gear is definitely not a solution for hypothermia. Furthermore, there would be no one to call and no one to yell to. I was only five miles in, but I was far from my familiar setting, and I was in deep. I needed a strategy.
I got up, rebuilt the fire, and hopped around to rebuild some heat. Primarily, I wanted the trembling to stop. I have trained in all manner of potentially hypothermic settings: from backcountry skiing in terrible storms, to swimming in cold rivers in winter, to taking regular cold showers — yet I have honestly never felt an internal shiver like that night. It scared me. It seemed like a medical condition I didn’t have the qualifications to diagnose — like McCandless losing the power in his legs from eating too many wild plants (possibly misidentified, or just an overdose of Hedysarum alpinum):
It might be said that Christopher McCandless did indeed starve to death in the Alaskan wild, but this only because he’d been poisoned, and the poison had rendered him too weak to move about, to hunt or forage, and, toward the end, “extremely weak,” “too weak to walk out,” and, having “much trouble just to stand up.” He wasn’t truly starving in the most technical sense of that condition. He’d simply become slowly paralyzed. And it wasn’t arrogance that had killed him, it was ignorance. Also, it was ignorance which must be forgiven, for the facts underlying his death were to remain unrecognized to all, scientists and lay people alike, literally for decades.
Those who have read Krakauer’s book or watched the film know that the “Supertramp” was trapped in his Alaskan camp — his longtime dream experience — by a raging river. Had he decided to return to civilization one week too late? Did he not anticipate the impact of spring/summer snowmelt in his environment? I faced a similar dilemma — a wild river blocking my exit to civilization, and no resources on the wilderness side other than my own faculties to determine the real risks, and those could decline rapidly.
Should I stay or should I go? I worked on my mental state first & foremost. I needed to calm the ‘F’ down, as I know anxiety can only exacerbate a state of ignorance. I climbed into my little one-man tent for an extra degree or two of insulation from the night air, and assessed my condition as objectively as possible. I stopped trembling, and it seemed safe to fall asleep.
When I awoke in the morning, there were two ravens huddled in a branch above my tent, nuzzling one another. The moisture in my breath had frozen in a layer of crystals all around the facial opening of the sleeping bag, and the ice crumbled & fell away as I unzipped it, like a Fraggle smashing a Doozer stick. It was not a comfortable night, but I obviously made it through, as you are reading this story now. I have no idea what the temps were up there that night, maybe 15 degrees. I realized later I could have added an emergency foil bag inside, and even a garbage bag outside to raise the insulation level of my bag. I am a little bit less ignorant than I was before that long night.
In a canyon rimmed with tall, jagged walls, the winter sun arrives at different spots at very different times of the day (if at all). Around 7am, I moved desperately about 50 yards down river to find the sun, even scrambling up the steep side of the canyon to feel the encouraging warmth. It was a glorious feeling of being alive! I had access to that elemental part of many cultures that greets & honors the sun for the gift of life it brings each day. I would find a spot in the sunlight where my hands were warmed enough to control my stove and fire up a good morning coffee. I did yoga and made some heartfelt sun salutations. I knew I was going to be okay, and I could continue my journey.
I decided for efficiency and perhaps even emotional reasons to keep the same camp the next night, which I had named Two Ravens Medicine Camp. I could then take a day journey 5 miles up river to the Jordan Hot Springs, my ultimate goal when planning this from afar. This requires 18 river crossings (9 upstream & 9 downstream), but now I could tackle this daunting challenge without the full weight of my pack on me and the risk of dunking everything in my possession. I selected some fundamental clothing layers sealed in a waterproof bag, so if I did fall in, I could find a way to warm up. It’s good to have a backup plan.
Very soon, I found how seriously this river was guarding its upriver gems. At times, the water reached my family jewels and was quite swift. It was cloudy from the desert mud being washed away, so I could not see where I was stepping or how deep it was. I recruited two stiff wooden poles to feel my way through each crossing. I braced against the current with every bit of my intention. After a few intense moments, I would emerge with very cold knees into the midday sun and dry air. Walking on, I would dry out and warm up in a quarter mile or so, at which point it was time to dunk into the river’s power once again. I had equipped myself in Silver City with neoprene socks inside specialized water “shandals” by Merrell, so my footing was sturdy and warmed up quickly after exiting the river each time. I noticed a set of mountain lion tracks in the mud near the river (pictured), but no other recent tracks from humans.
When I finally reached the Jordan Hot Springs and noticed the bright green moss growing on stream rocks, I still felt starkly alone. Nevertheless, I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from reaching the place I had envisioned from an abstract place at my desk back in Bellingham despite the unexpected difficulties I encountered in between then & now. I set my intention, made the preparations, trained & planned for it, and now here I was! While the water was not piping hot, the setting was more beautiful than I had imagined. I soaked peacefully and took a brief snack in preparation for the return journey.
Just uphill from the hot springs at the nearest campfire ring, I noticed a piece of paper inside a sandwich bag pinned down with rocks. It gave a man’s name, a phone number, and a set of GPS coordinates. The author had become trapped behind the river five days earlier and had to find another way out of the wilderness because he could not safely cross the way he came. He intended to hike to a winterized ranger station 25 miles deeper into the wilderness, then another 35 out to a road. He said “I hope this doesn’t make it too complicated.”
On my return journey, where the river levels improved each hour after the big rain event, I made extra effort to reach Two Ravens Medicine Camp with enough daylight hours to gather abundant firewood. The third night was maybe 25 degrees and quite comfortable. I hiked the long way out the next day, and I had ample reserves of energy, but I was still not certain how far I could go with that much weight on my back and in the dry climate. It was maybe 12 miles along a ridge line with beautiful views of two forks of the Gila River and good shade from Ponderosa pines. I exited through the West Fork of the Gila River valley with just a few crossings. They were also mid-thigh deep, but my confidence had grown quite a lot in three days. The river canyon seemed lush for a desert — towering trees, abundant shrubs, and even fresh green grass. At times, the setting reminded me of my home climate of North Idaho, except for the occasional cactus and herd of javelinas.
I soon returned to the Gila River Dwellings National Monument where my adventure had begun. I hustled to get back before the ranger station closed at 4pm for the day so I could report the note from the man at the hot springs. They were aware of his condition and informed he was able to send an alert from the backcountry station, and he had received a helicopter ride out. His girlfriend had become worried about him and sent rangers looking for him. I later called him anyways from outside a Denny’s restaurant in Silver City, NM after a delicious breakfast to swap survival stories. He said, in hindsight, maybe he should have stayed put. He had since acquired a Garmin InReach — a device that allows you to send a message out to loved ones via satellite and let them know you are okay. I agreed that could be a good tool for me to have, too. We also concluded it was the flooded river clogging our water filters due to the extra silt. Lessons learned… the most powerful ones often being the most painful.
I returned to a societal structure that soon came completely unraveled, as nearly everyone in the world is experiencing now. We are all dealing with fear of the unknown of our bodies’ physiological responses and a heavy dose of isolation. My brief perception of nearly freezing to death alone 5 miles into the New Mexico backcountry now pales in comparison to the level of these feelings coming from COVID-19. Perhaps, for me, the wilderness experience was just a psychological warm up.
As Wim Hof has said, the cold is my teacher! Thanks for reading,