I had planned to walk what is known as ‘The Pacific Crest Trail’ – PCT – some 2,650 miles northbound from Mexico to the Canadian border. A long, long, walk, about 5 months to do, and nearly 7 months of planning. Jane and I had spoken about GBSS, and I had determined to take this ‘stroll in the wilderness’ to raise money for the charity, and simultaneously raise awareness through fund raising events and presentations. Many kind friends and colleagues stepped up to this and the donations page was created. The fund raisers also brought a whole new awareness to my local community. In late April of this year, I set off.
The start of the trail is at the Mexican border. Quite a shock. Big sheets of metal making what is clearly a wall, stretching horizon to horizon. The Southern Terminus of the PCT is about 20′ in from that. I took a few moments, re-hitched my bag, and started to walk, it was mid to late afternoon. It made me smile with pleasure and nerves. Pretty soon I found the first mile marker. A very strong sense of the wilderness, and I stopped for a picture. So about 15 minutes in, a landmark moment, and I was on the PCT.
My plan was to walk for about two or three miles, about an hour, and start to look for a camp site. I wanted just to ease in, no rush, and just get the rhythm of walking. At about mile three, I found a really nice flat, quiet space about 30′ from the trail. It must have been about 5.30. I pitched camp, and made tea. Quiet and peaceful, very soothing to be this close to nature. Easing in. The sun went down and I turned in.
Next day, Sunday, I was up early with the light. A heavy dew on the outside of the tent, meant I could sense the impending heat, and I broke camp after more tea and breakfast. My plan was to walk to Hauser Creek, no water there, so a silly misnomer, and camp there. That would be somewhere around 12 to 14 miles further, which was about right for the first full day. Beautiful, barren scenery as I came out of the relatively sheltered and green areas of the first few miles, hard and unforgiving, but vista after vista.
I dropped out onto a dirt road about one mile from my prospective camp site, to find a wiry, very old, suntanned man on a tiny scooter. I flagged him down and asked if he knew where any water source near by may be. He asked me where I was from, and was I ‘a through hiker’ (going all the way to Canada). He was very excited I was from the UK, and advised me he was a ‘trail angel’, and had just dropped off a cache of ice cold water. He had seen no one else, so I would be next to get to it, and could take whatever I needed. Trail etiquette says you only take what you need, so when I found it, exactly where he said, I filled two pouches. I now had six liters of water and about five miles to walk, including an overnight camp. Perfect. Water from a cool source on a long walk, is about the best thing in the world.
I had dropped down into Hauser Creek, found a perfect site and pitched camp. I noticed another hiker who I had seen earlier had also arrived, and shortly thereafter a third appeared. Positively busy.
Camp was calm and peaceful, as was I with the knowledge that a tough climb and five miles would see me at Lake Morena, with showers and a resupply shop. I slept well, and again woke with a remarkably easy body, no aches. Another cup of tea, so pleased with myself for milk powder and tea bags! A touch of Britishness in the wilderness. I broke camp and started the ascent of the butte, some 3,000 feet. There were 8 switchbacks, I knew this, and I had determined to stop at each turn if it was twenty minutes, or more, between. A little mind game. I also determined not to look up or at the distance to the top. I started to look for what I had called in my mind, ‘sipping stones’, where I could sit, rest my pack without taking it off, and take a mouthful of water. In time, I crested the summit, took time to remember to look back, and thoroughly enjoyed this small achievement.
The views were simply stunning, I knew I was about 2 miles into the day, had about 2 and a half liters of water, and about 2 or 3 miles to go. All on time, all on schedule. I had several hours before dark anyway, no need to rush.
I was stupidly feeling a bit smug, and enjoying the whole PCT thing. The trail started an easy descent, and into sheltered, cool woodland type growth. Down the trail, no worries, and a slow incline up. I knew the trail would crest a ‘saddle’, maybe a hundred feet, nothing to what I had just come over, then sweep down, slight ups, but generally down, to Lake Morena.
The trail started to rise, out into the heat again, and very dusty. Dirt that had seen no water for months, scuffing up small clouds as I walked. I also realized that I had a couple of blisters that had decided to say hello. I had seen no one all day.
And just about then it hit me that I was not feeling at all well, felt the lights going out and my brain all fuzzy, fizzy sounds in my ears. I knew I was going to hit the dirt, face forward.
I came to in the middle of the trail. I felt very sick and disorientated, and knew I was seriously not good. I could not stand. I was trying to vomit, could not move my legs, and had a crippling headache. Obviously, I still had my pack on. I crawled a few feet up the trail to a scrubby tree, and slumped onto my back, unable to remove the back pack, I was a bit like an upside down tortoise. I think I passed out again, and came to violently trying (again), to vomit and shivering with cold.
A girl hiker arrived, the only person I had seen, saw me and assessed the situation, I assume, and soaked a bandana to put on my head. I remember it was blue. It was also very clear from her reaction that she knew how serious this was. She promised me help, that she had to leave to get it, but help would come.
I have no clear recollection of times and timing. Let’s say, and it feels right, that I keeled over about 1pm. That means I had come up and over the butte, and covered about 2 and a half miles through the course of the morning. Slow progress, but all about right in that terrain. I faded in and out, and was now very cold and shivering. I kept trying to vomit and kept sliding down to lay slumped. It took all my strength to sit up.
At about 6pm, I heard a helicopter, and saw it over the ridge I had just descended. It was clearly searching. I could not get up, and I could not be sure if it saw me. I was convinced it had flown away.
During this time, alone in the dirt, a lot of things had gone through my mind. It was not the whole life flashing by thing, that you hear of when people are at the very edge, nor was it a making ‘peace’ thing either, but more of a consideration of things. I knew Sarah, my fiancé, was on the trail with me, I had spoken to her in that canyon, so I do know she was there.
I knew I may well not survive this. The odds were very high against me, it was getting late, the helicopter had gone, I thought, and there was a peace to it all. Almost inevitable. Liz, my daughter, had given me a small St Christopher, which was buried deep in my back pack. I thought a lot about that. Many other thoughts went through my mind, nothing focused, not on specifics, just family. Again and again, I think I must have passed in and out, cold, trying to vomit, shivering and very lonely.
The helicopter had not flown away, and had been looking for a place to land. One of the officers came down the trail towards me shouting my name, so I must have got it right for the girl hiker. He asked questions and triaged me. He had no medical equipment, and radioed between his pilot and another helicopter. He advised I needed urgent medical help, and he said on the radio that I was deteriorating rapidly. I faded in and out, and was very confused that there were now two helicopters. I know they determined immediate evacuation, because they put me in a body bag on a flat bed, and winched me up. There was no area for the big medical helicopter to land.
My biggest concern, I remember, was how cold I was, how much I wanted to sleep, and why no one would let me get warm or let me close my eyes. The helicopter winch man had constantly asked me my name and age, over and over, and again I think I recall thinking I wish he would just write it down.
I knew the helicopter was flying somewhere. Obviously. But I had no idea where. I came to being hauled and heaved into an ambulance. I simply do not know where we were. The medic in the ambulance cut through my trouser legs and the sleeves and chest of my shirt. Shredded everything. I was now violently shivering, gasping and retching, and very confused. The ambulance man kept pinching my shoulder muscles to keep me conscious. I was fading in and out, and he was on the radio to someone. I think it must have been the ER. They put stuff into me through two intravenous drips. I remember him shouting at me to stay awake, stop shivering and breath normally. He kept asking me questions, my name, my age, what year it was. I had my name bang on, but clearly remember a variety of answers as I struggled to focus. I was panting short gasps, and shuddering with cold.
We arrived at an ER. I was filthy dirty, my clothes in shreds, and no id or visible means of support or proof of anything at all. My accent helped, I think, and there were some curious nurses about what had come to pass. My back pack had gone, taken by the helicopter pilot, but it meant I had nothing. I did realize I had my iPhone in my pocket, it had not worked in the canyon, and I had left it on. I do not, to this day, know why it was in my pocket and not in the back pack. Battery was down to very, very, low. One message out, and it would probably die. I sent Sarah a message. It was, apparently, about 06.00 London time. That made it 10 in the evening San Diego time. I was very alone again, very unsure and very nervous. Still shivering and cold, the ER nurses had put space blankets on me, and I was on two drips. Sarah phoned, and they simply handed me a phone to talk to her. I was overcome with emotion and relief.
During the next hours in hospital, the seriousness of my condition and how dangerous some of the tests were showing when they came back, meant they were going to admit me for some time. It seems I was less than one hour from death. My heart beat was all over the place, and the ER Doctor said he thought my core temperature had hit 40′ for all these symptoms to have manifested themselves. They decided I had dangerously high potassium levels and was at massive risk of heart attack or stroke. I was suffering crippling cramp in both legs, and they also knew that my hormone levels and toxins in my blood were still very dangerously high.
There is no explanation, at least not yet, for why it was then and there, and not before or elsewhere, that it all hit. Reflecting on this, as I now have, I wonder if it was simply a confluence of things that in isolation would not have had impact. Jet lag, heat, strenuous exercise, altitude, altered diet, my own emotions – adrenalin, excitement, pleasure.
Dramatically, I was light years from where I had started just over a week earlier, geographically less than a mile.
How can these things ever be measured? From my determination to walk the PCT, to being found in the heat and dust of that same PCT, but barely with the adventure under way. Being found and helped by a complete stranger. Indeed, all the doctors seem to agree, having my life saved by what that stranger did. What took her to the PCT, what life path. So, I say again, how can these things be measured? When I eventually returned to the UK, it took quite some time for BA to allow me to fly, I was struggling to know what to do, and how to come to terms with what had happened. Or, more accurately, what had not happened. I know that GBSS has benefitted financially and I am delighted. I did not know that from the fund raiser, someone sought medical advice for their pregnant daughter. She was found to be a carrier, safely treated and delivered of a gorgeous, healthy baby. Worth nearly dying in the dust for that alone. Then someone else sought the same advice and another baby safely delivered. Fantastic – and all down to Jane and GBSS.
I know I was not alone in that canyon. I do not know why I was saved, and I do not yet know for what purpose. So many things went to my life being saved. Strangers, luck, and, I am convinced, the little St Christopher. Something much, much, more too. My daughter had also given me an old Celtic poem, which I carried with me, the last lines of which are ‘..and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand’. I know now He did, and He was with me in that hot, dirty lonely canyon, where I knew I would die. I have been given an incredible gift, and I am still trying to sort out why me, and what is this gift for. These answers are slowly becoming clear, coming into a focus, but like the PCT, it seems to be a very long way. I know who will be walking beside me though.