Sweat, fear, anxiety… “DRINK, DRINK, DRINK, push forward, you can do this!” An inner-dialog played in my head as I struggled to take each step. By this point in my 22 day journey, I’d learned to cope with the aches a 40lbs pack created with each miserable step, because I knew every painful step led to a more amazing experience. For the first time since my grandmother Nonie’s passing, I felt I had some direction and meaning in my life, and I knew the physical struggle was nothing compared to the emotional fight I would face once my wilderness expedition was complete. However, I’d also grown to realize that if I could overcome the physical challenges I could triumph over the emotional challenges as well. Therefore, I continued drinking water to stave off the anxiety that I might literally die. This was a big mistake, and my fears were almost realized later that same day.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three main heat related illnesses that effect outdoor recreationists: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Each of these conditions is more serious than the previous, and heat stroke can be fatal. In the deserts of Utah temperatures routinely climb above 104oF making these conditions serious concerns for any outdoor recreationist, and I found myself victim of these concerns during the fall of 2006. That September I embarked on a 180 mile journey through the Utah wilderness, with Outward Bound. This venture included mountaineering, cayoneering, and white water rafting on the Colorado River. To this day, it is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences I’ve had, but just outside of Lockhart Canyon, on the final leg before reaching the Colorado River, my journey nearly ended forever. In fact, a few months earlier a teenage girl did suffer this tragic fate in the same canyon.
My mindset going into the day’s voyage was clear, optimistic, and determined. We’d just come off our solo portion of the trip, and I’d spent the past 72 hours reflecting on my life and the impact of the journey. The second anniversary of Nonie’s death was during this solo period, and I finally felt I was gaining acceptance of this loss. For the first time in over two years I had ambitions for my future. At the time, it was only the vague notion that I wanted a career outdoors, but it was the clearest objective I’d had in my life since losing all hope and confidence following my grandmother’s death. This stage of the journey also meant we were nearing the end of carrying heaving packs and eating dehydrated meals, because the river portion of the trip allowed for menu expansion and paddles in hand replacing packs on our backs. It also meant cool river water, and soft sandy beach camps. Overall, the most challenging parts of our expedition were behind us, or at least they would be by nightfall.
My Expedition Group, September 2006
Our learned skills and previous experience would lead us through our hike that day, and the group would separate from the guides to reconvene by the river. One guide trailblazed the path along a desert road, and the other guide lagged far behind to sweep up any stragglers that evening. It was impressed upon us that we must work as a team and stay together throughout the day’s journey. I was fortunate that our solo journey didn’t extend to this portion of the expedition, because after I’d flushed all my electrolytes by obsessively drinking water my mind became delirious in the desert heat. To the best of my recollection this is what I experienced that afternoon:
The path felt like a tunnel, and the sun seemed to dim. The heat still persisted until I felt nothing. My body was no longer with my mind, and my mind felt drunk. I still had a general awareness that something was wrong, but my perception about what my body was doing was completely inaccurate. I was under the impression that I still had control and could take care of myself. I thought if I just keep moving everything would be okay. I felt faint and dizzy, but I thought I could push a little farther by focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.
In reality, I was not walking “one foot in front of the other” down the same path as my group members, and I was unresponsive to sounds and other external stimuli. Other students reported I began to stumble and wander away from the trail, and they said I did not answer when called by name. While I never lost consciousness, I was completely unaware of my surroundings and I didn’t recall any of the unusual behavior others described. Fortunately, the other students in my group recognized what was happening to me, and they immediately took life-saving action to cool my body temperature and replenish my electrolytes. As much as 20 minutes passed from the time I first began wandering away from the trail to the time when my mind regained true awareness of my surroundings and I was able to clearly communicate with others. During this time, my team members loosened my clothes, placed a damp bandana around my neck and draped another over my head. They fashioned a tarp overhead to offer shade, and mixed a strong electrolyte drink which they offered me in small sips. They fanned me and raced to our “sweep-guide” for additional medical care. Ideally, you would move someone into a cooler environment, but this was not an option in the backcountry.
I rested, ate several small snacks, and continued to sip on the electrolyte drink mix. After I felt recovered, other members of my group distributed parts of my pack load, and I continued on the journey to the river with close supervision from the group. It was a terrifying experience, and perhaps more so for the other members of my group since my recollection was foggy at best. Regardless, it was one of the many valuable experiences I took with me from my Outward Bound Wilderness expedition, and I will always be grateful for the alertness and compassion of my team members.
Our guides warned us of the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion due to the high temperatures and their personal experiences with the recent tragedy in the area. It was clear they were still anguished by the incident, and we were extra diligent due to their concerns. The temporal proximity of my excursion to this tragic case may have actually saved my life, because other students on the expedition recognized the signs and knew to address them seriously when I began having symptoms of heat exhaustion.
Outward Bound, September 2006
For more information on signs, symptoms, and treatment for heat related illness please visit the sources below.
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