Finding hope in hopelessness – How I survived a blizzard on Wheeler Peak

  • Published
  • By Commentary by Lt. Col. Daniel Loveless
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron commander

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- How did everything go wrong so quickly? I was just starting to head down from the 13,133 foot summit of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico. The skies were clear, and it was relatively warm for the altitude.

Mountains make their own weather, and within about 15 minutes, I was getting pummeled by 80 mph winds. Snow mixed with sleet started to fall, and even though I was wearing glacier glasses, the sleet combined with the high winds was causing considerable discomfort to my eyes any time I looked up.

I began a rapid descent, as the weather was deteriorating quickly. A few minutes later I was in a white out. A white out is a weather condition in which visibility is severely reduced by snow and clouds. I couldn’t see clearly more than one foot in front of me and even that was not very clear.

I had been in some limited white outs before, but nothing like this. I had read how climbers have actually walked off the side of a mountain in a white out. I now fully understood how that could happen.

It was exceptionally difficult to distinguish the sky from the snow at my feet. I needed to be careful with each step, taking the time to make sure that I was stepping onto snow and not off a cliff.

The wind and snow played tricks with my eyes. I thought I saw a couple people in the distance. As I tried to refocus, the people turned out to be trees.

The reality was, I was completely alone. There was no one else to team up with. I had to make it out on my own.

I had a map and compass with me, but without a line of sight they were useless.

I needed to set up camp to wait out the storm. I continued to descend and spotted a large rock. This would at least cut out some of the wind.

I started to set up my bivy sack, which is a windproof shell that goes over a sleeping bag. I then realized that I had left my sleeping bag in my car.

It’s difficult to set up a tent or bivy sack in a storm. Generally you have two people work together to do this. Due to the winds and not being as careful as I should have been while setting up the bivy sack, my air mattress ended up flying off in the wind. I would have to spend the night lying directly against rock-hard snow and ice.

When most people think of mountain climbing and fatalities, the images of climbers falling into a crevasse or getting swept away in an avalanche come to mind. The truth is the number one thing that kills people in the wilderness is exposure. That was when I realized I was in a precarious position.

Similar to the shift in weather patterns, life circumstances can change quickly and not always in a positive direction. When you are in an exceptionally difficult situation or very dark place in life, where it seems like there is no way out, how do you find hope?

The first step is to see past the difficult situation. Most hard times are temporary and can even lead to better things than before the negative event happened.

Don’t focus on the negatives you are experiencing now, but the future and the possibility of change.

The next step is to acknowledge the negative feelings you are having. Although difficult, you just can’t ignore them. In order to have positive change, you have to work through your feelings.

It’s also important not let your problems become you. These difficulties are outside of you and you have the ability to change them or yourself.

Another important step is acceptance. You can’t hide from your problems. As long as you do this, things are unlikely to get better. Once you have accepted the situation, growth and change can happen.

Additionally, you have to take care of yourself. Getting proper nutrition and sleep is instrumental in giving you the energy to break through a difficult situation.

Finally, you need to set up a plan. It’s important to have an overall goal, but there should be intermediate goals as well. This plan will start to give you direction and will help to build a belief in yourself that will give you the perseverance to continue going forward. Each intermediate goal you achieve will help reinforce the positive outcome that is within your reach.

I knew I was in a bad situation. I had accepted it. I had enough food and water for a couple days if need be. I accepted I might not make it or may lose some toes in the process.

I had no idea how long the poor weather would continue. I had hoped that if I could persevere I would get through this. I was determined never to give up even if I had to drag myself along.

My plan was first to get through the night and head back in hopefully better conditions. I laid on both my sides inside the bivy sack to limit overall conductance of heat out of my body. Every few minutes I would kick my legs and try to create friction. When one’s core temperature decreases, the extremities begin to cool off and frostbite can set in. I worked to counter that by wiggling my toes. I continued this for about 12 hours.

Morning arrived, but the weather continued. The positive side was that visibility was about 10 feet now. Although I had cold weather gear on, the night had been rough. Since I could at least travel with some visibility, I decided it would be best to head to a lower elevation in case the weather did not change, and I had to spend additional nights on the mountain.

After a few hours of descending, I came across a creek. Using my map and compass, I noted that this would likely merge with a river. Given that I was probably a mile off course, this landmark would give me a foundation to acquire my location and then find my way back into civilization.

The descent was difficult as I had to work through brush, jump across a ravine multiple times, walk on steep slopes and cross precarious snow bridges. Soon the wind died and the sun was out.

No sleep in over a day and a half and hiking over difficult terrain and deep snow was taking its toll, but I wasn’t going to stop putting one foot in front of the other. My lips were starting to crack. I had failed to take care of myself. I had water, but I was too determined to make headway. 

I pressed on and saw a log positioned across the creek. My mood improved realizing just this once I would not have to navigate my way around the creek again. As I approached I saw a wire running across the bridge -- a hand hold! This was a man-made bridge.

A couple feet further, I saw a trail head sign leading to an equestrian path. A path I could see even with the snow on top of it.

I was home.