ONLY ON KOLD: Hiker recounts fight, survival after getting lost
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Ron Hutter is no stranger to the outdoors. an avid hiker, this former Boy Scout lives the motto 'Be prepared'.
This wasn't the case a couple of weeks ago when he set out on what was supposed to be just a 20 minute hike to kill some time before meeting up with a friend for lunch. Since it was a short hike, he left his backpack in the car. Only a few hours later, Ron realized he missed the trail and didn't know the way back.
Hutter spent the next four days and three nights using his experience to stay alive.
Below is his first-hand account of the ordeal, which he shared exclusively with Tucson News Now.
I was going up to Mount Lemmon to spend Monday night in a hammock that I was modifying for cold weather, and to enjoy looking at the super moon.
I was going to have lunch with a friend then proceed to the campsite near the top of Mt. Lemmon. The last time I spoke with my friend regarding lunch was Saturday, we were to speak about it again sometime Sunday. We did not do that, and I assumed that lunch was confirmed.
That was the first of several mistakes I made.
I started up Catalina Highway and had plenty of time to stop along the way.
I decided to check out a trail that I had not hiked in several years, Upper Green Mountain. It was about 11 a.m., I decided to go up the trail for about 20 minutes and then back down.
It is a pretty steep trail and pine needles made it difficult to see the trail. I had on a light long-sleeve cotton shirt, my hat, fishing vest (lots of pockets for stuff) and my water bottle with about 25 ounces.
Near the top I remembered that the trail went down the other side. I saw a path that went off trail to an interesting rock formation.
I went there for a little exploration, and headed back.
When I got back to where I went off trail, I had a major unexpected urge to have a BM.
I had taken a little extra magnesium that morning for some left leg cramps. So I got off-trail again, dug a hole, pooped and used about 1/2 of my water to wash my hands.
I looked around but did not see anything that looked like a trail. I thought I got here by going up, so to get back all I needed to do is go down.
Really big mistake.
I headed down for about 15 minutes and did not see the highway as expected. So I picked up my pace and decided to maintain one direction -- I kept the sun on my back and headed north.
The terrain was very steep, and starting to get difficult to hike through. After about 1/2 an hour I thought I have to be near the road. Then I came to an area with a impassable cliff on the right and left. I was convinced this was the point of no return, no back tracking. I kept up a fast pace through some pretty difficult terrain, thick areas of shrub oaks and sticker bushes.
But I was still thinking I would find the highway.
After about 1 1/2 to 2 hours of going down the wrong side of the mountain, I realized that I was in really big trouble.
I was lost and would need to spend the night.
I was up on a ridge, looked down and saw a flat area somewhat clear of trees.
I remembered thinking about one of the most important things to do in a survival situation -- keep a positive mental attitude. It would not help to be thinking about the mistakes I made that got me lost. I needed to focus on the present.
I started down to the clearing, came across a prickly pear cactus and cut off some pads for food, Great, I had a food source.
I arrived at my campsite and started gathering wood for a fire. I always carry a lighter in my vest, thank God!
While gathering wood I noticed bear poop, many very large piles of it, all around the campsite.
OK, positive mental attitude, fire will keep them away. And in case it didn't, I tied the larger of my two knives to one of my ski poles.
The fire was in a water erosion ditch so there was no need to build a fire pit and could put longer logs in it and move them towards the fire as needed.
I had about 10 ounces of water left when I remembered another survival technique -- I would have to start drinking my own urine.
Eating prickly pear pads have a side effect of diarrhea, which I found out the next day. To borrow a line from the pharmaceutical industry -- ask your doctor if prickly pear pads and pee is right for you.
Having a sense of humor helps with positive mental attitude.
Anyway I had a collapsible camping cup in my vest so there was no need to pee in my water bottle while it still had water.
That night it was pretty cold, with a very cool breeze coming down the canyon.
I did not have a flashlight. I had to keep close to the fire, and rotated keeping my back, buttocks and legs warm.
The ground was cold and I couldn't lay on my back for very long.
Also, I had to keep the fire going so I did not sleep that night
Sometime that night I saw what looked like several bright lights on the east side of the canyon. Could it be people? I shouted out hey, but in a little while realized it was that super moon coming up shining a little light through the pines.
Wow, the super moon was beautiful. I enjoyed the beauty and kept a positive mental attitude.
Time passed incredibly slowly that night.
In the morning, I took out my daily wear contacts. I shouldn't have slept with them in as infection was a concern. I had no other lenses or glasses.
I'm very very near sighted, but was just going to have to function without them.
One survival rule is to stay put, let rescuers come to you. I made a plan to set some signal fires, but I needed to wait until the wind was going up the canyon.
I got three smokey fires going, then while gathering wood saw a large tall pine tree with a lot of debris at the base. I gathered pine needles for tinder and some pine cones that were dripping with sap.
The pine cone literally burst into flames and I had to use both hands to position flaming pine cone to get the debris burning. In doing so I set my lighter down and forgot to pick it up. Foggy brain from lack of sleep.
The burning tree sent very large billows of smoke up the canyon, perfect I thought.
About an hour later a low flying helicopter came by to investigate the burning tree, but then flew up the canyon. I realized search and rescue was not looking for me.
OK, back to positive mental attitude and what to do next.
I put some more wood on the main campfire, said a prayer for help and took a nap.
I was awakened by very vivid dream about myself in all my hiking gear walking slowly in a southwest direction towards myself. I believe that it is very rare to see yourself face to face in a dream.
Anyway, my thoughts were that it was a premonition of death, which I knew was highly probable in this situation.
The rest of the day was spent gathering fire wood and prickly pear pads and napping to restore and conserve energy.
I remember lying down looking up at the pine trees, how beautiful.......positive mental attitude.....focus on the present.
Sometime that afternoon I discovered my lighter was gone and I didn't have the ability to start any more fires. Also, diarrhea started.
I gathered more wood and moved some rocks into position to block the cool night wind coming down the canyon.
That night a fixed wing aircraft began circling above, mostly SW higher up the canyon.
I threw more wood on the fire and fired up some oak branches with dead leaves and waved them around.
If they had seen me I thought they would signal in some way -- do a tight circle overhead or maybe a flare. But they didn't.
On a positive note, search and rescue was looking for me.
I fell asleep once that night but woke up shivering when the fire went to coals. I was able to start it up again and knew I couldn't let that happen again. Running low on wood I knew the fire had to be smaller. I got down in erosion ditch to get closer to it.
The moon was beautiful again but time passed so slowly.
Incredible intense solitude.
My energy levels were getting very low.
Prickly pear pads are very mucilaginous, tend to swell as you chew and it takes energy.
OK, maybe wash some down with urine. I almost barfed. I knew I couldn't do that or I would lose fluids and electrolytes.
My plan was simply. I knew they are looking for me so I would stay put and they would find me.
I was using up all the available fire wood around my camp site, and decided to move about 30 feet to the west where there was three large boulders that would provide shelter from the nighttime down drafting canyon winds.
I gathered a lot more wood and pine cones and then climbed a cliff to get more prickly pear.
The diarrhea got much worse and I had no control over bowels.
I do not remember seeing any search planes so I decided I would have to hike out next day.
My focus was rest, eat more prickly pear and conserve energy.
That evening winds came from the north and I knew a storm was moving in.
The boulders provided no protection from wind and I could not get away from campfire smoke.
If it rained that night I would have likely died from hypothermia.
I actually fell asleep three times that night and the fire died down to coals, but was able to use pine cones to get it started again.
I woke up once shivering, realized my jeans were wet and cold from diarrhea so I got positioned close to fire to dry them out.
That was the night that I found out something about drinking urine -- it's best when served properly chilled. Sense of humor and positive mental attitude.
I thought I heard cars on Catalina Highway to the west -- sound travels further at night.
Again that night the hours passed so slowly.
I knew three nights under those conditions, most do not survive.
My plan was to start early while I had cool temperatures.
When it was light enough to see, I gathered my things, ate a small bite of prickly pear, peed in water bottle for later consumption and said a prayer for strength.
I remembered the dream I had on Tuesday, hiking southwest not west which I was planning to do.
I had a cool breeze on my back. I was taking very deep breaths and it felt incredibly good to have that cool air deep in my lungs.
My upper legs had been sore for two days, but not this morning.
When I was able to really use them I was amazed at the strength. I remember thinking if I was climbing stairs I could be out of the canyon in a couple of hours.
Well, the gripping soles of my boots had fallen off. I think the heat from the campfire made them fall off.
My boots were very slick and I couldn't get a grip on rocks that would normally be easy to walk on. The terrain was very steep, with lose rocks and slippery pine needles.
Slow hiking conserves energy, prevents falls and a twisted ankle now could be deadly.
I had one shot at getting out. My right shoulder was painful from using upper arm as pillow when I wasn't using a rock covered with fake sheep skin. I made fairly frequent stops for rest to let heart rate settle down a bit.
It was very difficult getting through thickets of scrub oak and sticker bushes. I remember one steep cliff to my left, what I thought was impassable, scrub oaks straight ahead and on my right, a big rock that curved around and up.
I decided to tie my ski poles to my belt and free climb around the rock and maybe find a little easier hiking. After climbing 30 feet I discovered I could not go any further.
I went back to the impassable scrub oaks and crawled through on my hands and knees, using my compass to maintain a southwest heading.
Then saw a helicopter circling around two rocky peaks at the top. OK, they were looking for me there and that's probably where I'll find the trail and maybe search-and-rescue personnel.
I tried signaling with the mirror on my compass but it didn't work.
On with a positive mental attitude, at least I knew where I need to go.
I was still quite a ways from there, and wasn't sure if I got close that I would be able to actually find passage to that spot.
It was around 4 p.m. and I had been hiking for nine hours. While taking a short heat rate/breather break realized that if I didn't make it out I would die from hypothermia.
I knew a fall would have painful consequences.
That's when I decided that I would not let that happen. I would take the easy way out and with a very sharp pocket knife blade cut open my left radial artery.
Not too long after struggling to get to the top I started seeing litter, some golf balls and empty soda cans.
Not happy to see the litter, but glad to know the trail was near.
Some time later I came into a clearing and found a well-worn trail.
Then I saw a car coming down Catalina highway and that unofficial path that I was on four days ago.
I headed down to the highway but didn't see my car in the parking lot.
So I started hiking up the highway. After about 10 minutes I saw another car coming down the highway.
I started waving my ski poles, walked into the oncoming car's lane and got down on my knees.
I asked the driver for help and water. It was taking a bit of time for them to get the water and maybe they were looking for something to pour it in.
A second car pulled up behind the first, again I asked for water.
I could barely speak, told them who I was.
They gave me a couple of bottles of water and a rice cake.
In spite of the horrible way I smelled and the diarrhea-soaked jeans, they put a blanket down in the back seat and drove me to get help.
Some one called for an ambulance and my recovery process began.
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