I know I broke every safety rule in the book. I set out with my dog Jethro to hike an uncharted trail with no food, no water, no layers and no one knew I was going.
On a whim I found the Rim Vista trailhead, one that boasts the best views in the state of New Mexico. The climb up cut through rugged terrain on a well-marked path. One spectacular vista after another overlooked the cliffs of the O’Keefe inspired landscape.
An hour or so later, at nearly 8000 feet high, I received a text that most likely saved my life.
“Can’t find my peanut butter cups. Did you take both of them?”
This started a conversation that let my friend Don know that I did not know where the peanut butter cups were since I was out hiking on the Rim Vista Trail. Someone now knew where I was. My phone was dangerously close to dying. His last words to me that day were “keep your feet on the ground.”
“Ok” I texted and shut down my phone.
Although the hike up seemed clear the path down clearly did not. I kept walking along the cliffs wondering if I was on the trail or not. I hiked back to the last visible trail marker I could find; a pink plastic ribbon hanging from a tree branch. Back and forth, over and over, I walked until I no longer had a clue what was the trail and what was not.
The only thought that occupied space at this time was…
I have to get down.
The sunlight was waning. It was difficult enough to climb up here during the day. Without light, navigation was impossible.
Alongside a cliff ran an arroyo of rocks and boulders, a staircase to lower ground. Jethro and I began our descent.
Jethro was not always willing to traverse the path down. The heights and contours were frightening causing him to head back up. I tied the sleeve of my windbreaker around his collar for a leash so I would not lose him. We continued on with me carrying him over rock and stone when he thought he could not.
The arroyo flattened out to a limestone ledge. The only way to continue down at that point was to slide. Once the commitment was made to go there was no turning back. Nothing would stop the descent into the rock quarry five feet below.
I managed to land with my bones intact. I looked up over the ledge and there sat Jethro. I called for him to come but he would not budge. Nothing, I mean nothing, would get him to move. I surveyed the area for a way back. Rocks and boulders filled the space but none were positioned to give me height or leverage to climb up.
The last light of day was ready to drop below the horizon. There was nowhere else to go, nothing else I could do. This would be home for the night.
The ledge offered protection overhead. I gathered small rocks to build a low wall. I climbed behind the wall with my tank top and vest. I pulled a tube skirt from my hips to cover my shoulders. My jacket was tied to Jethro who sat above me out of sight. I curled into a ball on the hard ground, behind the rock wall, under the limestone ledge to prepare for the drop in temperature that night would bring.
If there was ever a time for fear and worry this was it yet there was never a moment when that existed. I was vulnerably broken open to a will far greater than my own.
Stripped of any physical comfort, there was nothing to hold on to other than faith. As night unfurled, grace descended. Stars filled the night, many shooting across the sky.
The moon bathed the cliffs in her light revealing images and shadows of Ancient Ones in stone. I felt protected by the Apus. Although I had learned of the mountain spirits from the shamans in Peru, here in New Mexico I had a direct experience of their presence.
I kept my legs and feet moving so they would not get cold. I pulled my vest up over my nose and began a yogic breath of fire to generate internal heat and fill the inside of my vest with warmth.
And so it went, as night grew deeper and temperatures turned colder.
In the dark I could hear Jethro whimper. The only condolence was that meant he was alive. I called to him.
Mama is here baby.
You are such a good boy.
Look up at the sky Jethro.
Do you see the stars?
Night will pass.
Morning always comes.
I love you.
I am here with you.
Moment by moment, breath by breath, the stars receded from the sky and made way for dawn.
The light of a new day let me search for a way to reach Jethro. An hour must have passed before I was able to grab hold of the trunk of a small sage bush. With nothing other than sheer will, I wrangled to higher ground. Reunited, we now climbed up again.
There seemed to be two choices to find our way off the mountain; go up and try to get back to the rim or find a trail along the mountainside that went down.
We traversed the landscape and found a friendly arroyo to climb down, one full of trees, shade and elk tracks. Surely the wildlife knew the way. I was hopeful this would take us safely to lower ground.
I turned on my phone and was able to send the final texts to my friend Don before my phone died completely. I let him know we had spent the night here and were heading down. I could see Abiquiu lake directly in front of me and Rio Chama at 3:00. I texted these landmarks. By the time search and rescue would read these messages hours later the coordinates no longer applied.
Even at this point I was vague about asking for help because of my deep seated and distorted belief that it would not be there when I needed it. This left others reading between the lines about the danger I was in.
The friendly arroyo turned menacing as it led to an impassable precipice.
Again we turned around and climbed up.
Twenty four hours had passed without food and water. I was not hungry but my mouth was as dry as the desert I was living in. It was painful to swallow.
I could not keep moving. Small efforts were becoming very taxing. I laid down in the shade and could feel my heart beating against the Earth. My body ached in pleasure against the cool ground. Pachamama seduced me into lying still.
Plans changed. I thought a day of rest would give me the stamina to climb again tomorrow. Finding shelter took precedence. The mountain ledge we were now on was dotted with low-lying cypress trees. One in particular was hollowed out on one side. The front end faced the sun and the back end was shaded. I spent the day cooling off in the shade when I got too hot and warming up in the sun when it got too cold.
Resting in stillness I thought I heard the sound of a human voice. I walked to the edge of the cliff and looked out. Something moved in the distance, the very, very far distance.
“HELLO” I yelled.
“I SEE YOU”
I did not know if I was heard or not but I was certain what i saw moving was another human being. After a time I went back to the cypress tree and prepared for the sun to set.
I wrapped Jethro against me with my tube skirt like a pappoose. I kept moving and breathing but with much less vigor than the night before. Although I had two more layers, my windbreaker and Jethro, I felt colder.
It was completely dark when a far off caravan of lights began moving towards me. Was it possible they knew I was here? Did the person I see earlier hear my calls for help?
Soon after the car lights were in position a stream of headlights began moving below me. As they got closer I could hear their voices.
“WE ARE SEARCH AND RESCUE”
“CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
“YES I HEAR YOU”
“ARE YOU INJURED?”
“NO, JUST COLD”
I never imagined anyone would show up at night. I could not see how they could make it to the ledge I was on in the dark but they were here. I was sure they would start their way up first thing in the morning. I could last another night knowing they were down below.
Then I heard voices coming from behind me.
“CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
“CAN YOU SEE OUR LIGHTS?”
I was much closer to the top of the mountain than the bottom. Could the voices behind possibly reach me tonight?
“WE ARE COMING”
“STAY WHERE YOU ARE”
The overwhelming gratitude upon hearing…We Are Coming…could only be expressed by a spontaneous stream of tears rolling down my face.
A miraculous matrix had been mapped that led four men to a woman and her dog sitting under a cypress tree on the side of a mountain in the dark of night.
Their first words to me were, “You don’t know how happy we are to see you!” It could never be matched by the inconceivable happiness I felt upon seeing them.
They offered tea and food. I was wrapped in hats, gloves, warm layers and a down jacket. They had water and beef jerky for Jethro.
“Do you know what time it is?”, they asked. I had no way of knowing.
I never believed anyone could make it here at night. “Will I be able to meet the person that called for help? They saved my life.”
“That was your friend Don”, they told me. “He was incredible in helping us to find you.” I later learned he was the person I saw moving in the distance. He had hiked in with food and water thinking he would meet us on our way out.
Uplifted by the support of our rescue team we began our hike out with headlamps, topographic maps and a lifeline to the Command Unit waiting below. Four rescue teams had been sent out that night. We arrived at the base camp of Santa Fe SAR at 3:00 in the morning.
There are angels walking this Earth. You will know them because they uplift humanity, they take an extra step and literally go an extra mile. Their desire to be of service guides their actions.
There are angels on Earth and they light up the world so others may find their way.
My deepest thanks to the angels that saved my life that night:
Richard Goldstein, Incident Commander
Jim D. and Ray W. the Ops SC and Deputy OP SC who came up with a plan based on interviews with Don Myer.
Tom M, Joe, Jim K. and Chris K., SF SAR Rescue Team who hiked out with me
Atayla SAR, team calling from below
Communications Unit Terry and Richard D
Safety Officer Charlie
Al was ORDM
My apologies to anyone whose name I have left out because I know there were many more.
Click here for more on the Santa FE SAR, a volunteer organization dedicated to saving lives in the state of New Mexico.
Be safe in the wilderness. Click below.