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trip report! part seven: the gila hasty wrap-up post

January 14, 2010

All right, it’s been too long since the Gila trip to continue posting about it for much longer, so here’s the hasty-wrap up where I tell you about only the most interesting things that happened on the rest of the journey.

Namely, hypothermia and being stopped by the border patrol.

So, hypothermia!   Hypothermia is bad.  It’s also something I never thought I’d have to worry about on a backcountry trip, growing up in North Carolina and all.  Turns out this is a bad assumption even for NC, because as I discovered on this trip, it doesn’t actually have to be all that cold to encounter a risk of hypothermia.

The day after our “Thanksgiving” dinner, we set off down the Middle Fork of the Gila River.  We had heard that this was the most beautiful section of our planned hike, and also the one involving the most creek crossings.

Methinks we heard correctly.

Luckily, for a while we were able to cross without getting our feet wet at all…until I slipped and my boot went under all the way.  Whoops.  Time to “suit up” in our creek -crossing attire (wool socks and sandals).

Wet boots are sad boots.

Yes, we are quite stylish.

The idea with the socks was that they would both protect our feet from getting scratched up by the grit (a problem we ran into on the West Fork), as well as providing some insulation, since wool can keep you warm even when it’s wet.  This was a good idea, but not quite good enough.

We may as well have walked straight down the creek for 5 miles, there were so many crossings.  This was kind of unpleasant for a while, but once the canyon closed in around us, it got dark and shady, and without the sun to warm us after crossings, “kind of unpleasant” became downright miserable.  I actually did okay for the most part, and was enjoying taking pictures of all the pretty things around us, but Eric and Pecan were not liking it so much.

Pretty things like these canyon walls.

In a lovely piece of irony, Eric actually carried the dog across the creek several times, when the crossing was deep enough that she’d have to swim and get her chest wet, because we wanted to prevent her from getting hypothermia.  Oh dear.

I have rarely seen an unhappier pair.

Anyhow, this went on for many hours, and eventually I noticed that Eric had moved beyond complaining about being miserable into talking a good bit of nonsense.  Not total gibberish, but rather a kind of bizarre narrative version of what was going on.  That, and he reported lightheadedness and more exhaustion than would be justified for our slow rate of progress down the canyon.  At one point he asked when we might consider stopping (this was around 2 pm, so we still technically had daylight left, though it was hard to tell down in the canyon).

“At the next vaguely sunny campsite we come to.”  Seriously, dude was starting to worry me quite a bit.  Dog was whining, too.

All right folks, so here’s a brief lesson on hypothermia for y’all.  Hypothermia is a pretty non-specific term for significantly reduced body temperature (down past about 95 degrees, generally).  This can happen even in 60-degree weather, especially if you are wet.  The initial signs are shivering, especially hard-to-control or uncontrollable shivering, clumsiness or a general lack of coordination, drowsiness, confusion and difficulty thinking or making decisions.  From what I’ve read since, women are usually less susceptible, since we’ve got more body fat (woohoo!).  The only way to treat it is to get the affected person warm and dry ASAP.

Eric was stumbling more than me.  If you know how clumsy I am, you know this is an alarming sign.

So, we stopped as soon as it was sunny.  He suggested setting up the tent in a severely less-than-ideal spot right on the trail, and I scouted ahead, hoping for a fire ring or at least a convenient place to put one.  Success!  We were only a 2-minute walk away from a very nice campsite (though it was slightly less sunny).

I convinced him to carry on for those two more minutes, at which point I helped him take off everything that was even slightly damp, put on all of his dry clothes and some of mine, and clamber into his sleeping bag.  He also got a hot water bottle I had just made to accelerate the warming action, and I made him eat a bunch of our trail mix.  To give you an idea of the kind of out of it he was, when I got him wrapped up, I asked if he felt any warmer, and he started telling me, “Well, I took off the wet socks, and then my shorts, and then you gave me the dry long underwear…”  The poor boy could only speak in narratives.

Thawing. Pecan couldn't help but get in on the action as well.

Note to readers: this was actually not the best thing to do, I discovered upon our return.  Lots of layers of clothing can slow the warming action, and being naked is the fastest way to gain body heat in such a situation.  The best first-aid action for a person suffering from hypothermia is to strip off everyone’s clothing and get in a sleeping bag together to share body heat.  Mmm, first aid orgy!  Only less fun than it sounds.  A lot less fun.  Anyhow, the trail mix was also not the best option for food, although my instinct that feeding him would help was correct.  You want to give a hypothermic person carbohydrates and sugars, things that the body burns up quickly.  Proteins (like the nuts in the trail mix) take longer, and have much less of an effect.  Also, hot drinks are good (I did make him drink some tea), and never, ever give anyone suffering from hypothermia alcohol, as the “warming” feeling you get from it is a fake of sorts, just caused by the dilation of your blood vessels.  You actually lose heat faster once that happens.

Well, luckily, my first-aid actions were at least close enough to correct, and Eric slowly warmed up again.  I made camp, we got a fire going, and felt a lot better after dinner.

The next day we decided it was time to get the hell out.

For the first time in many days, we actually passed other people on our last day on the trail.  Guess what?  THEY WERE ALL FROM COLORADO.  This leads me to the inevitable conclusion that all Coloradans are FUCKING CRAZY PEOPLE.  None of them seemed to be enjoying themselves wading in the icy river, and they failed to heed our warnings that it only got worse ahead of them.  Like hypothermia worse.  Crazy people.

Two thumbs up for icy creek crossings.

Jellyfish ice!

We had quite a pleasant trip out, after the creek crossings eventually tapered off, and we passed the gorgeous Jordan Hot Springs, where we were able to warm ourselves up a good bit.

Warm water! That, for once, is a genuine smile. Dog wasn't allowed in, though, as the warm water is host to a rare meningitis bacterium.

Oh goodness, that hot spring helped.  We plowed through the rest of our hike, and climbed out of the canyon via the Little Bear Canyon trail.

An amusing bit of graffiti. Someone else thought the trip from the Meadows was just as long as we did.

Making it out just before sunset, it was a gorgeous hike.  Hooray!  Success!  We made it out alive!

We hit the road in a hurry after that.  As soon as we were done with the winding secondary highways and made it back to I-25 a few hours later, though, we encountered a setback.

This weird truck started following us as soon as we turned onto the highway.  It rode precisely behind my blind spot for miles, and stayed with its lights glaring into my left-hand mirror no matter if I sped up or slowed down.  After trying both slightly to no effect, to lose them somehow, I decided the hell with it and accelerated for real.

As soon as I did, the lights and sirens came on.  Shit.

I wasn’t actually speeding, was the weird thing, I thought then (hooray for ridiculously high speed limits in the middle of the desert).  Nope, turns out that we look like illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.  Who knew?

So, we got a half hour or more of sitting on the side of the highway in the absolute middle of nowhere, on Thanksgiving day.  Woo?  Managed to convince them we were nothing but dirty grad students who’d been on the trail for a week, and they decided not to search the trunk, which was good, since it was packed full of stuff in a highly-disorganized fashion.  Got a lecture about my license plate being expired (yeah, I know, it was 3 months overdue.  I got it taken care of when I got back), sat around forever while they looked up our files on their Creepy Big Brother Mobile Supercomputer, confirmed the cities where we were born, and then finally they had to admit that they had absolutely no reason to hold us, cite us, or fine us.  THANK YOU BORDER PATROL.  I am so glad to know they are spending their time and our taxpayer dollars so effectively.  Stupid.  It was just stupid.  Stupid stupid stupid.

Anyhow, we had a crappy but otherwise uneventful trip from there on out.  Couldn’t find our planned campsite, so we drove on, slept a few hours in a rest area, and then drove on some more.  As soon as we crossed the border into Colorado, there was snow on the ground.  Welcome home.

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One comment

  1. Enjoyed your story. REST…DON’T PARTY…STAY WELL!!

    Love Ya



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