If you have been following along you know much of our articles have humor, ridiculous metaphors, and jokes that are sometimes hidden in meaning but most of the time bluntly evident. So, while we still are going to have some humor in this article, we wanted to also directly state that we take this extremely serious, and it is a health issue that can be dangerous and even life threating. Heat stroke is the next step after heat exhaustion, and it is not a pleasant sight nor experience. It in fact is quite deadly if not treated correctly. So, while we may have some humor in here, this story is going to be about the worst form of heat stroke we have ever seen, and what we did, and how truly terrifying it is.
The levels of Heat Injury, DO NOT TAKE HEAT STROKE LIGHT!
Let us take you back to the PCT or Pacific Crest Trail. Let us take you back to the month of May in southern California. The month of May in a desert. Hot is too simple of a term for the heat that troubled our group everyday. Within usually 2-3 miles your body was completely devoid of any electrolytes, hydration, or nutrients that it needed to function. Everyone was always dehydrated, tired, steam would rise from them with each breath, their internal temperature was so hot. We all had experienced heat exhaustion at this point along our journey. We all had the heart pounding in the ears demanding us to stop, we all had experienced the unquenchable thirst of drinking 3-4 liters immediately at a water source, and we all had our clothes caked in salt and our mouths caked in dust. Yet, none of us were ready for what heat stroke was capable of, or how seriously it would affect all of us.
If you know the PCT, you know Cajon Pass. Cajon Pass is a famous "town" where there is a McDonald's literally right on trail. You come out of the deep desert, a sign points you towards the McDonalds, then you pass two or three other stores and you are thrust right back into the deep desert. To call it a town is a very loose term. Yet, many hikers have fond memories of this spot. They rest their weary legs, drink some soda, and demolish tray upon tray of McNuggets and Quarter Pounders. We would not get to experience fond memories, for us looking back on this place, it remains one of the scariest moments on trail we have ever experienced.
For many this sign only signals happiness and joy, for us it only instills a deep sense of dread.
Let us take you back 15 miles into the desert before McDonalds. Our entire group was weary and resting for lunch, all huddled in the little shade that a lone tree provided. The heat of the day had not even climaxed yet and it was unbearable, even for us who usually thrive in the heat. As we fantasized about the air conditioning and ice cold drinks of the McDonald's the call became to strong to ignore. We all made a plan to meet at the McDonald's and set out separately. One of our buddies wished to take a longer break in the shade, and we excitedly told him while bouncing from foot to foot we would see you with a McFlurry in hand! So, 3 out of the 4 of our group began our trek to the air conditioned paradise!
We will quickly skip over our personal journey through the 15 miles to reach paradise because while still hot, weary, and difficult, it pales in comparison to what would come. We were the first to reach the McDonald's, the first to chatter away at the attendant for a full tray of food, the first to grace this establishment with our hiker stink (not stank, if you read the last article, only stink). As we were consumed by our food and in turn consumed said food, the 2 other buddies trickled in and began devouring their own heaping's of fast food glory. We joked, we laughed, we bathed in the happiness of a well-deserved break from the heat. Then time began to trickle by. First a half hour and then a full hour later, the last member of our group had not yet arrived. We began to worry but all rationalized that he had taken a siesta (afternoon nap) as this wasn't uncommon for him, so he would be here shortly. Then 2 hours passed by, and worry was our neighbor. We talked it over and if he did not arrive soon we would go back and look for him. We gave him one more hour. Upon the third hour, we made ready to backtrack the worry was so strong, when he crumbled through the door. That sight and look upon his face created the most fear we have ever had for a member of our trail family. Immediate fear for his safety, fear for his life.
He could not even fully open the door, we ran to him and peppered him with questions, as we helped him to our booth. He just needed water he said. We ran to fill up multiple cups and placed them in front of him. He continued to ask for water? We were puzzled because we had given him 3 full cups. It is as if he was not seeing what was right in front of him, we had to guide his hand to a cup and bring it to his lips to drink. After 5 minutes of jumbled speech and confusion, his body began to become wracked with cramps. We are not talking about a simple calf cramp or a shoulder cramp, his entire body LOCKED! You could see muscle strain through every fiber pushing and bulging to their capacity. He went ramrod straight and fell to the floor. This was beyond anything we had ever experienced, and our worry only grew into panic.
It was as if he never even saw each cup, they were there but also not there in his world of pain.
A woman in the booth next to us was luckily a nurse, and knew exactly what these symptoms were. She jumped into action right alongside us. (If you are out there and read this story and know who you are, we can never repay your kindness, and know we will always remember you) We knew as well right away it was a level above heat exhaustion, we had moved into a full-blown heat stroke, but having a trained professional on sight, was beyond helpful. We moved him outside to the concrete, to lay on a cool surface, and for the inevitable purges that would soon rack his body. The purges came violently, and violently all over us as we were speaking close to his head and giving him water, we were awash in his bodies pain. He continually wished to sleep, but that was not an option, we had to keep him awake. We called an ambulance, and waited. This woman along with our hiker family, tried to appear unworried and unflustered, because you could see in his eyes, he was literally scared for his life. We joked about getting an IV filled with liquified McNuggets so he could still calorie pack, joked about McDonald's becoming our new home, joked about all small things, while internally we were shaking uncontrollably with fear.
His confusion never abated, his tense body never mellowed, it seemed he was only getting worse. After what felt a lifetime the ambulance finally arrived. They instantly put an IV in him, and heavily suggested we go to the hospital. Yet, it was ultimately his choice, he was a grown man, and even in his confusion he refused. We tried to rationalize with his confusion, but he was adamant, no hospital. So, we took the medics aside and asked, if it was safe enough and what we could personally do, if we got a hotel room for the night. They still as medical professionals recommended the ER, but after pumping him full of fluids for an hour and starting to see him "stabilize" felt confident enough that recovery would be the next process. So they gave us tips and gave us the green light to safely take care of him and told us they were a phone call away. We spent the next 3 days in Cajon Pass as he recovered.
During this recovery, we were able to get the full story. It was a horror all onto itself. He said once we left lunch, he waited for about 20 minutes and then himself left. The first 5 miles began to drain his already depleted fluids, and life force. He began to drag his feet upon the ground. The next 10 miles into the McDonald's was the test of a lifetime he said, literally, if you failed this test you died. In those last 10 miles every 5-10 steps he said he would have to lay upon the ground to cool himself off. Then his body and mind would try to shut down, but internally he knew if he did, there was no coming back. So, he would muster every muscle and every mental strength he could to get back up, walk 5-10 steps, and then collapse back to the ground. Second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour, mile after mile, again and again. Can you imagine?
Seriously take a moment. Picture 10 Miles, now picture 5-10 steps at a time, and then collapsing, now find the strength to do that thousands upon thousands of times over and over, again and again. Can you imagine?
We hike thousands of miles every year, and we cannot even begin to fathom this. We have been on the other side in extreme cold and hypothermic bodies and minds, and while there are some parallels, this is a horror story unto itself. He said when he finally hit the road to McDonald's which was only .2 miles in length, it took him 30 minutes to reach us. He would lay on the pavement and hazily look at the golden arches, which now represented more than just cheap fast food, but also safety and peace. He said he crawled and chewed at the pavement as he got closer. He whimpered, he cried, he swore, but mostly he continued forward, ever onwards. He truly believed near the end, which could have honestly been the end, that he might not make it. Yet, he pulled from himself step after step, and collapse after collapse, an internal fortitude and internal drive for survival. He found his primitive and instinctual will to live, and never stopped.
Heat Stroke, is no joke. It is very real and very dangerous. Even with how extreme his heat stroke was, he was lucky. He was lucky he did not hit a deeper threshold that there was no coming back from. Believe us, he was close. The medics even told us, when we were in the thick of it, he had been quite close to death. What could he have done differently? What could we have done differently? We have asked ourselves these questions for years now, looked at it from every angle, and came away with a singular answer; nothing. If you know the PCT, and know this section it is barren and waterless. So, while saying you could have waited the heat out of the day, while a valid theory, was not an option. We had all been low on water, and even in the shade, you would continue to become dehydrated hour after hour until dark fell. This could have led to the same scenario, only at dark. We could have headed back earlier for him, but when you hike with a trail family, you begin to know each others style of hiking and pace, and were not worried when it took him longer than an hour or two since he frequently took naps in the shade. We had been on our way out the door when he came stumbling in, though because it had finally become out of his normal threshold of lag time. We still feel guilty to this day about not acting sooner, but the wild is wild for a reason, it is unrelenting and unforgiving, no matter who you are.
A strength outside of normal comprehension, a strength outside of thought.
We are extremely happy that this story had a "happy" ending. We continued to hike as a trail family for many miles to come, and had laughs and joy along the way. Yet, this could have very well gone a different way. This could have very well become a story of loss and a story of mourning. We do not say this lightly, be aware of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It is a danger not only when you reach it, but even when in "safety" it can continue to grow. Your body is overheating to a degree that begins to shut down every part of what makes you live. Your heart, your brain, your organs, they all pay a heavy price. Please, if you take anything from this story, do not let it be fear, but let it be awareness. Take care of yourself, take care of your trail family, and make sure you are in a safety threshold that is right for you. Let our fear be your knowledge. When we say that this was one of the most fearful moments of any of our hikes, it is very close to the top. Push aside blizzards, lighting in arms reach, wild animals, rapids that washed us away, and look into the eyes that we saw when our friend entered that McDonald's. Eyes that spoke a depth of hovering above the precipice, hovering between the literal line of life and death, eyes that saw the end and knew it. Eyes that were no longer a window into our friends soul but a window into the beyond. We will never forget those eyes.
With eyes we wish to never witness again,