Lost in an Icy Hell

A sudden fog traps two hunters during a dream trip for elk in Idaho.

The match was a flimsy thing, torn from a book, and it would not strike. Until that moment I had never realized how terrible such a seemingly insignificant fact can be.

My brother Walter tried to strike a second and third, but the heads crumbled and fell apart.

"They'e wet," I said grimly, and Walt nodded in agreement.

He was down on his hands and knees, in the dusk of a cheerless November day, with a small pile of dry twigs in front of him. On that pile had rested our hopes of a fire to dry our clothes and warm us through the long cold hours of darkness that were coming. Such a fire might even bring rescuers to us during the night. Now all hope of it was gone.

Rain and wet snow were sifting through the timber, and the wind blowing down from the high peaks of the Bitterroots was taking on a knife edge. We faced a night in that hostile wilderness, a night of fog and storm, without shelter or warmth. We didn't think then that it would be more than one night, but one night would be bad enough. We stared at each other over our useless pile of twigs, wondering how much of an ordeal it would be but saying very little.

The predicament had begun as a long-dreamed-of elk hunt in the roadless Selway-Bitterroot country of Idaho, just west of the Montana border.

An outfitter friend of mine named Danny Hall had told me there was no better place to hunt elk than Idaho's Selway country, and when he offered to guide me in the fall of 1969 I didn't wait any longer.

After a long journey to get to our base camp in a place called Magruder Ridge we made things comfortable with two 20- by 20-foot tents, one for sleeping and one for cooking.

We left camp on horseback right after breakfast, riding west into the Selway Wilderness Area about as far as horses could go. There were no trails, and the country grew rougher as we went along until it became a tangle of steep slopes, rocky cliffs, heavy underbrush, canyons and small streams.

The ground was bare at the lower elevations, but snow was on the ridges and peaks higher up.

We finally stopped and pitched two pup tents for a spike camp. There was no horse feed here, so one of the guides, Lee Anderson, headed back to our base camp with the horses. Danny and Walt and I would hunt on foot, and Lee would return for us later.

It snowed that night, and light snow was still falling at daybreak. We put away a good breakfast and then headed into the timber. A few miles out we separated. Danny moved up along a ridge, hoping to spot elk from above, while Walt and I stayed lower down where we would watch for his signals.

It was hours before we caught sight of our guide, high above us. By that time Walt and I were talking about starting back to camp. But we never got the chance. Disaster was coming, in a form we had not even thought about. It struck in midafternoon.

Fog closed in around us with frightening suddenness -- fog as thick as dirty gray milk. Within minutes it had wrapped around us like a clinging wet blanket, blotting out every landmark and turning timber, canyons and ridges into a featureless void. We lost all sense of location and direction.

We waited awhile, hoping Danny would make his way down to us. But when the light of the dismal afternoon started to fade, we abandoned that hope. We would have to get back to camp by ourselves. But in the fog we could see nothing that would tell us in which direction camp lay.

We started to walk, but we could see no more than 50 yards around us. The longer we walked, the less familiar the surroundings seemed. There was no snow where we were and no tracks that we could follow back. Within an hour we realized we were lost, in one of the wildest and most rugged areas of mountain country in the West, a place where foot travel is almost impossible.

We had a box of shells apiece. Walt's rifle was a Winchester Model 70 in .270 caliber, mine a .308 of the same make and model. We decided to fire signal shots, three in a row.

The first slow-spaced distress signal echoed through the timber and died away. When no answering shots came, the thought struck me that I had never heard a sound more lonesome and forlorn than those echoes.

We repeated the signals two or three times. Then, with dusk gathering, we resigned ourselves to a night in the woods. We gathered dry twigs and tried to light a fire. I have already described the results of our efforts.

It grew dark quickly. We could find no shelter, so we each finally chose a big tree to stand beside and stamped our feet to stay awake and to keep them from freezing. The night turned colder, and rain fell steadily. In all the days that followed we did not again suffer as much from cold and wet as we did that first night. Perhaps we just grew accustomed to the discomfort.

We had no breakfast. Our only food had been a few prunes and two small pieces of jerky that I had carried in a pocket. We had shared that food for supper. No matter how long we were lost now, we would have only water.

Neither of us was carrying a compass or a map of the area. Our failure to take them almost cost us our lives.

One thing was in our favor. We were dressed fairly warmly. Walt was wearing thermal underwear, army dungarees, wool socks, boots, a warm jacket, gloves and a wool hat with ear flaps. I had thermal underwear, cotton pants under a nylon flight suit, wool socks, insulated boots, a hat like Walt's and a good jacket. What we lacked - and needed - was raingear.

Daylight brought no break in the fog and rain. We walked in the direction that we believed would take us to camp, but I am sure now that we traveled in a circle, as lost men often do. Each step we took seemed to lead us deeper into tangled wilderness.

We never learned exactly how low the temperature fell while we were lost, but it went far below freezing. The nights were much colder than the days. By late afternoon we could feel the numbing cold creeping through our wet clothing.

That second night, we contrived to build a poor shelter. We found big fallen trees, peeled off sheets of bark and leaned the sheets around the trunk of a tree to make a low wigwam. It would keep off the worst of the wind and rain. We crawled in and huddled together for warmth, and for the first time in more than 36 hours we slept intermittently. But the rain turned to snow, and sometime after midnight our lean-to caved in. We crawled out of the wreckage and stood around until morning, stamping our feet and shivering for warmth.

We left as soon as it was light enough to travel, but soon we encountered the worst obstacle yet: a big area of fallen timber left by a blowdown or a forest fire years before.

We spent that whole day climbing over the downed trees or trying to find a way around, getting nowhere. When night came we looked for a dry spot underneath a big log, crawled in and huddled together once more for a few hours of broken sleep.

By now we were speculating more about the search that we knew would be made for us, not realizing that the searchers would be about as badly handicapped by the fog as we were.

Danny hadn't made it back to our spike camp the first night. He spent that night in the woods as we did. The next morning he made his way to a packer's station maintained by two guides from Darby. From there he hiked on to camp. When he found no trace of us, he knew he was dealing with lost men.

Meanwhile, Lee Anderson had returned to the spike camp shortly before dark the second night, and he and Danny went out at once to look for us. They located us, too, but as luck would have it we never knew it.

They were high above us in the mountains when they heard the shots we fired at dark. But we never heard their reply and were at the bottom of a canyon so deep that they could not get down to us in the darkness.

We spent the fourth night under a clump of evergreens with rain dripping down on us, and trudged on once more as the fifth day began. We searched endlessly for food --frozen berries, or anything to fill our empty bellies -- but we searched in vain. Our walking time grew shorter and shorter, our rests more and more frequent. My feet were in poor shape and Walt's were far worse --frozen but very painful. I had come down with a very hard chest cold, coughing until it seemed I would tear my lungs apart.

Shortly before dark on the fifth day we came to a pile of bark heaped at the base of a tree. At first we didn't recognize it, but then we suddenly realized that we were at the spot where our lean-to shelter had fallen in. We set the broken slabs back in place as best we could and spent the night there. We had no better place to go.

We were very close to the end of our physical endurance and began to wonder how much longer we could hold on. Our hopes sank to their lowest ebb. When daylight came, with fog and snow still shrouding the mountains, we gathered our last remaining strength and made ready to move on.

"I can't walk much longer," Walt told me. "My feet hurt too much."

He didn't need to. We were only a short distance from the bark lean-to when we heard a far-off thud, miles away in the mountains, that had to be a rifle shot. We answered with two shots of our own and started to stagger off toward the sound. But we walked only a few minutes and gave up. We would wait there and hope for rescue.

Two hours passed, but they seemed more like two days. Then another rifle shot crashed out, much nearer, and we heard a shout. The voice was Danny Hall's. We were found at last, on the sixth day of our ordeal.

Danny had brought along a pocket flask of whiskey, and he gave each of us a drink. It burned like fire, but it took some of the chill out of our bones and braced us for the long trip out.

The guide was riding one horse and leading another equipped with a pack saddle. Neither Walt nor I was in shape for more foot travel. Danny helped Walt into his saddle and I got onto the pack animal.

It took us six hours to reach the packer's place where Danny had stopped the day after the fog had trapped us. There we had a light meal of milk and broth from an elk stew. It was our first food in five days. By this time we had each lost 20 pounds.

We rode all the next day on horseback to reach our base camp at Magruder Ridge. Walt's feet were in urgent need of medical attention. We drove out to Darby the next morning and hurried to a doctor. The word we got was bad. He doubted that the feet could be saved.

Walt and I held a brief conference and agreed we should get back to San Mateo, where I had a personal physician, as quickly as possible. We looked for an airline flight but could find none. We realized that the only means of transportation was our pickup truck. I offered to make the drive, even though by that time I had a high fever and was seriously ill.

"If you can drive I can ride," Walt answered.

In late afternoon we hit the road for home. Exhausted and sick as I was, only sheer determination kept me at the wheel as night came on. I don't remember much about the trip. But I pushed the pickup hard and we reached San Mateo before morning. I had driven 800 miles with a full-blown case of pneumonia.

I made a fast recovery but Walt was less fortunate. He lost all the toes on his right foot and three on his left.

Walt went after deer in California a year later and enjoyed himself thoroughly. And one of these days I'm going to try for elk again. But when that time comes I will be a lot more careful about my preparations.