Someone recently asked me “What’s the most terrifying thing has happened while hiking?” I thought about that for a bit and there is one instance that clearly stands out as the most frightening, but I was camping, not hiking. I thought I’d share.
Five or so years ago I drove down to Pocono Pennsylvania to watch the NASCAR Pocono 500. We had camped about six or seven miles from the track at a little campground that seemed to cater to race fans. (Actually, everything within ten miles of the track, or any track for that matter, caters to race fans)
It was Sunday night and we were partying at the campsite following the race. Our plan was to stay there Sunday night and drive home Monday morning. That way we would beat the race-day traffic. If you have never been to a NASCAR race, the traffic leaving the track can be simply incredible. It’s not uncommon to sit in traffic for three or four hours if you stay until the checkers and not duck-out early.
I was badly sun burnt, exhausted from the day and moderately tipsy from the beers and grilling we had done once we got back to the site. At about 10pm I went to my tent to crash. I knew it was going to be cold at night (maybe 40) and I had brought an air mattress, a pillow, and some blankets. I thought I would sleep like a baby. (I know, not really roughing it)
The campsite was on the edge of a little river that was maybe fifty feet across. My tent was about 15 feet from the edge of the water. The sound of the water was great, very relaxing to sleep to. Needless to say, in like ten minutes after lying down I was out cold.
At about 2am I woke up, opened my eyes, and realized I was about to be sick. Actually, I was already being sick. It took all I had to frantically break out of my cocoon of blankets, unzip the tent, and run outside. I bent over and became violently ill.
It was so strange, I had not drank ‘that’ much. I was cold and clammy, but felt like I had a huge fever. I felt my head, it was cold and dank. I got sick again, this time more violent than the last. I was burning up, breathing heavily and began to disrobe to cool down. Nothing helped. My head pounded and I felt like I could pass out. I leaned against the picnic table began to get scared. This had come on so fast, and with so much effect, I must be dangerously sick. Maybe food poisoning I thought.
I had not even realized it in my delirium, but it had begun to rain. I’d gathered it must have rained a lot actually during the night; the river bank had risen to within a few feet of my tent. I stood in the rain, hoping it would make me cool down and feel better, but it didn’t. I swear I had a temp of 100+. I was walking around in my boxers, in the rain, pondering lying in the water of the river to cool down before my core overheated.
During the night my air mattress had blown a hole and left me lying on the ground. Additionally, my tent was leaking. So, I was laying in a pool of freezing water, covered in freezing wet blankets, resting my head on a water-logged pillow. I was in a deep enough sleep from being so worn out from the day that I had not even realized it. From the level of water in my tent, and just how wet everything was, it must have been raining for most of the night.
In hindsight it’s obvious, but at the time it did not occur to me that the fever I was feeling was actually my body giving up trying to heat itself. I was not hot, but very cold. I wasn’t shivering or anything, it had gone past that. Hypothermia had begun to set in. God knows how, but I was able to get myself dry, find some warm clothes in the car, and find a dry place to sit and warm up. This was all after about an hour of being sicker than I have ever felt. I can’t even express how “strangely sick” I felt.
I did some reading up on Hypothermia when I got home. It turns out that victims experience a sense of being hot, not cold. Victims are commonly found laying in ponds, or snow banks, with calm expressions on their faces as if they simply “lay down to sleep” and never got up. I can’t tell you how terrifying it is to think that I was so out of it, so confused by the cold, that I had stood by the edge of the water, in my boxers thinking, “I’ll just lay down for a second and break this temp”