Monday, July 9, 2012

The Solo Hike

Theo came to with his shoulder wedged between a slender tree and a pitted rock. Rusty-colored, orange and green lichens swirled in front of his blurry eyes like a kaleidoscope. A stab of pain started at his right ankle and traveled like lightning up his calf. He pushed against the tree cautiously with his left elbow and raised his head to look. His legs rested on a shelf of rock maybe two feet wide. The right foot was twisted beyond normal range of motion, probably a compound fracture.

Lowering his head back to its original position, Theo looked up. On the right, a jumble of rocks and an occasional stunted tree clung to the side of a cliff that stretched above him. To the left was nothing but blue skies and fluffy clouds. There was no need to look down, the path he had been following all morning had provided many scenic viewpoints from which he'd admired the view and the valley far below.

Fighting waves of nausea, Theo worked on extricating his upper body. He was still wearing his back pack and its straps kept catching on bark and branches. Finally free, he scooted his butt forward until his lower body was completely supported by the rock shelf. The effort left him exhausted and he leaned his back against the tree for support.

Theo didn't recall how he arrived on his precarious perch. The last thing he remembered was catching his foot on a root and starting to fall. He must've rolled a good ways because the path where he fell wasn't that close to the edge.

The thing he did remember well was the reason he was alone. Stupid. The night before, he met a bunch of girls, probably students, visiting his favorite hangout. He had mentioned his plans to hike the mountain trail over Devil's Pass the next day. One of them opened her eyes wide in fright and had asked, "You're not going alone are you?"

He hadn't planned to go alone. But, he couldn't pass up the opportunity to impress them with his knowledge of the back country, first aid, and survival methods. The problem was, Sasha--the blue-eyed blonde he most wanted to impress--had simply rolled her eyes and yawned. Theo took that as a challenge and kept embellishing his tales until he didn't even believe himself.

After going on like that, he couldn't very well ask his friends to join him as he'd planned. The good thing was, his boasting had also forced him to follow his own advice. His pack was heavy with supplies, including plenty of water, a first aid kit, sandwiches and energy bars.

After a bit of twisting and a lot of pain, he dragged his pack around to his chest. He downed two of the painkillers first. After eating the sandwiches, he made use of the first aid kit. Theo took the bags he'd packed his sandwiches in and partially zipped them shut. In the opening, he blew gently to extend,  but not fill, them with air. He zipped them completely shut and put one on each side of his ankle. He wrapped all the gauze he had around his heel and up his ankle. The support made the pain more bearable.

Theo checked his watch. It was four in the afternoon. After he'd ascended past 10,000 feet, he'd only encountered three groups of hikers. Even fewer would be hiking up this late in the day. His main chance would be catching those who had gone up ahead of him and would be descending. But, he strained his ears in vain.

Two hours later, a shadow passed across the rock. A vulture perched on a tree branch above him and about 30 feet away. Just great. If he didn't get rescued, not only would he die, but there wouldn't be enough flesh left for an open casket. Not that he cared, but not having the option would make his death even more difficult for his mother.

An hour later, the vulture continued to stare. Theo could imagine drool dripping off the tip of its beak. The sun sank over the mountain peak to his west. Although it was still light, the warmth drained from the air. The painkillers started to wear off. Theo checked his kit but he didn't have any more. He rolled on his side to press his back against the rocks, which still radiated a bit of warmth. He laid his thin rain jacket over his legs, crossed his arms over his chest and pulled the backpack close for any insulation it might provide. It looked to be a long and lonely night.

Theo dozed fitfully. He awoke with a start when a voice called from above, "Hello on the rock. Are you O.K?"

"Yes," Theo answered. "My ankle is injured, but otherwise, I'm O.K."

"Cover your head, litter and man coming down."

A mountain rescue worker rappelled down the side of the cliff and steadied the litter against the rock. Theo uncovered his face when he heard a familiar female voice say, "Ready to roll into the litter, Theo?"

The moonlight glowed off the golden wisps of hair that had escaped from her helmet. Sasha grinned at Theo from her seat in a harness. "Good job of surviving! I'll take a look at that ankle as soon as we get you hoisted up. But first, remind me to take a vacation next time you plan to go hiking alone."

Theo groaned. "There won't be a next time. I promise. How did you find me anyway?"

"Birdwatchers down in the valley looking for eagles. They spotted the vulture perched near you and called in that it appeared as though a hiker or climber was stranded on the cliff."

Saved by a vulture and rescued by the woman to whom he'd bragged about his survival skills, Theo cast about for something witty to say. In the end, he kept his mouth shut as they hoisted him to safety.

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