Recovering hiker recalls survival atop frigid Baxter State Park mountain

Chris Dubois of Orono recovers at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor on Tuesday after being rescued from Mount Katahdin on Sunday. Dubois was hiking the Helon Taylor Trail with three friends when a gust of wind blew him off the trail and sent him tumbling over icy rocks. “It happened within 100 yards of the peak,” he said. “The visibility was about 10 feet and we had wind gusts about 70 miles per hour. By the time my friends realized I was not behind them, I was blown way off the trail.” Injured and missing some of his equipment, he descended to tree line where he was able to dig a shelter in the snow. Overnight he gradually lost feeling in his legs and suffered frostbite in his toes.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Chris Dubois of Orono recovers at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor on Tuesday after being rescued from Mount Katahdin on Sunday. Dubois was hiking the Helon Taylor Trail with three friends when a gust of wind blew him off the trail and sent him tumbling over icy rocks. “It happened within 100 yards of the peak,” he said. “The visibility was about 10 feet and we had wind gusts about 70 miles per hour. By the time my friends realized I was not behind them, I was blown way off the trail.” Injured and missing some of his equipment, he descended to tree line where he was able to dig a shelter in the snow. Overnight he gradually lost feeling in his legs and suffered frostbite in his toes.
Posted Feb. 22, 2011, at 5:21 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 22, 2011, at 8:32 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A fledgling U.S. Army lieutenant, Chris Dubois likes to read military survival guides and is a fan of TV shows such as “Man Vs. Wild” — “you know, all those shows you think you are just watching for entertainment and you think you will never have to use,” he says.

But Dubois found a use for them, all right. They probably saved his life.

The 21-year-old University of Maine senior, who hopes to earn an Army commission when he graduates in May, was recovering at Eastern Maine Medical Center on Tuesday from frostbite on his feet and fingertips after being separated from his four-member hiking party in Baxter State Park on Saturday.

Dubois spent Saturday night in a tree line near Mount Katahdin’s Pamola Peak battling constant winds that peaked at 70 mph and temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit before ground searchers found him at about noon Sunday.

“The entire night I was shaking,” Dubois said Tuesday. “I lost the feeling in my feet, my legs froze. … I was doing everything I could to stay alive. I slept less than 30 minutes the whole night. Every now and then I tried to stretch my legs out. It got to the point where I couldn’t feel my legs. It was a very rough night.

“I wanted to sleep, to get the night over quicker,” Dubois added, “but I knew I shouldn’t sleep, and luckily, I couldn’t sleep. I was just too cold. My body wouldn’t let me sleep.”

Dubois benefited from more than survival training, said Jensen Bissell, the park’s director. Bissell called the rescue “a fortuitous combination of events” created by searchers’ availability and excellent work.

“We had a SAR [Search and Rescue] team on site for training, we had a hoist-capable helicopter available and on site, and the weather eased enough to permit the evacuation,” Bissell said Tuesday. “If any one of these factors had been absent, it is likely that Mr. Dubois would have spent an additional 12 to 24 hours on Katahdin before we could have gotten him to a medical facility.

“It would be dangerous to ever assume that this kind of rescue is likely, or even possible in backcountry terrain and mountain weather,” he added. “We are very happy for this outcome, but we also recognize how fortunate Mr. Dubois was on Sunday.”

Dubois said he doesn’t blame his three Colby College friends for not finding him after a gust of wind knocked him off Helon Taylor Trail and down a hill at about 4 p.m. Saturday.

“It was about a 20-foot drop,” Dubois said. “It pushed me away from the mountain. Luckily, I came down in some soft snow. I started tumbling about 30 feet. From there I tried to get ahold of my buddies, but the wind was so strong I couldn’t hear them or see them.”

The friends searched for him for as long as they dared before they called for help with a cell phone, Bissell said. Lincoln Search and Rescue Team volunteers found the three hikers Saturday night and hiked down the mountain trail with them to a heated camp at Roaring Brook campground, he said. The group arrived just after 1 a.m. Sunday.

“They made the right choice by taking off,” Dubois said.

With visibility at no more than 10 feet, Dubois said, he was concerned as much about their getting down the mountain safely as he was about himself. But with darkness and temperatures falling fast, and his legs banged up from the fall, he didn’t have a lot of time to worry. Once he realized that he wasn’t going to be rescued immediately, and that the soft mounds of snow made climbing back to the trail impossible, Dubois got into the tree line to escape the wind and dug a shelter in the snow.

Dubois put on almost every piece of clothing he could — four layers on his legs, seven on his upper body — hung a reflective belt and a glow stick on a tree near him for rescuers to spot, and used items from his pack, including a scarf, to cap the hole and keep the snow from smothering him, he said.

Attempts to start a fire failed. At about this time, lesson No. 1 from the survival manuals occurred to him: Stay active and focus on survival.

“It’s all about the fear, controlling it, keeping my mind clear,” Dubois said. “I was working on keeping that discipline to keep working and to keep finding ways to stay warm. A lot of it was just knowing I had to keep a clear head. There was one point where I stopped working and just said, ‘I am going to die up here.’”

It was the longest night of his life, he said. Throughout it, Dubois imagined that he heard voices, rescuers. At about 7 a.m., he heard a search airplane overhead “but it wasn’t anywhere near me.”

Dubois heard a whistle several hours later. When he yelled, his rescuers shouted back to him, and he knew he was saved.

“They weren’t planning to find me,” Dubois said. “They didn’t tell me that right when found me, but they said they had very low expectations given how bad the night was.”

Dubois’ feet were almost black, and his fingertips tingled when they weren’t numb, but the intense swelling that came with the frostbite is receding very quickly, he said.

“Most of the doctors here say they haven’t seen frostbite this bad, but I am recovering so quickly that everyone is feeling it is going to be fine,” he said.

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