“Can I get a ride?”
A normal question under normal circumstances. But these weren’t normal circumstances. I was 15 miles into the backcountry with my girlfriend, Bridget. We’d been planning a very mellow tour, an introduction to doubling on a snowmobile, an afternoon of sightseeing in a zone where I’d spent the last three days touring with a few friends. Until she saw this man.
“You see him up there walking?” She said.
Even from a few hundred yards away, I could tell he wasn’t moving well—stumbling, pants sagging below his waist. Something, clearly, was wrong. I started my snowmobile and went up to meet him near the summit of this seasonally closed highway.
His name was Tyrel. He was wearing cotton cargo pants with sweatpants underneath, and basic waffled thermals. He had snot and ice in his beard. He wasn’t in good shape.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“I’ve been walking the road for two days,” he replied.
Two days, two nights. Some 45-miles, through high mountains and nighttime lows in the single digits Fahrenheit. No gloves, no hat, no technical gear whatsoever. It was hard to process—hard to believe he was alive.
“Where did you sleep?”
“In your guys’ (snowmobile) tracks. I had a blanket, but I left it up there. They told me there would be snow, but I didn’t know it would be like this…”
“Where are you going?”
“Wyoming or Montana, to find work.”
He was wearing an Eddie Bauer puffy, which had been given to him by “a girl” who hadn’t been able to give him a ride out. His hands were frozen and nonfunctional. He needed immediate medical care.
“We’ll get you down the highway,” I told him. “We just need to figure out how.”
Tripling wasn’t an option. It was Bridget’s first day doubling, ever. Tyrel’s hands didn’t work well enough to hold onto the sled. We gave him what food and water we had plus my spare gloves. There were two other snow machines just down the road.
Bridget and I decided that she’d ski as far as she could down the road while I gave Tyrel a ride. Once we hit the flats, we’d figure it out from there. Good enough.
Just as we were leaving, a trio returned to the other two sleds. Two clients and a guide. We approached them. After hasty introductions, I explained the situation: “Tyrel here’s been out for two nights and we need to help him get out of the mountains.”
The guide looked us over and said, “I can take your gear, but I can’t take another rider… due to liability.”
It took me by surprise. This was clearly a critical situation. Tyrel needed medical attention very soon or he could die. And here was a guide brushing it off for liability’s sake. What kind of world do we live in where a trained mountain safety professional considers liability above lives in a third-party rescue scenario? I thought about pulling him aside to explain the severity of the situation, but didn’t want to send Tyrel into panic. Could it be that a seemingly homeless man wasn’t something this guide wanted to deal with? Was he worried about COVID? I’ll admit that upon first glance, Tyrel’s out-of-place attire and lack of a mask made me pause. But it was easy to move past that and realize we needed to approach the situation with compassion and act expediently to help a fellow human.
Whatever. Bridget and I kept moving. We made it three or four miles before she needed to put skins on. We had another brief discussion. I gave Bridget my satellite communicator, made sure she had food and water, and promised to return to get her, hopefully before dark. She was comfortable with this plan, knowing I would be back and she just had to stay on the road. The weather was mild and clear and expected to remain that way. Avalanche danger was low, and we’d already cleared any overhead hazard. There was little risk in following the road for an hour or two with appropriate gear.
The ride out with Tyrel was painfully slow, but I didn’t want to make him any colder than he was or bounce him off the snowmobile. When we reached the seasonal trailhead and cell service, I asked his permission to call 911, and he said yes. Even the dispatcher had a hard time wrapping her head around the scenario, of a man having walked across this snowed-in highway without understanding of the terrain or climate. I tried my best to explain that he was suffering from acute hypothermia and frostbite and needed immediate medical attention, and she soon confirmed that first responders were on their way.
Bridget arrived 20 minutes later. After some time, the guide had passed her on the road. Following another discussion, he agreed to give her a ride. I’m thankful he finally decided to assist in a meaningful way, because I needed to stay with Tyrel in case his condition took a turn for the worse. Bridget gave Tyrel her chicken salad sandwich. We wrapped him in a towel and gave him handwarmers, made small talk as best we could, and waited while he shivered uncontrollably.
Soon, a lead vehicle arrived, then an ambulance—an attentive and professional crew. They put Tyrel on a stretcher and transported him into the vehicle. The last I saw of him was his now-bare toes curled up against the cold.
Thinking back a few days later, I wonder why the guide’s thought process jumped to liability before compassion—why he chose to linger on the pass rather than immediately assisting in the rescue effort. Why he didn’t stop to discuss the rescue as he left the parking lot. I thank Bridget for her calm and decisiveness with regards to her personal threshold of risk and safety in this emergency circumstance. I’m thankful I brought my satellite communication device—even if we were only planning a very mellow tour—along with more food, water, and clothing than we expected to need. I’m thankful the guide did eventually recognize the severity of the situation and helped Bridget get out of the backcountry before darkness fell, allowing me to remain focused on ensuring swift care for Tyrel.
All that said, I still haven’t fully processed the events of that day, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s worth reflecting on any backcountry emergency for as long as it takes to gain full technical and emotional understanding of what happened. I hope Tyrel received adequate care, that his limbs weren’t too affected by frostbite, and that he’s on his way to Montana (or Wyoming) by now, and finds a job there—that he finds what he was seeking.
I’d also like to remind anyone reading this that as humans and as backcountry travelers we should do the best we can to care for one another. Whether a highly educated backcountry professional or a lost soul seeking a fresh start, we are all in this together.