“Am I going to die?” I slurred to my step-father as my saturated clothes were removed.
I was quickly becoming hypothermic in the middle of a storm atop Mount Victoria in Papua New Guinea. I was colder than I had ever been in my life and we were caught at 12,000 feet above sea level on an exposed ridge line.
It was so hard to believe that just hours before we had been safe at our campsite, looking down on the sprawling beautiful landscape of the Owen Stanley Range in June.
“If you get out of your tents now you’ll be able to see the lights of Port Moresby,” I heard a voice say as I opened my eyes to see the dawn light gently hitting the top of my wet tent.
I inched slowly out of my warm sleeping bag. It was 5:30am, but I’d been waiting to see the lights on this particular morning. After 11 days of trekking, this was the day we’d finally summit.
I exited my tent to find a view that stretched down into the valley and out to the south side of Papua New Guinea. The air was crisp and clear; refreshing and unlike anything we’d experienced in days.
Morale was high throughout the campsite and the energy was palpable as I filled my bowl with porridge at the breakfast tent. I sat to eat on a nearby rock overlooking the view and took note of the incredible beauty. The morning light was bright and beautiful, enticing us to get moving as quickly as possible.
Our first move was to climb up the nearest ridge, the same one we had descended the afternoon before in search of safety from the oncoming weather. But today we were filled with adrenaline and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment that comes with having nearly completed a long journey.
We popped back over the ridge and descended into the gully below. The summit would be easier to reach from the other side if we traversed just under the ridge line.
“It’s the one with the metal pole on top, just over there,” one of the other trekkers pointed out. I could barely see it in the distance as heavy mist and clouds began rolling. It was clear that we needed to move faster.
We pressed on, but as the cloud coverage became thicker and the mist settled in, the metal pole became harder and harder to see.
Excitement was building. Up. Down. Around. Here. Here. No here! After almost two weeks of heading upwards, we had reached the last ascent and the only thing left to do was climb to the summit.
I ran ahead with another trekker. I was so excited that I didn’t notice I was sweating profusely and my breathing was labored because of the altitude. None of that mattered. We had finally found it.
In hindsight, however, we were foolish not to notice the warning signs. Visibility had vanished once more and we were perched, exposed, on top of a mountain more than 13,000 feet tall.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Everyone off this mountain NOW!” yelled Zac, our expedition leader. The wind was picking up and we scrambled down the ridge line to remove ourselves from the vulnerable position atop the summit.
We crossed over to the other side of the ridge, avoiding the wind as we began traversing downwards. The mist had grown thicker and soon it was hard to see the train of trekkers and porters ahead of us or behind. The group and support crew were moving at different speeds and, with very little visibility, people were constantly disappearing from sight.
The time we typically would used to stop to eat came and went. After just a short break, we were forced to press on to find shelter for camp before dark.
We dropped down into some trees over the next ridge and the rain set in. The head porter, Michael, explained that we had taken a wrong turn and would need to head back up and over the exposed ridge line once more.
This was when we realized that more than half of our porters had scattered like ants when the rain picked up, deciding to take their own route to safety. They had already ascended the ridge and were long-gone from our group.
Through the worsening storm, we pushed on for nearly two hours trekking back up to the ridge line.
We were drenched and stumbling after Michael, who was now completely lost. My concerns about hypothermia grew. My hands were so cold I could no longer hold my walking stick. My boots were filled with water and my pants were stuck to my legs from the downpour. I was becoming very cold very quickly.
It had been almost two hours since the storm had hit and we were all concerned. “Why aren’t we stopping? If we don’t find shelter and aren’t in our sleeping bags within the hour we’ll all get hypothermia,” voiced my step-father. I looked down at my feet and watched as water flooded down my body.
Soon, Zac realized our efforts were futile and we finally stopped at a patch of trees for a tarpaulin to be erected. Everything on my body was wet and I was frozen to my core. I felt miserable, colder than I had ever been in my life. We were lost and I felt hopeless.
As I sat on the ground waiting, my words began to slur and I was promptly moved from the slope to the newly created sanctuary.
My boots, socks and pants were removed by my fellow trekkers as they rushed to get me warm and dry. I was placed in a sleeping bag, wrapped in a space blanket, and had a poncho wrapped around my head and body, fully encasing me in a plastic cocoon. I couldn’t feel my legs, hands or feet, and the blue poncho around my head allowed for only sounds to tell me what was happening around me.
I heard the shuffling of bodies; shivering and moving as close to the dwindling fire as possible. The wood was wet and people were desperately trying to keep the fire alive with tissues and other items from their day packs.
We received word that most of the porters had made it down safety to set up camp. We had no supplies, no food, and no idea where or how to find the camp. There was no water source and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Everyone was verging on hypothermia and I was slowly slipping further into the depths of it.
“Surely we could make the call for a search and rescue?” I asked desperately to one of the women sitting next to me.
“There’s no help for us out here,” she replied with remorse.
And she was right. Helicopters struggle to get to this height on a clear day, let alone in the middle of a storm at night. Even if it could, they’d never be able to transport 14 of us. A rescue mission was not an option.
There were only two plans of action. Either we rode out the night where we were — without food, water, or dry clothing, headed towards hypothermia. Or we went back out into the night in search of the camp.
The decision was made for us.
“OK! Everyone up! Alice needs to be dressed and everyone who has a torch — get it out! We have to leave! Staying here is NOT an option!” yelled Zac. “Leave the tarpaulin and take everything else! Let’s GO!”
The thought of moving was terrifying. After two hours in the cocoon, I had managed to stabilize my hypothermia and the idea of going back out into the storm kept me from moving.
I turned to my step-father with tears in my eyes. “I’m worried,” I mumbled trying to mask my deep concern. He looked into my eyes and put his hand on my shoulder. “We can’t stay here, we have to move on. You’ll be in a sleeping bag in your tent in an hour, I promise.”
“Ok! Everyone! Let’s go!” yelled Zac.
Everyone scrambled to move out of the shelter and panic set in. My clothes were back on my body; soggy and stuck to my skin. We made our way down a slushy hill into the dark. The wind and rain had subsided but the mist was still thick and I could see the moisture in the light of each beaming head-torch.
We eased down the hill, snaking slowly down the gully. I looked back and watched as our collection of lights created a line that seemed alive, flickering with every step.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a porter that had fled to safety managed to find us. However, relief turned to despair again as he realized that the darkness had caused him to lose his trail back to camp. We all stood in silence as he retraced his steps.
We waited with bated breath as he desperately scouted the area and disappeared back into the darkness.
Finally, Michael realized where we were. His eyes caught a familiar boulder and we climbed down into the forest to see a cut trail in the vegetation.
He looked back up at us, “We have found the trail. You are safe now.”
We edged our way down into the steep, wet forest, slipping often and aiding those without head torches. The trek took four hours. All adrenaline was long gone and with only breakfast as energy, each step required that I pull myself along with my walking stick.
At 11:10 pm, more than 18 hours after waking up, we hit our campsite. The porters were huddled under their tarpaulins and our individual tents had been erected in anticipation of our arrival.
I was so happy I could’ve cried, but so exhausted and dehydrated that the tears never came.
I crawled into my tent and leaned back into my sleeping bag, rubbing my face with disbelief. My porter had set up my bed and placed all my belongings around my blow-up mattress. I removed my gaiters, socks, and boots, peeling them from my soggy feet.
Not only had we made our way through the night to find our campsite and all of our porters, but we had survived the cold and wet of the storm, too.
It felt like a miracle. We were alive and we were safe.