Don't Panic. Don't Sleep. : 'If You Had Built the Fire on a Stump,' I Thought, 'It Would Have Burned All Night and Day. You Should Remember That the Next Time You Die in a Blizzard.'

The temperature was already dropping when I got separated from my ski group at 4 o'clock.

There were 10 of us descending Jean Peak on Mt. San Jacinto, near Palm Springs. Suddenly I was alone in the forest, at 10,000 feet, trying to get off the mountain before dark, before a storm due in at midnight.

By 5, I began looking for caves or boulders for shelter, just in case. I'm in trouble, I thought, feeling agitated though unable yet to accept being lost. By 5:30, I accepted the reality of having to spend the night on the mountain. Keep calm, I told myself. This is just another camp-out. Ahead was a felled log with a belly-high snowdrift beside it, and I settled for that rather than squander more energy. Under my feet the snow, icy and hard, made crunching sounds magnified by the calm silence of the forest. Let the storm be a mild one, I thought.

Darkness rapidly overtook daylight, and with it the temperature, already below freezing, fell still lower. I took off my backpack and checked my supplies; I had some extra clothing, including a second turtleneck and a vapor-barrier jacket, which I quickly put on. Now I had six layers of clothes on my torso and four on my head. A heavy plastic trash bag with holes for my arms and head became a poncho. At the bottom of the pack, because it had never been used, was an emergency bag, containing matches, candles, a whistle, a space blanket, a compass, a flashlight and a bag of precious dates.

The storm hit early, about 6, and with a vengeance. Snow began to fall. The wind tossed my gear haphazardly, sending me chasing after my ski gloves. No, this is no ordinary outing, I finally acknowledged. And for the first time the possibility of hypothermia and death occurred to me. Mental discipline and presence of mind, I told myself. No negative thoughts or emotions. And no accidents--no bumping my head on a low branch or spraining an ankle. Above all, don't panic, and don't sleep. Stay awake and keep the blood circulating by gathering firewood, I told myself.

Assessing the wood situation did not take long. Three feet of snow from a previous storm covered both the ground and felled trees. A few pine trees had dead branches, but that was it. I broke off several boughs from nearby trees, dumped them by my pack and set out for more. Under the felled log were some dry pine needles--my fire starter. So far, luck was with me. My matches were dry, but when I tried to light them they were immediately blown out by the hostile wind. Several times the wind teased me by letting a few needles ignite, only to blow the flame out. In the emergency bag I found a stubby candle, and its flame stayed alive long enough for the needles to catch. I placed twigs on top and, fanned by the storm, they burned long enough for big branches to catch fire. The flames danced frantically, but they did not die, and to my surprise, the fire was blazing.

Quickly, I went for more wood. The snow was knee-high in most places and thigh-high where drifts accumulated. The winds were getting fiercer, and I was taking a beating. After several trips plodding back and forth through the snow, I came back to the fire and collapsed, exhausted. I had to rest, even if it meant risking that the fire might die. And because the high altitude was dehydrating me, I needed water constantly--more than I was getting. All my gear was buried in the snow; to get to it I had to brush the snow off with my gloves. Finding my water bottle, I thawed it over the fire, drank a mouthful, then replaced the water with snow.

As the night passed, the storm strengthened and the snowfall became heavier. About midnight, a plane passed overhead; my first thought was that no search plane would be out in a storm this bad. But when, moments later, a plane came from the opposite direction, my cynicism turned to hope. The third pass persuaded me to gamble on a bonfire, using up the surplus wood I'd garnered on my last few trips--an emergency supply for when I became too tired to get more. The bonfire warmed me up nicely, but the gamble was a bad one. The planes must have been commercial flights flying in and out of Palm Springs. After that fiasco I couldn't trust my judgment.

By 2 in the morning, after eight hours of trudging through snow for wood, I was tiring. Eating two dates every hour or so helped, but my strength was abandoning me. On my forays into the forest my steps were getting wobbly, and breaking branches became difficult. I started putting the midsections of 15- and 20-foot branches into the flames, waiting for the fire to burn them, then taking the two end pieces outside of the fire and tossing them back in.

On one wood-gathering trip, I tried to break a high branch off a poplar. I swung on it with all my weight, feet off the ground, until it broke, sending me backward into the snow. The snowfall was so heavy by then that brushing myself off seemed futile. Trudging back, I felt so sluggish that I couldn't lift my boots high enough to clear the snow. I went sprawling. Getting up was an effort. I took two more steps and went down again. This time I did not get up immediately but sat, trying to summon energy, feeling foolish for not having the strength to walk without falling. I knew that hypothermia affects one's coordination in addition to the thought process. After a dozen more falls, after losing half the wood in my arms, I made it back to the fire. Slowly I tossed the meager branches into the dying flames.

My fingers felt in vain for the extra mittens and glove liners that were supposed to be near the date bag. No surprise. The storm had already played havoc with my equipment, having buried my flashlight and water bottle. I tried melting snow in a piece of plastic, but the plastic melted, too. The only way to get water to fight off dehydration was to eat snow, which meant a further loss of body heat.

The fire was waning, and I watched it, thinking that there was time to revive it, but my body refused to move. As I mourned the loss of my equipment, my mind and emotions indulged in a gloomy mood. All I needed to do was to sit there and let the flames mesmerize me; nature would do the rest. Besides, life had not been too gentle with me lately. Did I want to survive? Was life really worth living?

Gazing into the diminishing flames, I began wondering about the huge log across from me. As the surrounding snow had melted from the fire, the log had become visible, and for some time I had been studying it, thinking that there must be some way of using the wood. But how? It was too heavy to move. The only alternative was to take the fire to it. That's possible, my weary mind informed me. Using my last two twigs as pliers, I carried a hot coal to the log and shoved it under the driest spot. After repeating the maneuver several times, I returned to my snow-covered seat. If you had built the fire on a stump, I thought, it would have burned all night and day. You should remember that the next time you die in a blizzard.

Without those embers, the main fire succumbed to the snow, and the black night loomed heavy and menacing. No stars and no moon. Only the freezing, howling winds, whipping and tossing snow.

Death was beckoning, telling me how easily it would come if only I would stop resisting, if only I would lie down in the snow and let sleep overtake me. As I sat there thinking, chills overtook me, and when the shivers came, I knew that hypothermia was in the dangerous stage. About all that was left for me to do was to jump up and down to keep the blood circulating, and that I did, meditating for several minutes, then jumping up and down, repeating the routine over and over.

The outline of the forest was becoming more distinct, and I realized that dawn, minus the sun, was approaching. Trees that had provided firewood during the night looked different, more towering, the forest as a whole more foreboding. Snow, heavy and majestic, glided gracefully to earth, and for a time I felt uplifted, privileged that nature was sharing her noble and tranquil moments with me. Then the fierce winds raged again, and the moment was over. With the blizzard-like winds came a freezing chill that pierced through my clothing. The storm was intensifying.

Rescue helicopters could not fly in this blizzard. Nor would skiers be out in what would certainly be an avalanche alert. Death was not easy to accept, but for a moment I felt relieved. Nature had overpowered me, and I felt humbled.

Stumbling to the stump, which was still emitting heat from those few hot coals, I warmed my hands and feet until the wind chased me behind a tree again. After another hour or so, I began falling while standing--falling until I was spending more time lying on the snow than standing. With each fall, getting back on my feet became more difficult. The huge Jeffrey pine became my crutch. Breathing became a chore. The shivers were going wild, and my teeth were chattering, biting my lips and inner cheeks whenever I tried to stop them. Blood on my lower lip was already coagulated, perhaps frozen. What did it matter?

It was about 5 in the morning. Fumbling in my parka, I found my plastic whistle, my last hope, and I blew it. Every 30 minutes or so I blew on the whistle until my energy failed me.

About 9, on the morning of March 16, 1986, U.S. Forest Service rangers and Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit members found Ferlise, conscious but suffering from first-stage hypothermia.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°