He Lost Both Feet in the Mountains—But He Survived
After losing the trail and his shoes, hiker Nick Noland descended 4.5 miles in 16-degree weather
On the evening of October 22, Nick Noland, 34, took a wrong turn on his way down from 14,232-foot Mount Shavano, near Salida, Colorado. What was supposed to be a quick, nine-mile hike turned into an all-night fight for his life in harsh winds and subfreezing temperatures.
This is his story, as told to Emily Pennington.
It was a bluebird day when I set out to climb Mt. Shavano, just outside of Salida. I drove my truck to the trailhead on October 21, from my home in Colorado Springs, and stayed there overnight to acclimatize.
The next morning, I slept in. Because I planned on camping again that night, I wasn’t in a hurry to hit the trail. At around 10 a.m. I filled my pack with extra layers, food, and my headlamp and told my family where I was going. It wasn’t going to be a hard day for me: the trail was only 4.5 miles each way with 4,600 feet of gain.
I took my time on the way up, snapping lots of photos. When I made it to the treeline, an insane wind hit. Wanting to reach the summit faster, I stashed my pack a mile before the top, near a new trail with easy-to-see colored tassels. Then, I scrambled up the Class 2 peak and watched the sunset from the top. Around 6 p.m., I started heading back and found where the new trail connected to the summit plateau. I spotted those tassels and started following them down, but I didn’t see my backpack anywhere.
I’m an Eagle Scout, and I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2008. I know you’re not supposed to be out on the trail late. Ultimately, I think I made a 20-second mistake at the top when I turned off the new trail too soon to look for my pack.
It was dark and I was off-trail, so I called my dad. He dialed search and rescue, and they immediately called me. After giving me a medical questioning, the operator said, “If you can hang tight, we’ll come get you.”
I texted SAR my GPS coordinates, and they warned me that I was in a rough gulch with a lot of treefall. When I asked how long it would take to get me, they said, “Three to six hours.”
But it was 16 degrees outside, and the wind made it unbearable. Even though SAR asked me to stay put, I was too cold. I needed to keep moving. I later learned that they had two teams out, climbing up the opposite side of the ridge. As I descended, I made a point to stop and scream every ten minutes, “Help! Is anyone there?” but no one answered.
There was snow on the ground, and I felt my toes going numb, so I loosened my laces on both shoes to get circulation into my feet. They felt like dead chunks of flesh. I have no idea how or when I lost my first shoe, but by the time I’d lost the second and my phone had died, it was around midnight. With my headlamp stashed in my pack near the summit and no cell light to guide me, I was in the dark.
I tucked myself under the roots of a large, fallen pine and scraped in as many leaves and branches as I could to cover myself. I settled into a fetal position, and planned to wait for daylight.
But lying under that downed tree, I began to wonder if I had dug my own grave. I started thinking I might never get home. I thought about the sparkle in my oldest kid’s eye, the way my one-year-old says “Daddy,” and of my wife.
What ultimately got me out of the hole 30 minutes later was remembering those I’d lost. I had been profoundly affected by the recent deaths of five close friends, due to car accidents, substance abuse, and suicide. They died young, and it weighed heavily on me. “If their lives were taken, the least I could do is live it up in their honor,” I thought. “Fuck dying. I’m not going to do that.”
So I kept moving, slowly working my way under, around, and over the trees. I stumbled across the Colorado Trail, which runs right by the trailhead parking lot, and I knew where I was. About two minutes into my descent, I saw four headlamps flashing.
Lying under that downed tree, I began to wonder if I had dug my own grave. I started thinking I might never get home.
At first I thought it was search and rescue, but it turned out to be a group of elk hunters. They seemed stunned: there I was walking down a trail with no shoes and shredded clothing. When they shined their lights at me, it was the first time I saw my feet. Everything was in tatters. My left heel was dragging behind me on the ground. They were still numb, and the hunters helped me find my way back to the trailhead.
Once back to my truck, at around 6 a.m., I thought I would sleep it off. But after I charged my phone and called SAR to tell them I made it out alright, they sent an ambulance. It arrived just before 7 a.m.
When the EMTs reached me, I was shaking uncontrollably. I looked down at my feet, and they were far worse than I thought. I started sobbing; I couldn’t walk.
We got to the Salida ER, and the doctors gave me a powerful blood thinner to force blood into the frozen tissue. My toes were black, but I could wiggle them in one big chunk. I felt like I was going to be OK.
Then, two hours later, they transferred me to UC Health in Aurora, where my feet began to thaw. It felt like they were being ground up very slowly and then set on fire. I saw colors and patterns with the waves of pain and spent a lot of time just remembering to breathe.
I went into sepsis, a life-threatening response to infection, and they rushed my surgery. I was delirious. They had to secure me to the bed, because I was trying to rip out my IVs and catheter. When I woke up still tied to a bed, my feet were gone.
In total, they took off seven inches of my legs and feet. Thankfully, I have enough of my calves left to get really good prosthetics. Since then, I’ve been picking up the pieces of my life that I want to keep and shedding those I don’t. I’m currently between teaching jobs, so I am able to focus fully on my recovery right now. To help with my emotional journey, I’ve been served by psychiatrists and social workers, and I’ve seen the chaplain four times. An innumerable number of people have given me hope.
My survival story is ongoing. The mountain was day one, but the true bravery is now. I still break down once a day and have symptoms of PTSD, but it’s getting more manageable. It’s a process of mourning to lose your feet; it feels like death. I miss them in a way I didn’t expect I would.
But at the end of the day, experience doesn’t matter if you take it for granted. I’m willing to be the poster boy for that. I don’t mind being the person someone thinks about when they consider the risks of climbing because I know I’m going to be on top of that mountain again.
A Meal Train has been set up to help Nick Noland and his family.