Ronda Ramsier and Carol Powell, both nurses, talked about what it would be like to die from hypothermia.
The grim conversation came on their second night spent lost in near-freezing temperatures above 11,000 feet in elevation in the Weminuche Wilderness northeast of Vallecito Reservoir.
“We were both pretty calm, it was pretty amazing – just planning our death at the end of the second day,” Ramsier said. “We talked a lot about how does one die from hypothermia.”
Ramsier, of Bayfield, and Powell, of Rittman, Ohio, left their base camp about 4 p.m. Aug. 12 for what was to be a short hike before dinner. They had water, rain gear, a few snacks and two llamas.
They set out with Jack McGroder, Ramsier’s husband, who had the most familiarity with Cave Basin on Middle Mountain. But McGroder cut his hike short after experiencing back pain. The two women planned to hike another 20 minutes before turning back.
But McGroder wouldn’t see or hear from Ramsier and Powell for 36 hours, when the U.S. Air Force plucked them from a steep canyon and flew them to safety.
Ramsier, 60, who has lived in the area for 19 years, blames herself for getting lost. She admits to having a terrible sense of direction, and Powell, 58, her visiting cousin, is unfamiliar with the mountains or the high-country lifestyle.
A departure from the trailRamsier spotted a small pond and decided to hike down to it. They hiked back the same way, or so they thought, but the path was nowhere to be found.
Confident she could find the trail, Ramsier walked toward landmarks she recognized and thought would lead them back to camp. But with every step, she was getting them more lost.
“I was so sure that I knew where I was going,” Ramsier said. “I was so sure that I broke all the rules that we’ve always been taught, which is when you’re lost, you don’t keep going, you stay in place.”
It’s not to say people shouldn’t look for a trail if they lose it, but it’s difficult to know when you’ve gone too far, Ramsier said.
“The temptation to keep trying, for me, was irresistible,” she said. “I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t stop, and that’s my nature.”
As nighttime fell, temperatures dropped, and the women realized they would have to spend the night away from camp.
“It was a horrifying feeling,” Powell said.
They used rocks to build a 2-foot-tall wall to block the breeze. Ramsier laid down beside it, but Powell was too cold. She stood on her feet all night and tried to walk or march in place to stay warm.
“Morning came, and it got even colder before the sun came up,” Powell said.
Ramsier’s husband notified La Plata County Search and Rescue the night they failed to return to camp.
The next morning, the women heard a helicopter and figured it was searching for them. They waived their rain coats.
“They would go by, but it seemed like they were at a distance and not really going over where we were,” Powell said.
Ramsier again decided it would be best if they moved in the direction of camp. Again, she recognized certain land features, including a patch of snow on a mountainside that she believed would lead them toward base camp.
“Again I said, ‘Shouldn’t we stay here and just see if they find us?’” Powell said.
Ramsier said, “No, we can do this. It’s out there, we just have to make it.”
So with their llamas in tow, they set off for a second day looking for camp.
“We just kept going, and going and going for hours and didn’t get any closer to that mountain,” Powell said.
They could still hear a helicopter in the distance. In an open clearing, they used rocks to write the word “help,” in hopes the helicopter would see it. It was getting late, and cold, so Powell uprooted plants and laid them on the ground to dry. She planned to use hospital tape to tie them together and make blankets.
They were out of water. They could hear a stream, but it was at the bottom of a mountain. With llamas in tow, they made their way down a steep mountainside covered in brown pine needles that were “like ice” to walk down, Powell said.
“We just kind of slipped and slid all the way to the bottom of that canyon,” Powell said.
They got to the bottom and didn’t find water. So they kept hiking toward the sound of the stream, and finally found it. But there was no way to hike out of the canyon to where they had been – to where Powell’s plants were drying.
They found a large rocky area open to the sky and decided to stay there for the night.
“I looked at the sides (of the canyon) and I said, ‘This is it. We are not going to get out of this canyon. There’s no way to get back up to where we came. They either find us or we die.’ And that was a horrible reality,” Powell said.
Ramsier is a nurse practitioner and Powell is a trauma and emergency room nurse. They talked about what it would be like to die from hypothermia.
“We were certainly pretty aware of what was going to happen, but what a helpless feeling,” Powell said.
Throughout their ordeal, Powell had tried to call 911, but there was no cellphone reception, and her phone was almost dead. It would turn off, and she would turn it back on, and it would have a little bit of power. Once, she called 911 and heard, “911 dispatch, what is your emergency?” The phone then went dead. But it was enough to give dispatchers a ping off a cellphone tower – not enough to pinpoint their exact location, but it provided a little information about where they might be.
Powell wasn’t sure she was going to make it through the night.
She used her digital camera to record short messages to her husband, children and grandchildren, especially her 4-year-old grandson, Gavin. She broke down crying while talking about Gavin.
But it is also Gavin who gave her the most strength to survive another night, she said.
“I said no matter what, we’re not breaking down, we’re not giving up until the very end,” Powell said.
The women huddled together. Ramsier stacked rocks to make another windbreak, and Powell pulled more plants from the ground to make mats or blankets.
As the moon came up, they experienced delusions. At one point, Ramsier thought she was talking to her husband, but it was just a rock.
Powell saw something moving on top of a rock, and thought she might be hallucinating. They walked toward it, and found a mountain sheep nursing its baby.
“Within about a half hour, the whole mountainside filled with animals,” Powell said. “It was like something out of a movie. All you could see as the moon came up and it got dark were eyes staring at us from everywhere. It was a little unnerving, but almost settling at the same time. It was like we were here with them. They weren’t aggressive and they didn’t feel like a threat. It was the strangest thing to see these eyes everywhere.”
They tried to sleep, but shivered violently from the cold. “It was almost like a seizure,” Powell said.
Ramsier said the shivering burned a lot of energy, but it was the body doing what it had to do to keep itself warm.
“I welcomed the shivering,” she said. “I have a whole new relationship with shivering.”
Llamas are good at carrying 70 to 100 pounds of supplies, but they prefer to keep a couple of feet distance from their handlers. That means they didn’t provide any warmth to Ramsier and Powell on their cold evenings.
“They wouldn’t have laid down and let us lay with them,” Ramsier said. “They don’t do that.”
Ramsier and Powell sat together on a rock, shivering and cuddling.
At about 1 or 2 a.m., they heard helicopters. “It was like, are we hearing things now?” Powell said.
But two helicopters roared over the ridge.
A nighttime rescuePowell used a small flashlight to signal the choppers, but they kept flying as if they didn’t see them. It was about 4 a.m. when one of the helicopters dropped a flare and hoisted two men to the ground. Powell and Ramsier heard them say, “Are you Carol and Ronda? We’re the U.S. military here to rescue you.”
“It was like, are you kidding? We were just screeching,” Powell said.
They set the llamas free so they could avoid predators and forage for food and water. A search party is being organized to retrieve the llamas this week.
Airmen from Kirtland Air Force Base walked Ramsier and Powell up a ridge to a clearing where the helicopter could hoist them into the chopper.
Powell was instructed to get on her knees and hold onto a rock because the wind from the rotor was so powerful it could blow her off the mountain. The airman hooked a strap on her and she went spinning into the night sky.
“He hooked that strap on and said ‘just close your eyes,’” Powell said. “I felt myself being pulled up through the air. It seemed like forever. And you’re just spinning and spinning and thinking, ‘Ah, man, am I going to get killed in a blade or what?’”
Two men in the helicopter grabbed her and pulled her onto the floor. Next they hoisted Ramsier up and tossed her on top of Powell, she said.
“We just lay there, going, ‘Are you kidding me? Are we really saved?’ Those guys were just grinning from ear to ear. They said, ‘That’s what we do. We are the paramilitary guys from Albuquerque.’ It was impossible to believe that we were saved.”
Said Ramsier: “Elation and relief don’t describe it. ... We thought we were going to die.”
A hero’s welcomePowell and Ramsier were flown to the Durango-La Plata County Airport, observed by paramedics and cleared to return home.
They received a “hero’s welcome” at Heartwood Cohousing, an intentional community north of Bayfield where Ramsier lives.
“The elation seen in the face of our neighbors when we came home was, for me, by far, the biggest deal,” Ramsier said.
As it turned out, the women traveled about 2½ miles from their base camp, as the crow flies, which means they probably traveled about 10 miles on foot. “We went so far trying to find our way home that they couldn’t have guessed that we would have gotten that far,” Ramsier said.
Ramsier said there is no such thing as a short hike, and people always need to be prepared.
The experience hasn’t ruined her desire to backpack with llamas, she said.
“I’m just ready to be smarter about it,” she said.
Powell went home with a new appreciation for life and a lesson learned about the human spirit and the will to live.
She said she plans to make her next vacation a tropical one.
“Your mountains are beautiful, but I’m going to head to the beach.”