Walking for the dying, hiker stares death in the eye
A snowshoe hike across Yosemite National Park almost turned tragic last weekend when 46-year-old long-distance walker Colin Skinner found himself high on the Tioga Pass Road with soaking wet boots, wet socks and frostbitten feet.
But a fortuitous meeting with two Yosemite National Park rangers at midnight may have saved his life.
At the very least, it saved his feet.
“I was camped along the road, having just come up from Lee Vining, and I was in my tent, sleeping,” Skinner said Tuesday from his hotel room in Mammoth, where he was recovering. “They were on their way in to see some of their ranger friends, and they stopped to check on me.”
At that point Skinner, a resident of England, was on the last 250 miles of his second walk across the country to raise awareness for The National Hospice Foundation’s mission to bring high quality care to terminally ill people.
He had just come from Bishop, where he met with Bishop’s all-volunteer hospice team and he said he was still in pretty good shape, although surprised by the slow pace he was setting.
“I normally can cover between 20 and 35 miles a day, walking in roads, and in 1988, when I did this same walk, it took me only three days to cross Yosemite,” he said.
But this time, conditions were completely different.
“I did a few really dumb things,” he said.
“The snow this time was really, really heavy and wet, unlike last time when the snow was firm and easy to walk on. Yet the nights were still very cold. The combination of these things made sure my boots, once they got wet, never really dried out. The other thing is I only had enough food for four days, since that was how long I expected it to take me.”
He told the rangers, Rob and Laura Pilewski, about his worries of the time he was making and his lack of food that cold night. The rangers encouraged him to turn back, given his lack of food, but he decided not to, thinking things would get better.
Over the next two days, as he struggled to get to the winter cabin just beyond the park entrance gate, he began to realize he was in over his head.
“By the second day, my feet were staying wet, and I was beginning to lose feeling in them for some time. I tried putting them in my sleeping back to dry them out, but all that did was keep them from freezing solid. It didn’t dry them out. By the third day, I knew I was in trouble.”
At this point, turning back was looking worse than going on.
“I didn’t turn back,” he said, “because I knew there were some people ahead of me—the rangers and at least a few other skiers I’d seen, and I didn’t know if there was going to be anyone else coming up the road, so I kept going.”
On Friday morning, when he finally got to the cabin, dragging his numb feet with him he said he was hoping and praying someone would be there.
There was: the same two rangers he’d seen Wednesday night on the road at midnight.
They checked out his feet and agreed that it was time to get him out of the park and down to someone who could help before it was too late and he lost his toes.
They snowmobiled him down to the gate where Mono County Search and Rescue team members met him and took him to Mammoth Hospital.
He isn’t sure if his toes will ever fully recover, he said. It could be another four months before he knows. But one thing is clear; his long distance walking days are probably over.
“The doctors were pretty clear about that,” he said.
Skinner has been walking for a cause since he was 17, when he caught the Good Samaritan bug.
“I was asked to do a marathon for a school near us for disabled people and I did it,” he said. “We raised a lot of money. We were actually able to help them.”
Skinner, who has a doctorate in molecular biology and a wife and child in England, took up the hospice cause sometime later, after working as an orderly in a hospital and seeing how little time and compassionate care terminally ill or dying people could get there.
To bring more attention to the need for hospice, he said he has walked across England three times and America twice, excepting the last 250 miles between Yosemite and San Francisco this last time; all the while carrying his pack and the big blue placard he made to bring attention to the work hospice facilities do.
“When you are in the hospital, they are just trying to save your life, fix things, but when there is no way to fix things, then what?” he said.
“People still need care, compassion, affection. They still need to feel like they are human beings, even if they are dying.
Skinner has written a book about his previous walks, and authors a blog.