Story of survival

A Lovell woman survived a night in the Cloud Peak Wilderness and returned to the West Tensleep Trailhead just as South Big Horn County Search and Rescue were ready to begin the search.

Dawn Hoffman

Dawn and David Hoffman and their son Thomas arrived at the West Tensleep Trailhead Saturday morning, Aug. 13, with Dawn and Thomas intending to stay overnight. After hiking about three miles with his wife and son, David returned to the trailhead and home to Lovell.

“Thomas and I walked about another five miles into Misty Moon Lake, uneventfully so,” Dawn said from her home Tuesday morning, still trying to ward off the chill from the night in the mountain and the elements.

They camped at the lake that night and left much of their gear at the campsite as they headed to Cloud Peak at 6 a.m. Sunday. They reached the base of the mountain about 7:30 a.m., “at which point I said I was not going any further,” Dawn said.

She added, “I was going to walk back to the campsite. We had left all of our stuff there. We had really lightened our load. We were at 13,000 feet. No sleeping bags, no propane heater to heat the water for the dried food, no tent and no drop cloth. We had our backpacks, food, raingear, jackets and water.”

In reflection, Hoffman, who has been on many hikes, said she made mistakes and learned things from this trip.

Hiking tips

“Always be prepared to stay the night, no matter if you’re just planning a short hike,” Dawn said. “Never separate yourself from your sleeping bag. Make sure everyone has their own individual food. And never separate from your group.”

She said all of these are obvious and people have heard them many times.

“We all poo-poo it and think it will never happen to us, but it’s about being out in nature and you never know what’s going to happen.” She said even though hikers may be in a group, everyone needs to prepare as if they are their own entity.

She said everyone needs a map of the area. While she shouldn’t have separated from Thomas, she said, she would have easily made it back to camp with a map; Thomas had all the maps.

She said anyone going hiking also needs a walking stick, noting she uses one and used it for many purposes during her wilderness “adventure.” She said her husband and Thomas use two. Another tip she offered came from David, to fill your pocket with Jolly Ranchers because no matter how much water you drink, your mouth will still get dry.

Her last bit of advice, make sure you are in shape if you’re going hiking like that. Dawn runs seven days a week and walks her dogs every afternoon. She said her legs were fine but her feet were hurting.

Getting lost

Dawn said she didn’t want to stay and wait the nearly six hours on the rugged ridge at the base of the mountain for Thomas to hike to the summit and back. She began her trek back to the camp following a faint trail. She said anyone that’s hiked there knows there are numerous trails around, though.

The faint trail made it hard to make sure she was following the same one. But, she said, she had her compass and knew she needed to go south to the lake. After hiking about a half hour she came to a stream and while it didn’t look exactly like the one they crossed coming up she figured she was still heading in the right direction.

The trail, she said, was “spectacularly awful and became very rugged.” Anyone hiking in the wilderness needs to wear hiking boots, not tennis shoes, she advised.

Eventually, she came to “this huge monstrous lake and I knew this was not Misty Moon Lake.” It was Lake Solitude. She walked around the lake, estimating about two miles, and picked up the trail. “I still didn’t think I was lost. I just kept going south.”

She came across an outfitter bringing in a group on horseback. They exchanged pleasantries and she found they were heading to Cloud Peak, so she figured they came from where she had been and she began following the horse prints on the trail for about three to four miles.

She came to a fork in the road with signs marking Trail 38, the trail they had started on. She veered away from the hoof prints and on to Trail 38. In hindsight, she said, she came to find out that had she continued following the hoof prints she’d have come out of the Wilderness a day earlier.

Trail 38 and 162, which she learned she had been on, are solitary trails, in the middle of the popular trails, so she saw no one the rest of the day.

She said she knew she was to keep Cloud Peak behind her, but she realized she had ended up going west. About 6:30 p.m. Sunday she came to a meadow and said to herself, “You are flat out lost.”

Dawn said, “I never panicked. I just figured I’d keep myself alive and run into someone.” She laid out her possessions and found a bag full of nuts, three Ritz crackers with peanut butter, a half a cheese stick, water (which she had continued to fill up and use her chlorine tablets), a knife, a pepper gun, a coat, garbage bag and sun survival blanket.

She wrapped herself up with everything available and settled up next to a bank under a tree. The full moon provided some light in the evening but definitely no warmth.

“I about froze to death. I have never been so cold. I was worried. I’d wake up about every hour, get up and get the blood circulating. I don’t know how cold it was but I could see my breath so it had to be in the 30s. My teeth were chattering so hard. It was worrisome cold. You hear about hypothermia, but until you experience it — it can kill you.”

During the night she made the decision to stay in the meadow the following day and wait to be rescued. She had the cheese stick and one Ritz cracker for dinner and a second cracker for breakfast.

Coming home

“Thankfully, I did something right. I knew how to get back to Cloud Peak. I decided to back track back to Cloud Peak and see if I could find the right trail or hope I ran into someone. She headed out at 6 a.m., so cold she didn’t want to risk another night in the wilderness.

Back at Lake Solitude she heard voices, found four college-aged campers who said the Battle Park Trailhead was about 12 miles straight out … on the trail she had been on earlier where she met the outfitter’s group.

She arrived at the trailhead about 3 p.m. Monday. There were cars but no people around. She ate her final Ritz cracker in celebration. “I thought I would just stay there and wait for someone to come back. I was very happy and relieved. I knew I might have to stay another night but I could take shelter in the bathroom and it had to be warmer than being outside.”

She began brushing her teeth at the water pump when she heard a pickup. She met Mr. and Mrs. Robert Fawcett, who said the highway was about 12 miles. They offered her a ride on the washboard road that took about 30 minutes. Rather than leave her on the highway for her to try and call out on her cell, they took her on up the highway to West Tensleep where she found a red Avalanche, with her husband waiting.

While she was hiking what she estimates about 50 miles Sunday and Monday, David had come back Sunday afternoon to pick up his wife and son. Neither Thomas nor Dawn came out so he assumed they got back late and stayed at the campsite and went back to Lovell. Thomas in the meantime, she said, arrived back at Misty Moon Lake and wasn’t worried about his mother, assuming she had gone all the way out to the trailhead to meet David.

At 10 a.m. Monday, David arrived back at the trailhead to wait and Thomas came out. David asked him where his mother was and Thomas said he thought she was already out. Dawn said Thomas went back in immediately to Misty Moon Lake to try and find his mother. Rangers were able to get word to him once Dawn arrived at West Tensleep. Tuesday morning, she was headed up to pick him up.

While Thomas went back into the wilderness, David called the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office and eventually South Big Horn County Search and Rescue was mobilized. They got permission from David to order up a helicopter, according to Captain Dan Anders. They had four horses and nine search and rescue members ready to begin the search when they got the word that Dawn had been found, or found her way back, rather.

She is appreciative of her family, the college-aged kids who pointed her in the right direction, the Fawcetts and the sheriff’s office and search and rescue ready to help.

But, she said, she never panicked and never felt scared, noting, “I was flat not alone that night. I could feel His presence. I never panicked. I knew with my whole heart Jesus was there. David said the same thing to me on the drive home. He said, ‘I prayed immediately and knew you were not alone.’”

She added, “You always wonder how you’d react. I didn’t have a clue what my next step was going to be but I knew God would take care of me.”

By Karla Pomeroy