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“I didn’t just want to lay down and die.”
By Fran Maye
For most hikers, getting is their worst nightmare. For Ian Sarmento, getting lost was nearly a death sentence.
Sarmento, 21, a 2008 graduate of Twin Valley High School, survived for 10 days in waist-high snow and sub-freezing temperatures last month after losing his way hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail near Stehekin, Washington. For the last six of those days, he had no food.
“I felt I just couldn’t give up hope,” Sarmento said. “I didn’t want to just lay down and die. I could feel myself getting weak and I had to ration after the first day in the canyon. My body started burning fat for energy after I didn’t have food for so long. But I knew that if I could at least move, I wouldn’t starve to death.
Sarmento, who lives in Honey Brook with his mother, Jeanne, followed advice given by experts – if you get lost, stay where you are and wait for help. Problem was that Sarmento was hiking alone and no one knew he was in trouble until he failed to get his pack of supplies at Stehekin. By that time, Sarmento was hopelessly lost and out of food.
Sarmento’s journey began on May 15, after he set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663-mile journey that starts in Mexico and ends in southern Canada. Sarmento felt confident about the solo hike after completing the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail in 2008.
The first few months the weather was mostly good and Sarmento found the going easy. He kept provisions in his 60-pound backpack, but had no communication with the outside world because cell phone service doesn’t exist on the trail, which has peaks over 5,000 feet high. But when he hit the mid-Washington portion of the trail, the weather started to turn. When he got to Glacier Peak, he passed two hikers who were waiting out the weather in tents.
The two hikers, who call themselves Storytime and Bouncer, were the last to see Sarmento. It was at 3 p.m. on Oct. 19 at Ward’s Gap.
“It was raining all day and he (Sarmento) seemed in good shape wanting to continue,” Storytime said. “We tried to talk him into camping with us and trying the passes the next day – Indian Pass, White Pass then Red Pass. He chose to keep going.”
Sarmento stayed on the Pacific Crest Trail hoping to cross Fire Creek Pass, and camp by Milk Creek. But by nightfall, he lost the trail where it crosses Glacier Creek. He dug in next to a boulder, and by the morning, a fresh 4 inches of snow had fallen. There were no signs of any trails. Even signs of wildlife were non-existent.
“The ridge dropped steeply down in front of me,” Sarmento said. “To my left was a steep treacherous pass, with cliffs and glaciers and to my right the ridge gradually descended until there were no trees. I couldn’t cross the pass and I didn’t want to slide down the canyon ahead. I didn’t want to backtrack so I tucked down the ridge to my right hoping to find a sign of the trail once I got into the trees.”
Sarmento continued to look for any sign of a trail and found a flattened area with a patch of small trees under the weight of snow in a canyon.
That would be his home for the next 10 days.
The first few days, Sarmento rationed what little food he had left, and limited his intake to 300 to 500 calories. During the day it would often snow. Temperatures were in the 20s most days, and dipped into the low teens at night. Sarmento hunkered down in his tent and spent most of his time trying to stay dry. Keeping his feet dry was tough. He used two pair of socks wrapped in a plastic bag, but often moisture worked its way in.
“It was really serious at this time,” Sarmento said. “I lost confidence, and there were times I thought I wouldn’t make it.”
But he stayed put hoping help would arrive.
“I waited, and waited, and waited, and starved and froze, and waited,” he said.
The first six nights in the canyon were very cold, Sarmento said. The snow would melt a little during the day but be replenished at night with new snow. This type of weather made any hope of walking out impossible.
There was a nearby water source, so water wasn’t too much of a problem.
“I was crazy with hunger pangs,” he said. “There were times I felt good about my decision to wait it out, and other times I contemplated trying anything I could to escape. By the fifth or sixth day, I began imagining airplane sounds from the noise of the creek. By day 10 I would constantly hear both airplanes and helicopters. I wore earplugs the last two days to protect my sanity.
But after the ninth night, Sarmento made a decision that ultimately saved his life. Weak and dehydrated, he decided to try to walk out.
“I wasn’t going to die lying in a nylon coffin in that God-forsaken canyon I had grown to detest,” he said.
The skies were clear and the snow had abated when he made his decision. He didn’t know what to expect, and had no idea where he was going.
“I knew that I just had to put one foot in front of the other and push on,” he said. “But I couldn’t grasp where I was.”
Danny Wikstrom, a sergeant at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s office’s Search and Rescue Team, said conditions prevented officials from sending a helicopter on a rescue mission. It was simply too dangerous, he said.
Sarmento’s mother got word from Wikstrom he was missing when Sarmento failed to pick up his pack. He asked her permission to do a missing person search. Missing posters went up all around the Stehekin area.
“My stomach was like a lead weight,” Jeanne said. “Every day they couldn’t send up choppers, and I put out a prayer request. People were praying for him on Facebook, and I was really worried. I was told by deputies that by this time, they were looking for a body.”
On day 10, weak, tired, dehydrated and hungry, Sarmento began walking down a ridge looking for a trail – any trail.
“I should have never put myself in a position that I couldn’t backtrack,” he thought as he began his trek out of the canyon.
“I crawled up a steep slope on my hands and knees, then grabbed onto rocks and roots to climb the canyon wall. I spotted a route for getting up the canyon wall and back to the ridgeline. I resurveyed my surrounds on the ridge for a couple of hours. I eventually traced steps back to Glacier creek and followed it to Fire Creek Pass which was still completely covered in enough stow to make navigating very difficult. Hiking without any food and not eating for nine days was very difficult.”
When Sarmento found the trail, it led him to Stehekin.
“When I arrived in Stehekin, I found I lost 18 pounds, and I was extremely sore and a little disoriented.”
His first meal after not eating for so long came from his pack he had sent himself. It was rice, pasta and a can of spam. The best spam he tasted in his life, he said.
After resting, Sarmento decided he had gone through too much to give up. He hiked the rest of the way into Canada, where the Pacific Coast Trail ended. He finished on Nov. 11.
“The last day was the toughest,” Sarmento said. “My nose was bleeding all morning from the cold dry air. By nightfall, it was 0 degrees and ice that formed in my inflatable sleeping pad the night before ruptured. I set up a bid of pine branches of my tent for extra warmth.
Sarmento said his journey gave him a new perspective on life.
“I learned more in those last two weeks of the hike than I have ever learned before,” he said. “Now, I have an appreciation of life and more faith in my ability.”
So much more faith that he is planning for the hiking trifecta, and that includes the 3,100 Continental Divide trail.
But first, Sarmento said he is planning to get a job working in oil fields in North Dakota, and save enough money for college.
“He’s lived more life from graduating high school until now that most people will live in a lifetime,” his mother said.