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Wed, Feb. 19

Johnson: Exposure to the elements and hypothermia while hiking
Hiking Arizona

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is known for many things. It’s a showcase of exceptional Sonoran Desert flora.

It’s also the gateway for the feared Camino del Diablo, a route that claimed the lives of many gold seekers during the 19th century.

As a backpacker, I was expecting a true wilderness adventure. Solitude, rugged landscapes and cross-country hiking. What about illegal immigrants? Drug smugglers? This Monument is known for many things.

Things were going along just fine as I began day three. Crossing the upper reaches of a nameless wash, I noticed a significant overhang. Any wildlife back there in this convenient shelter? No, nothing but 20 feet of dry open space. “Perfect spot if it rained,” I thought and on I walked.

Soon, there spread before me a vast expanse of beautiful desert. Off to my left (west) was a fast approaching bank of clouds, drenching everything in its path, including me. I shifted my path off the exposed ridge in the hopes that a shallow arroyo would at least offer some relief from the chilly wind but I did not change course. Why didn’t I retreat to that “ideal shelter from the rain?”

I seriously worried about hypothermia for the first time in my life. This subtle killer of outdoor adventurers is especially deadly since anyone so afflicted, has no idea what’s happening, hence they are powerless to remedy the situation. About the only hope a victim has is for their companion(s) to spot the symptoms and apply the warmth so necessary for the victim to stay alive. But I was alone.

At least it wasn’t freezing. It was only cool. But that’s when hypothermia is most deadly. If it is cold, say 12 degrees Fahrenheit with snow on the ground, chances are you’d be more prepared, mentally as well as physically. I’ve gotten soaked a number of times when it was warmer, during a summer thunderstorm.

But, when the temperatures are between 30 and 50 with a breeze and you are wet, watch out.

I kept walking and eventually came across an old road when the rain eased up. An abandoned ranch came into view, a couple of old adobe walls, no roof. I took out my stove and heated up a quick snack to apply some heat to the situation. The adobe walls sheltered me from the wind and the hot food revived me.

The rain ended as suddenly as it began. With hot food on the inside and the now bright sun on the outside, my hopes grew. Looking back on the Growler Mountains, I saw what appeared to be a million diamonds covering the entire desert floor. It was as though all the fire flies in the world alighted before me as the bright Sonoran Desert sun glistened over the drops of rain covering every inch of every surface. The land had become a sheet of iridescent glass, with sunlight dispersed through innumerable prisms.

As light is prone to change with the passing of time, so this sight shifted gradually out of sight but not out of mind. I expect no repeat performance but that’s what makes this memory so incredible.

The concern over hypothermia was replaced with a desire to go through it all again just to see the land of light one more time. Funny how a moment’s adversity can be overcome with a new realization - from darkness to light. Light is definitely preferable.

Next: A quickie hike.

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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