Wednesday, April 18, 2012

‘I shouldn’t be alive’

New York City man survives 3-day ordeal in wilderness

Editor's note: This essay was submitted to the Idaho Mountain Express by Hailey resident Toni Peebler. It was written by her son, Todd Peebler, to friends while he was recovering at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center from a nearly fatal three-day trek through deep snow and cold water while lost in the wilderness northeast of Sun Valley.

Todd Peebler's adventure started while he was driving the last leg of a trip to relocate to the Wood River Valley from New York City. On April 2, following the prompts of his GPS unit, he drove his Audi A6 from Mackay toward Trail Creel Summit, not knowing the sometimes-treacherous road is closed in winter. Disoriented from a medical condition, Peebler drove toward Trail Creek Summit and eventually his vehicle got stuck in deep snow.


On March 30, I started my drive out West from New York City to Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a nice and easy trip until I crossed the Rockies in Montana, and then the snow came and with it absolutely no visibility. So after three days of driving at least 16 hours a day, I woke up tired but ready to go on Monday morning, April 2. According to my GPS I had just a couple of hundred miles, which for what I was doing daily was nothing—it equated to a busy morning, in my mind. However, I had no idea how busy my life was about to get.

I drive a 2005 Audi A6 and apparently the maps for the Western states have not really been updated on those cars, because as soon as I got to Idaho I got lost. The morning started by my getting pulled over at a checkpoint by a U.S. military soldier armed with an AR-15. He told me I was lost and I agreed with him and asked him how I could get to Sun Valley. He told me a route and when I started on that route my GPS picked it up right away and I was off. The GPS said I had only 34 miles until I hit Sun Valley. All was well. Then my girlfriend, Jackie, called me and she said that I sounded funny, and because there was no one on the road I decided to test my blood sugar, which was a smart move. The count on my blood sugar was 69, which for those of you who know me know that is getting low and action has to be taken. Well I began to drink a Coca-Cola and then my memory goes black. I do not remember what happened for the next two hours but apparently I followed my GPS to the turn and that led me down a mountain pass called Trail Creek Road, which then unbeknownst to me is closed every winter because the road is too hard to maintain as it is so high up.

Well I woke up or came to at about 1:30 p.m. To my astonishment, my car was still running. However, it was completely stuck in snow and unmoveable. So I figured that I had traveled far enough along this road toward Sun Valley that I would just pack a day bag aka my backpack and then pack Lola in her travel bag and we would just slowly walk to Sun Valley. I thought initially that I would get there sometime late that night or in the early morning. Boy, was I wrong. After walking for about seven hours I realized that my progress was so slow and that I might actually be out here for a much longer time than I had anticipated.

So the first day I walked about 10 hours and then finally had to get off of the trail. The trail, mind you now, is almost impossible to walk. It was near the end of the ski season and while there was still snow on the ground, it was very soft. So I would take one step and then have that leg sink about four feet, then pull that leg out and do it again. This made it incredibly tiring and incredibly hard to move, especially at about 9,000 feet. But after 10 hours on the trail I saw an opening about 500 yards below the trail where there was some dry land. Lola and I made our way down to that cleared-out area. We were so happy to rest but at the same time so cold, so I opened my backpack, which felt like I was carrying a pack of bricks, and removed the one thing I could use to start a fire, and that was the latest edition of Lapham's Quarterly. I started tearing it apart to create kindling for the fire. Luckily, I had a lighter on me for some reason and I was able to start a fire, and Lola and I slept practically on top of that fire the first night as it was so cold on the side of the mountain.

Day 2 started very early as it was freezing out again, and I only had a pair of Levi jean-style cords and a couple of T-shirts that I was wearing under a hoodie and a windbreaker. So with Lola in her bag and me carrying her, we start out again. However, today we are much higher up on the mountain and the snow is nowhere near sturdy, so about 15 minutes into Day 2 the strap on Lola's bag breaks and she went tumbling down the mountain. I mean ass over tea kettle for about 700 yards down the mountain. I then get in a sit-down position and slide right down there to get her. When I got to her I noticed that my slide had ripped the ass out of my pants, and now my pants only covered the back of my legs from my knees down. I also at that point realized that there was no way with the snow as soft as it was that I could make it back up the mountain and back onto the original road. Then the oddest line crawled into my head and it is from Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock who told Liz Lemon on one episode that when all seems lost, the only way to win is to go deeper into the abyss, and so I did. I jerry rigged Lola's bag, ditched my backpack and then jumped into the river. I did not walk next to the river or beside it but rather in it. For nine and a half hours I walked in the freezing river, occasionally stopping to drink from the river as I had no snacks or drinks.

After that horrible, horrible day, I pulled myself out of the river and took refuge behind a misshapen trunk of a tree. I was so cold, though, as I could not start a fire this night because I slipped in the river and basically soaked everything I had on me, lighter included. The EMT guy later told me that the temperature dropped that night down to single digits and I was out there sleeping or trying to sleep in ripped pants soaked in water and with no end to this journey in sight.

When I lay down for bed that night I took Lola and put her under my T-shirts trying to use our body heat to keep each other warm because, to be honest, I did not think I was going to wake up. I thought for sure that I was going die, freezing and alone. But somehow I made it through the evening.

On Day 3 the earth was frozen and the wind with its chilly bite was killing any motivation I had. I thought for sure this is just how it ends. But then I realized that with all this cold, maybe the snow got more compact and thus I could walk on it. Funny enough, that was true—the cold was going to be my only way out, and so, yes, I went deeper into the abyss. So I started out on Day 3 at about 6:30 a.m. and was able to walk at a good pace because the snow had frozen over. So after crossing over two more beaver ponds, which were very deep, I heard some dogs barking in the distance, and finally by 11:30 a.m. I spotted another human being. This woman wrapped me up as I collapsed in front of her and she called an ambulance.

At the hospital, they take a reading for people that have experiences like me and it determines what is happening inside you. I will call it a toxicology report even though it has a much more formal name. Anyway, my report was over 7,000, which meant that my muscles had broken down so completely that I was poisoning myself, and that after another couple of hours out there I would have been dead whether I was walking or not.

The doctors all told me that I will be able to keep all of my limbs even though my feet are very swollen and hurt like there is no tomorrow. The doctors actually had to debate what should be done with my feet. But with my determination and stubbornness and ability to fight, I think now that I am going to be able to save my toes and feet.

Gentlemen, I almost died out there this week. I got an up-close look at how short, sudden and finite life can be—and it scared the crap out of me. But with all that said, I feel that I have been born anew. Granted, I will be bedridden for a while, but I have vowed to change my life. I mean all the money and all the material possessions in the world were not saving me in the woods. What saved me was my desire to see my friends again, to see my loved ones—to hug someone I love, to laugh at a bad joke with my friends. What saved me out there are the most valuable things I have in my life and they are my friends and family.

Every doctor and medical professional I have spoken to since being rescued has told me that they have no idea how I survived. Or they say something catchy like you should be dead. Well, I'm not. I survived and in doing so I have vowed to live a better life for my friends for my family and for myself. Anyway, I will probably be discharged from the hospital today as my mother, whom I have not spoken to in almost a year, is coming to help me. She is coming because I called her and told her that we and all humans just do not have the time to waste bickering over petty stuff, and I mean it.

Finally my morning nurse came in to me as I was proofreading this letter and she asked me, "Have you ever seen that show "I Shouldn't Be Alive?" Because you would be a great story for it and I bet they would take you." In case you guys don't believe me, I really should've died this week.

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