THE DAY I NEARLY DIED IN THE OUTBACK
THIS STORY COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE
Our Fitness Guru, Matt Linsdell, shares his terrifying tale of wandering lost and without water in the Australian Outback. Despite being superfit, his scrape with death offers some hard-hitting lessons. It’s a story that shows how smart people can do very stupid things, and brings a new appreciation for H20.
I used to live in South Australia where it gets pretty hot. One New Year I went camping at Mount Remarkable National
Park. (Remember that Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere and so New Years is in the summertime.) It won’t surprise you to know that this area of the world is as dry as a piece of toasted sourdough. This dryness adds to its charm but makes it inhospitable for soggy bags of intelligent water. Funnily enough, it is only a short drive from Port Germein, a small coastal town with a vast tidal beach. You can walk straight out into the water for a good ten minutes and still only be knee deep in the ocean. It was amazing to see how so much water could be so close to so much desert. Anyway, digressions aside, there wasn’t much excitement around camp that day, so my group and I decided to go for a hike. The temperature on the car dashboard read 43°C (109°F) and there was very little in the way of shade. We set out on a slow hike, which lasted two hours. The slowness of the hike made me edgy – I like to run when I hike. On the way back to camp I spotted a trail signpost: “Hidden Gorge Hike 18km loop”. Perfect! The path went back to our campsite and so I told my group that I would run this loop and meet them back at the tents. My last words before splitting off from the group were “If I run slow it’ll take me two hours. If I’m not back in three then send
help.” I set off feeling great. It didn’t finish that way…
I had no water but the gorge was so pretty I didn’t give it much thought. After running for about 7 km in solitude, I started to feel dopey. At the 8 or 9 km point I came to a collapsed part of the gorge that was impassible. I convinced myself that the rock slide must have been recent and hadn’t yet been spotted by the park rangers. It left me with no choice but to backtrack. However, after a running a few kilometers more I realised that my brain wasn’t working very well. I had probably been dehydrated even when I started the gorge loop (I don’t tend to drink very much). I certainly wasn’t thinking clearly when I couldn’t find the
trail (perhaps you weren’t thinking clearly when
you started on the trail! – Ed). Now, 12km into a sunbaked run, on the second driest continent in the world, and after a 2 hour hike, the only liquid I had imbibed was during breakfast. For the second time in my life I thought I might die. I started talking to myself, trying to assess how bad my predicament was. My words were slurred. Was that a part of heatstroke? Desperate now for some water, I saw some puddles – but they were full of gum tree leaves that gave them a brown colour (and I remember being told that the tannins in the leaves leach into the water, making it poisonous). I figured that I could make it back to a large green holding tank of water that was at the trailhead. My woozy mind thought it was about 5 km away. From that point it would only be a further 2 km back to camp. So I staggered on. Eventually I was reduced to a trot, and then to a walk. I wasn’t worried about my muscles but I was worried about my mind giving out. Thinking was starting to take a real effort. When I reached the big green water holding tank I turned on the water. Cupping my hands I drank as much of the warm water I could. I
couldn’t splash enough on my body so I took off my wicking material tank top and saturated it, then tried to wring it out over my head. It held on to the water ferociously, so I soaked it again. This time my ghetto shower worked. Donning my soaked top I set off to run the last 2 km back to camp. Well, I tried to run… 300 meters before the end, I felt like I wasn’t going to make it. Surely I could push on for that short distance, I thought. But I couldn’t. There was a basic toilet block nearby with a tap at about mid-thigh height. Turning it on, scalding hot water splashed all over my legs. I drank what I could stomach and stumbled the last 300 meters. 2 hours and 59 minutes after I said “send help if I’m not back in 3 hours” I was finally back with my party. I had endured roughly 5 hours of exposure in this hostile environment while exerting myself. It could have easily ended very badly. And it was entirely my fault.
1, 2, 3… Reasons not to trust yourself
It’s a long story, but it is meant to illustrate some key things about dehydration. Firstly, we shouldn’t use the term ‘dehydration’ at all. Dehydration would be better called ‘low volume’. The watery part of our blood becomes less watery as we sweat. Therefore our total blood volume drops. Low blood volume can lead to low blood pressure, which in turn can result in collapse. If we could dehydrate our tissues, we would look like raisins – but clearly this isn’t what happens. Very few people use the term ‘low volume’, except for a few pedantic doctors. Which is a shame, really. Secondly: exertion. When we are active outdoors at the hottest times of day we add heat to the warmth the weather is already bathing us in. Vigorous physical activity can heat you up from the inside and the warm weather gets you hot from the outside. It’s a perfect recipe for losing a lot of blood volume very fast. Profuse sweating occurs to compensate, which can put you on a fast trip to hyperthermia. Thirdly, don’t trust yourself. You might not feel thirsty, but you should drink regularly when it is hot. Even if you might feel fine right now, how will you be feeling in 15 minutes? As soon as your mental faculties start to slide then you’re in trouble. Not a huge deal in the city where someone is bound to see you struggling and offer you some water (well, hopefully), but in a remote location there might not be anyone around to bail you out. I’ve addressed some of these issues in my cryptically named online post ‘ Why do I get
hot when I exercise?’ so I won’t bore you by rehashing them. Rather I’d like to explain heat stroke and heat exhaustion, the conditions that can kill you...
Heat stroke: it’s not like being in love
‘Heat exhaustion’ is a term you have probably heard before, but few people know what it actually means. There are two aspects to heat exhaustion, of which the loss of water is the first and most obvious. Water depletion will make you feel thirsty and weak. It can give you a headache and, in extreme circumstances, can cause you to black out. If that had happened to me on the hidden gorge trail then it probably would have resulted in me lying motionless for a few more hours – giving me the last suntan I would ever get. If you don’t know it, you’re not likely to be able to guess the other aspect to heat exhaustion. Anyone? I think I heard someone say it from the back of the class… Yes SALT! If our salt levels become depleted then we are heading for a world of trouble. Does nausea and vomiting sound appealing? Throw in muscle cramps and dizziness and your afternoon is ruined. OK, so none of this sounds super-deadly but if left unchecked it will advance to heat stroke. If you thought heat exhaustion sounded bad, drink this in… I don’t want you to take this lightly: heat stroke is a medical emergency. Should you encounter someone suffering from heat stroke and you do nothing then they will die. You need to call your
local emergency medical system (911 in Canada and the US) and administer the appropriate first aid (which I’ll mention later) until help arrives. Time is of the essence: heat stroke can cause brain damage (as well as damage to other internal organs). Being young and fit won’t save you either: heat stroke affects young athletes and the very fit. Most frighteningly, you don’t necessarily need to progress through heat exhaustion before facing heat stroke. It can strike suddenly and without prior symptoms. The symptoms of heat stroke are similar to heat exhaustion, but with seizures, confusion, and disorientation also thrown in. (Those were my biggest fears on the Hidden Gorge trail because once mental deterioration starts, it is hard even to help yourself.) These symptoms can then lead to loss of consciousness and even coma. More commonly you’d probably experience a throbbing headache, dizziness, and lightheadedness before it got to that point. (This is not to be confused with the same symptoms elicited by being at an LMFAO concert.) A heat stroke sign you’ve probably all heard about is a lack of sweating. The skin will appear red, hot, and dry. Oddly, your heart will beat rapidly even when you are utterly still. (Not to be confused with being in love.) And, despite trying to breathe normally, you might experience your breathing being shallow and quick.
How to: stay alive when you’re hot as hell
So what’s the answer to dealing with these maladies? If heat stroke is suspected, don’t mess around: call an ambulance. In fact, call an ambulance if you have any doubts at all. First aid is fairly straightforward. Cool that person, or yourself, down. If you have access to water then drink some. It’s vital to replenish fluids but avoid coffee or alcohol. (They could just dehydrate you further.) Also, get out of direct sunlight and seek shade. Better yet, submerge yourself in water. If you’re near civilization then a bathtub will do the trick, as will an air-conditioned room. If you’re in the wilderness then lying in a stream could help. Once wet you could then stand in the wind. That’ll cool you down nice and fast. Sports drinks are normally fine to drink but don’t try to make an unconscious person eat or drink. If they stop breathing, then remember what your learned in first aid. If you’ve never learned first aid, then it might be a good idea to enroll on a course. So, the moral of the story is to not go outside this summer and keep your air conditioner cranked up. Only joking! Go outside and enjoy the world but remember that even smart people do stupid things. Drink fluid. Dink lots of fluid. And by the way, when I got back to camp that day I drank a more water than was in the tidal beach (well, it felt like it). I walked out into the Great Southern Ocean and lay down in the salty waters. It took next to no time for me to feel normal again – it was amazing how quickly I recovered. And it was equally amazing how quickly I went from feeling like an idiot back into being a self-important jerk – ready to walk into another life-threatening adventure. But that’s a story for another time. Sleep tight children.
Heat stroke and first aid at WebMD
BELOW: Aligator Gorge in Mount Remarkable