Backpacking Survival Stories: Using a Knife to Escape From a Falling Sled
A True Story of Escaping Danger in the Adirondacks
Since the age of six, a knife has been my constant pocket companion and a dependable daily tool; and on one trip, my blade delivered me from serious injury and maybe death.
Seven years ago, I was two days into a five-day solo trip into the rugged Five Ponds Wilderness in the Western Adirondacks. It was early January. I was on the east side of the Five Ponds loop heading toward High Falls on the Oswegatchie River.
The Five Ponds Wilderness doesn't get much traffic in winter. According to the trail register, the last person before me had passed through about a week and a half before.
I was walking an unbroken trail, through deep snow, with my Atlas snowshoes breaking through the crust-topped powder. I dragged a sled behind me with the gear I needed for the journey. I didn't usually use a sled, but this was a long trip and I didn't feel like carrying the weight. Little did I know that sled might cost me my life.
My feet grew heavy from packing the powder down with every step as I trudged down the trail. I had already been walking for a few hours, and the cold air forced its way into my lungs as I rapidly pushed out the hot breath of exertion.
I came across a two-log bridge that spanned a small gully about 12 feet wide. A creek, frozen now, ran under the simple bridge, some ten feet below it.
I started to disconnect the sled from my tow harness as I had done at the previous half dozen log bridges, but this bridge looked wider than the rest: at least a foot wide. I took the lazy man's way out of leaving the sled connected to me as I snowshoed across the snowy bridge. I steadied myself with my trekking poles, clearing the snow off the rough unhewn logs as I walked. My crampons bit firmly into the wood, and I checked behind as the sled slid truly in my track.
I was nearly across myself, and my sled nearly halfway, when the large jolt hit me that nearly sent me on my way.
One knee dropped down, slamming against the bridge, as my other foot stayed firm, the snowshoe crampons gripping as my entire body torqued. I looked behind me at the nylon rope over the simple bridge, and saw my black sled hanging down—only a few feet from the frozen creek below. With my pack and other gear still bungeed down securely, the sled swung like an unbalanced pendulum, its weight pulling me down with every pass.
My back arched backward as the harness rose up, every muscle in my body fighting the insidious force of gravity that beckoned me to my doom. I dropped one trekking pole as my hand slipped out of the loop and grabbed hold of the bridge, leaving the carbide tip of the other pole lodged firmly between the logs. The loose pole dropped onto the ice, making a loud "tock" sound; it was the only sound I heard as all else went silent in that late-morning winter forest. No chirping chickadees, no howling Adirondack wind: I heard only the sound of that pole knocking against the ice.
I had thoughts of letting go and falling backwards under the pressure of the sled, falling through the ice. I wondered how deep the water was, if there were any rocks below, would I break a leg in the fall, or would I break my back? How long would I lie there? It would be at least another three days until I was reported missing. It was mid-week and it was unlikely another skier or snowshoer would venture back this far. Yes, if I survived the fall I would likely spend days in an injured state before getting any help.
Of course this was a region without cell service, years before anyone thought of carrying a satellite messenger: a true wilderness. I thought back to the previous night at Janack's Landing campsite overlooking Cranberry Lake, remembering the packs of coyotes that howled on the ice and left their tracks before me. Would they find me, injured or dead? In that moment, fighting to balance myself on that log, I mused at the prospect of being a meal for a hungry coyote. If I was going to go that way, it would be appropriate to the way I had lived my life.
Maybe it was the exhaustion of winter travel or a general lack of physical prowess, but I couldn't lift that sled up. I grabbed hold of the rope with my gloved hand and pulled like I was in a tug-of-war battle for my life; which I was. I was locked in a stalemate against the sled. Its swaying weight mocked me. What was I going to do? I had to drop the sled, risk the loss of my gear, and try to walk out to the trailhead that day. Maybe the water wasn't deep and I could salvage some of my equipment, at least enough to survive the winter climate on my way out.
I tried unbuckling the tow harness, but couldn't manage the buckle one handed. I needed one hand to grip the trekking pole steadying me on the bridge. I pulled my glove off with my teeth to get better dexterity, but still couldn't pull the taut nylon through the buckle under that much tension.
How a Knife Saved my Life
Then I looked to the small Cold Steel para edge knife I kept around my neck. It was an unassuming tool, a black Kraton handle held upside down in a black Kydex sheath and worn around my neck like an amulet to ward off evil.
I started carrying neck knives when I started French-and-Indian War reenacting, and realized how handy the jaw-bone patch knife I carried around my neck was while engaged in general camp work. When I found that manufacturers like Cold Steel made modern neck knives, I knew I had to have one, and now I have several.
In the winter, when pockets are buried under layers of polypropylene and gore-tex, accessing a pocket knife is difficult, impossible even. That is why I like the neck knife: it is always quick to deploy with a simple tug and always within easy reach—even when balancing on a log bridge.
I knew I had but one choice, so I yanked on the handle of my knife with my free hand exposing the small but sharp partially serrated blade. I reached the knife around behind my back till I felt the blade catch my tow rope. In one swift motion, I pulled the knife, sliding the cutting edge against the nylon rope until I heard a sharp "snap." Then seemingly moments later, I heard the crash as my sled pulverized the ice below.
At once, all the tension was released from my body like a rubber band snapped into the sky. I nearly fell, but somehow caught myself. I looked down at the sled below sticking tail first into the ice and at the small knife curled in my fingers. I snapped my knife, my lifesaver, back into its sheath around my neck and pulled myself to a standing position on the bridge. I took a couple steps and finally crossed the bridge.
I crawled down the steep bank to salvage my gear. I found my other trekking pole close by and retrieved it to give me the added balance I needed to get my sled out. I used the pole to grab the severed end of the tow rope and pull the sled to the side of the bank where the ice was thick and strong. The ice started to crack as I drew the sled out of the freezing water and closer to me, but luckily it held as the sled plopped firmly out of the hole. While in the gully, I unbuckled the bungee cords and began throwing my gear in bundles up over the snow-covered bank. Finally the sled was empty, and honestly a part of me considered leaving it there by that creek, like the wreck of a Conestoga wagon burned by marauders. But I tossed the empty sled with its cut tow rope and impact-damaged sides over next to the rest of my gear.
Luckily for me, the waterproofing techniques I had used for packing worked. Very little of my stuff was soaked, and most importantly, my sleeping bag was still bone-dry. I paused at the far side of the bridge, surveying my equipment and pondering the rest of my journey into the Five Ponds. Should I stop now, having just escaped a snowy demise, or should I push on? Looking up at the snow-covered trees and the sun trying to poke out, I contemplated the utter beauty and danger of winter wilderness solitude. I retied my tow rope, tightened my snowshoe bindings and trudged on deeper to find more adventure.
But be assured, on the rest of that trip I faithfully disconnected my sled every time I came to a bridge.
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© 2011 Dan Human