My 911 Call From the MTB Trail: A Heat Emergency

Last month on my drive back to Georgia from Colorado I decided to make a detour to check out the IMBA Epic Syllamo trails in the Arkansas Ozarks. The riding was pretty amazing but this story isn’t about the trails–instead I want to tell you about my battle with extreme heat, dehydration, and a broken bike. I made a number of mistakes that day which I’ll point out along the way; I’ll also hit on the things that ultimately led to my rescue.

I arrived at the Syllamo trailhead at 11:30am after driving on back roads for six hours from a campground in Kansas. The temperature was already over 100 degrees with a heat index that was easily in the 110s thanks to the humidity. Despite the mid-day heat I decided to go for a quick ride anyway (mistake #1). There was no one at the trailhead and as it would turn out, I was probably the only one riding any of the trails that day. My plan was to ride for about an hour and a half to avoid spending too much time in the heat.I took a brief look at the trailhead map but didn’t really have a route in mind (mistake #2).

After about an hour of riding I found myself at the top of a mountain and my water was running low. I was having a great time and wasn’t quite ready to point my bike downhill toward the car so at an intersection with a second loop I decided to see what the next trail had to offer. Shortly thereafter I ran out of water but judging by my GPS I was sure the trail would loop back around soon and I’d be back and on my way down to the car (mistake #3). But the trail kept leading me farther away.

Finally, I decided it wasn’t wise to keep going and that I should just turn around and go back. I was pretty thirsty at this point and frustrated that I would have to backtrack. I snapped a photo at the overlook and pointed my bike back down the trail when I noticed my rear wheel was feeling squishy. It was a flat tire.

Now I was starting to get a little worried. I set the bike down and sat on the trail just staring for a few minutes. The sweat was pouring off me now that I was stopped and I felt so hot that I didn’t want to fix my tire. I started feeling nauseous and got a sudden desire to take all my clothes off and lay down in a small, rocky ditch beside the trail. After stripping off my helmet and gloves I came to my senses and realized I was not thinking clearly at all. My only thought was that I somehow needed to get away from the heat.

After taking several deep breaths I slowly began changing my tire; fortunately I had a pump and spare tube with me. What would normally take me less than 5 minutes was taking four times as long as I struggled to pump air into the tube. I’d put in 10 strokes, then stop to take a break. I was still lucid enough to know that I needed to get a lot of pressure into the tire to avoid another pinch flat and after what seemed like hundreds of pump strokes, I was finally satisfied.

Before getting back on the bike I pulled out my phone to take a look at a Google Map to see how far I was from the highway; I figured I’d try to get down there as quickly as possible and hitch a ride back to my car. From the overlook I had seen what appeared to be a river far below and from the map I could tell the river eventually intersected the highway. As a Boy Scout I learned that following a river downstream is often a good way to find civilization when you’re lost, though in this case I knew exactly where I was–I just needed to get out.

After riding just two switchbacks my replacement tube completely gave out, no doubt due to my sloppy tire change. Now I was starting to panic. In a flash I decided I needed to get down to the river where I could at least cool off and maybe fill up my water bottles. Of course drinking water directly from a stream is never a good idea but I figured it might buy me some time to get to my car before the bacteria got to work on my gut. I walked off the trail and into the woods, bike over my shoulders, down toward the stream (mistake #4).

I quickly reached a small tributary of the larger stream I had seen and the shallow puddles of warm, stagnant water felt pretty good on my feet and legs. Still, it was a hard slog and after just a few hundred yards I came to a 20-foot waterfall that forced me to abandon the stream bed. Trudging through the woods I found what appeared to be a path but later turned out to be the edge of a logging area. I decided following the stream wasn’t such a hot idea because if I collapsed here, no one would ever find me. I turned into the logged area, knowing I’d find a road used by the heavy equipment.

I eventually found a very rough fire break that shot straight up the mountain in the direction I needed to go. Even on a great day this would have been a hike-a-bike for me and I found myself struggling to walk more than a few paces at a time. Earlier in the day I saw a sign saying one of the bike trails was closed from 8a-6p on weekdays which led me to believe there might be loggers in the area at this time of day. I started ringing my bike bell in blasts of 3, the universal sign for distress. But I was all alone.

It’s hard to say how long it took me to climb the fire break but I eventually crossed over a section of trail I had ridden earlier in the day which buoyed my spirits a bit. Shortly thereafter I came to a clearing where a huge excavator was parked and I scanned the cab for any liquid I could drink. No luck. From here the fire break turned into a legitimate equipment corridor so I knew I was one step closer to civilization. Still, the road continued to climb and my progress was very slow. I got into a rhythm of walking 10 yards, stopping to sit, then continuing once I caught my breath.

After about half a mile I found myself at the top of a very short descent–more of a saddle really–and decided to try coasting down a bit on my flat tire, rim be damned. It was a struggle to get on the bike but once I was on I realized my chain had slipped and was wedged between the crank and the frame. The crank wouldn’t budge but it didn’t really matter–my decent on a flat tire fizzled before it even got started.

My mouth was perhaps the driest it’s ever felt–I fantasized about filling it with the chalky, dusty dirt on the road and sucking whatever moisture I could from it. My hot breath tasted disgusting–was this the stench of death? I had read countless survival stories about people getting to the point of drinking their own urine and the thought had always sickened me. Now I was imagining how refreshing urine would actually taste.

I was nearing the top of the mountain, far from any sources of water, and my progress continued to slow. Based on the confusion and nausea I had experienced earlier I knew I was in bad shape and was only getting worse. I still wasn’t on a marked road and I knew if I collapsed, no one would find me for days. It was time to call for rescue.

There have been a lot of stories lately about adventurers using GPS devices and cell phones to call for help at the slightest inconvenience on the trail and I knew I didn’t want to call unless it was my last hope. I pulled out my phone and saw that I had one bar–that was all I needed. I dialed 911. When the operator answered I could barely talk, my voice completely dried out from dehydration. I tried to explain that I wasn’t lost or injured but that I had run out of water, my bike was disabled, and I needed help.

After transferring me to a dispatcher, I attempted to give the man the GPS coordinates from my watch but somehow we weren’t using the same coordinate system. Instead he traced my cell phone and got a lock on my position and immediately dispatched firefighters to the area. The jeep road I was on was new so it wasn’t listed on any maps but I was close to a forest road where the firefighters could find me. The dispatcher suggested I was a quarter mile from the forest road and that I should keep heading toward it while he tracked me the whole way.

I eventually made it to the road and stayed on the line as I awaited the firefighters. I collapsed in the dirt, thankful that help was on the way. About 20 minutes into my call I could hear a fire siren coming up the mountain, getting louder and louder. Then, around the bend, came a late model Toyota Camry with a flashing red light stuck on top, the sweaty driver in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. The man hopped out of the car and handed me a bottle of water–sweet relief! In seconds I downed the water as he pulled a Powerade out of the trunk for me. I downed that too before a large pickup truck with two more volunteer firefighters pulled up the road.

After speaking with the guys and a brief physical once-over, I eased into the air conditioned truck while the men loaded my bike in the truck bed, the tire and tube now completely wrapped around my rear axle. I was feeling sick again, this time from drinking too much, too fast. We slowly drove down the dirt road toward the highway and I was shocked at how far I would have had to walk before I would have seen another car. At the pace I was walking it would have taken me until dark, if I was even able to stay moving that long. I had been on the trail four hours and had been walking for more than half that time, covering only a couple miles or so.

The firefighters dropped me off back at my car and asked if I needed medical attention. I declined–I was starting to feel better after getting some liquids back in my system. I couldn’t thank everyone enough and admitted I was embarrassed but they assured me there was nothing to be embarrassed about. Heat stroke is serious business.

Looking back, I definitely made a lot of mistakes on this ride:

  • Riding alone.
  • Riding in the middle of the day on one of the hottest days of the year with little to no heat training.
  • I didn’t have a map or even a vague idea about how long the trail was or how it was configured.
  • I wasn’t carrying enough water. I also should have had some water purification tablets with me.
  • I should have carried an extra tube and/or a patch kit. It would’ve been tough to make another repair but riding down would have been much faster.
  • It was a bad idea to leave the trail to find a shortcut.

Perhaps the smartest thing I did that day was to call 911–I generally have a hard time admitting I need help but this time I swallowed my pride and it was the right call. I’m also glad I turned around when I did–looking at the trailhead map I saw the trail kept going for miles in the wrong direction.

I’m eternally grateful to the firefighters and 911 operators in Stone County, AR who saved me that day by responding so quickly and professionally. Hopefully my story will help others avoid serious injury on the trail this summer and in the future.

This is a long article so I left out several details but feel free to ask me anything in the comments section.

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