As Vito Seskunas lingered over a cup of morning coffee in a Jackson, Wyo., restau- rant in early April, he thought about what lay just ahead: Five days of skiing in the ruggedly beautiful Teton mountain range. Four nights of curling up in his sleeping bag with only the distant stars for company. The perfect vacation was about to begin.
He'd be far away from the commercial slopes that drew so many skiers West, away from shops and televisions and hotels. None of that appealed to Seskunas. What he craved was the glorious open country of Wyoming - and the solitude it promised.
The area he would soon enter was filled with copper-and-red rock walls, frozen lakes and lush pine trees that hid wolves and bears. It was so different from the urban landscape of his childhood. Growing up in West Baltimore, Seskunas' explorations were limited to the alleys of his neighborhood. His father and mother, immigrants from Lithuania, worked as a tailor and factory worker, and couldn't afford a car.
Seskunas, an only child, learned at a young age how to amuse himself. His days were a blur of baseball and school and foot races against friends. But adventure filled his nights. Lying in bed in his brick rowhouse near Union Square, he lost himself in books. His favorites were about explorers - people who journeyed to far-off places the city boy could only dream about.
But nothing he read could prepare him for his first glimpse of the Bavarian Alps. He was a new Army soldier, stationed in Munich, Germany, and suddenly, right in front of him, were forests and soaring hawks and ice-cold streams. Every chance he got, he laced up his hiking boots and disappeared.
When he left the Army, eventually settling in Towson and taking a job as an administrator for the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, he spent weekends discovering the nearby trails of Prettyboy Reservoir and the Gunpowder River Watershed. Once a year, he and a buddy planned bigger adventures: to the Canadian Rockies, Swiss Alps and California's Sierra Nevadas. This year the canyons of Wyoming had beckoned.
But a few weeks before the trip, his friend had to back out. Seskunas' wife, Kristine, wanted him to stay home, too. She worried when he camped overnight in Virginia. But five days in Wyoming? They argued heatedly. Kris knew her husband was no thrill-seeking teen-ager; he was a 53-year-old father of two. Why did he still need to do this?
It was hard for Seskunas to describe the exhilaration that filled him when he skied down a pristine expanse of snow, weaving through an obstacle course of trees, or when, at the end of a day, his body exhausted and his mind at peace, he saw the Orion constellation with its unmistakable outline of a hunter drawing his bow. But in the end, he didn't have to explain: Even in her anger, Kris understood.
He'd promised to call her as soon as he emerged from the wilderness. Now it was Tuesday, April 11, and time to get started. Seskunas took a final sip of coffee and left the restaurant. He drove his rental car to a trail that led into the canyon he'd picked because of its seemingly straightforward terrain, despite its foreboding name. He put on cross-country skis, hoisted his 55-pound backpack and set off toward Death Canyon.
A good beginning
The weather was ideal. Sunny, in the low 30s, with few clouds. The forecast on the ranger's station chalkboard had predicted good weather through Friday but snow on Saturday.
Seskunas moved quickly down the empty main trail that led to an offshoot for the canyon. By 10 a.m. he'd covered three miles of the wide, gently ascending trail and reached the turnoff. To his left was Jackson Hole, and far below at the bottom of the canyon shimmered Phelps Lake, a silver pool flanked by massive, pine-covered ridges.
Now the trail grew more rugged. He zig-zagged through a set of descending switchbacks, then through an open area with debris from old avalanches. At noon, he reached into his pack for Gouda cheese, pepperoni and the spiral notepad he'd used as a trip journal for more than a decade. "Looks like a straightforward traverse, threading around the occasional cliff," he wrote. "Enjoying the stillness, sun, perfect clouds."
The morning of exertion hadn't winded Seskunas. Three decades of intense physical activity had kept him as trim and fit as his sons. Only his graying beard and the sun-baked wrinkles around his bright blue eyes revealed his age.
At about 2 p.m. he tackled a climb that led to a level area 1,200 feet above the canyon floor. He would set up camp there. He was so close - just another 20 minutes. A small ravine appeared, and he skied down it, gathering momentum to carry him up the other side.
Something was wrong with the snow at the bottom of the ravine. It felt like sludgy concrete.
His right ski kept moving, but the left one buried itself. His 170-pound body and pack slammed forward, but his ankle was trapped.
He heard a bone snap.
Seskunas instinctively dropped his pack and sat down. He released the binding on his jammed ski and freed his leg. He tried to flex his left foot, but it only dangled loosely. He let out a string of curses as he realized his ankle was broken badly.
He had to think clearly. First, get out of the ravine. His ankle was immobilized by his heavy boot, and the pain wasn't intense. He could slide on his backside and keep the weight off his left leg. Digging into the snow for handholds, he dragged himself up.
He glanced around the empty expanse of canyon, searching for help he knew wouldn't be found. He blew his emergency whistle, the shrill peal echoing in the vast space. The isolation he'd yearned for had betrayed him.
A noise in the night
He had to decide: Should he struggle to find help or wait and hope it found him?
He knew panic was his enemy. It was too late and he was too tired to do anything now. He'd decide tomorrow.
He pulled out his tent and, crawling on his knees, managed to erect it. Next he set up his small stove and unzipped his sleeping bag. He left his ski boot on; if he took it off and the foot swelled, he might not be able to get it back on. Tonight he'd make himself as comfortable as possible. He'd gather his strength.
Before turning in, he pulled out his journal. "Why didn't I sidestep or take time as usual?" he wrote. "No thought. Left foot has no control. ... A long, long night. What to do in the morning?"
Sleep was elusive, but he finally drifted off.
Footsteps woke him. Something was just outside his tent. Something much larger than a raccoon or squirrel.
He fumbled for his ski poles and jabbed at the walls of the tent. Noise, he needed to make noise! He hollered and clanked the metal clips on his poles together.
The animal moved away, but it was a long time before Seskunas slept again.
Should he stay or go?
If he stayed, the animal might come back, growing bolder with each passing night.
Rangers probably wouldn't start looking for him until Sunday. The forecast called for snow Saturday. An inch or a blizzard? The chalkboard hadn't specified. A storm could delay rescue efforts.
That was especially worrisome, because this morning he'd noticed a circle of red in the white snow. Blood was dripping from his boot. Bone must be protruding through his skin.
He knew a little about shock and infection - enough to know he needed medical attention soon. As more blood seeped out of his wound, his body would draw the dwindling blood supply away from his extremities to preserve his internal organs. First his fingers and toes would grow numb, then his arms and legs. Next his organs would start to shut down - the kidneys, liver, and finally the heart and brain.
Waiting might help him preserve his strength, but it was a frightening prospect; he was accustomed to action. He couldn't let fear nudge him toward the wrong choice, though. He repeatedly reviewed the reasons for going, searching for flaws. It was the best option, he finally decided.
He cooked a breakfast of oatmeal and hot cocoa, then listed everything he'd need: backpack, lunch food, wallet, car keys, journal, water bottle, vest, ski pants, down jacket.
He stared at the list. Carrying that much would slow him way down. What was essential?
Car keys. And the journal. On its first page, so faded it was hard to read, was an entry by his son Adam. Adam had been just 10 when he'd recorded the important things that happened on one of his first camping trips: Finding a rock shaped like an eagle, drinking hot Jell-O and listening to his father read "The Wind in the Willows."
He couldn't leave it behind.
If all went well, the journey back should take three days, he calculated. He'd eat snow to avoid dehydration. He tucked three fruit-flavored SnackWell bars into his pocket. They would sustain him. His long underwear, wind pants and parka would keep him warm enough. If all went well.
At 8:30 a.m., he set off. The snow was packed firmly and he could limp, using his poles as crutches. But the rising sun softened the snow and soon he sunk to his knees.
He couldn't walk, and he couldn't crawl. But there was one way he could move. He sat down with his legs stretched out in front of him and pushed off with a powerful thrust of his shoulders and arms, bending his knees as he moved. The motion netted him perhaps a yard.
He took a deep breath and did it again. And again. One, two, three, he counted silently.
At 100, he stopped and tucked his chilled fingers under his armpits. His ankle ached dully and every time he jarred it a shock of pain shot through him. The distance he'd covered seemed minute.
He couldn't think about that. If he let fatigue and despair overtake him, it would mean giving up. To survive, he had to empty his mind of everything extraneous, focusing only on the count. He'd allow himself one luxury: Every 100 paces, he'd take a quick break and think about his family.
Kris. What was she doing right now? He pictured her at her job in the library of Chesapeake High School, chatting with students, smiling the warm smile that caught his eye so long ago. He loved the way she drew people to her. He wasn't the type of man who was comfortable with flowery sentiments, but when he thought about his wife, the first thing that came to mind was this: She was the heart of their home.One, two ... 100. Adam. He'd be in hydrology class at Frostburg State University. Seskunas had been so pleased when Adam decided to major in Earth Sciences. Through the years, father and son had spent dozens of hours talking about geology and meteorolgy. Now when they hiked together, it was Adam who was the teacher.
Drew. He'd be strolling across campus at the University of Maryland, College Park, the same school where his parents had met as undergraduates. Drew, who was studying architecture, had also inherited his father's love of the outdoors - it was his backpack now strapped to Seskunas' shoulders.
Penny. He couldn't leave out his gentle, copper-colored mutt, or Blackjack the cat.
So many reasons to get home.
At 3:30 p.m, he had to stop. He found a pine tree with a thick layer of fallen needles at its base. He pulled off boughs to cover himself and curled into a ball. Before he fell asleep, he pulled a photograph out of his journal and stared at his family's faces.
Violent shivers racked his body and awoke him. He couldn't think about the cold or predators. He had to focus on ... on what? Night clouds hid the stars; there wasn't anything to see. He thought about his wife and sons, his home - everything in his life that was warm and good - until peace enveloped him and he slept again.
Beware wrong moves
Thursday morning. He wasn't terribly sore, his ankle felt no worse and the sun was shining.
But blood still dripped from his boot in slow, heavy drops.
All morning he wove through a wooded area. Then came a welcome sight: The zig-zagging switchbacks leading uphill to the main trail. He needed to make it up before nightfall; no pine trees were nearby.
He was still hours from the top when a raindrop landed nearby. Then it began sleeting. He stared at his watch: The barometer was dropping, indicating an approaching storm. This wasn't supposed to happen.
He was totally exposed.
He pushed away from the fear, but the sleet turned to snow. His body moved methodically as he fought to keep his mind from spinning. The barometer on his watch continued its plunge.
Voices! Did he hear voices?
Far below him was Phelps Lake. People might be camping there. Nearby a smooth, long slope led directly to the lake. He could just glide down.
No! What if no one was there? He'd be set back a day or more.
But if a major storm was coming, he'd be dead.
He couldn't afford another mistake.
Friday morning dawned clear and cold. The snow had only amounted to a light sprinkling. He'd chosen correctly.
Before huddling under another pine tree for the night, he'd reached the junction with the main trail and covered several hundred more yards. He'd traveled a total of about 2 1/2 miles.
He was only halfway to his car.
This was the final day he'd allotted for the journey. Snow was expected Saturday - tomorrow.
His arms and shoulders ached, but not too badly. His fingers, bearing the brunt of the work of propelling his body forward, were bruised and sore but still strong. Sometimes, in preparation for rock-climbing trips, Seskunas slipped outside on his lunch hour at work and scaled the brick wall of his office building. All his training was paying off.
But there was one thing he couldn't control. As methodically as the ticking of a clock, blood still leaked from his boot, leaving quarter-sized marks in the snow.
He couldn't think about that; it was time to move. He counted to 100 again and again, until the numbers blurred and lost all meaning. He saw Kris in their light-filled home in Towson, watched Drew play guitar in his dorm room, then envisioned Adam sipping a beer at the bar near the house he shared with a group of guys.
He'd kill for a beer, but a Coke would taste better. When he finally reached the car he'd get some before heading to the hospital. But first he'd blast the heater on his frozen fingers. ... He wrenched his mind away from the distraction.
Everything he loved about the outdoors was working against him. Usually he could almost feel his mind expanding as he worked his way deeper into the wilderness and the surrounding beauty inspired him. Now he couldn't allow his mind to wander for a moment. He had to muster every scrap of energy, every ounce of discipline and channel it into that next awkward shuffle forward.
How much further? Two hours, four?
It was 10:30 p.m. and he was worried he'd fall asleep in the middle of the trail. He wouldn't make it out tonight.
As Seskunas lay curled under another pine tree, his wife lay in bed, thinking about the movie she'd just seen. It was about a man who'd lost his wife in a car crash.
She'd been right to let her husband go to Wyoming, Kris realized. How could she keep him from something he loved, when accidents could happen anywhere, at any time?
One of the things she admired about her husband was his passion for doing everything to the fullest. Instead of jogging, he ran marathons. He enjoyed music, so he'd written a hundred different melodies for his guitar - and even put together a CD entitled "Edgewood" with songs about the mountains and sky and snowfall.
She wouldn't want to change him, but the movie had made her miss him all the more. She couldn't wait to hear his voice again.
Spurred to move
It was light out. He could lay here a little longer, just until it warmed up, just to rest his aching shoulders and arms, just for another minute ...
His body was beginning to fail. Bacteria from his infected ankle was coursing through his bloodstream. His kidneys were shutting down. His liver was compromised.
He forced open his eyes and slid forward. He'd never thought about leaving a goodbye note in his journal and giving up. He came here seeking solitude, but his family was saving him. Their faces spurred him on, through the cold, through the pain, until, in the distance, he finally saw something.
A man and woman, coming toward him.
He didn't stop moving until he reached them. The woman covered him with her coat and offered him food while the man went for help. Soon a ranger on a snowmobile roared around a bend, dragging a medical litter.
At St. John's hospital in Jackson, the most agonizing moment came when doctors had to yank off his boot. They were worried he'd lose his foot and wanted to operate immediately to cut out infected tissue, but Seskunas insisted on making a phone call first.
It was Saturday, and his wife was expecting his call.
"Hi, honey," he began. "I've got good news and bad news ..."
What might have been
Several surgeries later, and after his condition stabilized, Seskunas was transferred to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where skin was grafted from his back onto his leg. He continues to undergo physical therapy, and doctors are guardedly optimistic he'll regain most of the function of his left foot and ankle.
Seskunas learned that had he waited for help, it might not have arrived in time. One doctor estimated he had perhaps six hours left when he was found Saturday morning, a few hundred yards from his car. A forest ranger also told him that when he went to retrieve the backpack and tent, he'd seen fresh wolverine tracks encircling it.
Less than two months after his accident, with his wife's blessing, Seskunas went hiking at Prettyboy Reservoir - this time, on crutches.