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Lost hiker recounts story of surviving surprise snowstorm in ND Badlands for 25 hours

Mar 31, 2018 06:35AM ● By Editor
Walker Wadkins describes how he survived 25 hours in a snowstorm in the Badlands near Medora, N.D., earlier this month.  Photo Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

By Amy Dalrymple of the Bismarck Tribune on March 30, 2018

MEDORA, N.D.—After surviving 25 hours in a recent snowstorm in the western North Dakota Badlands, hiker Walker Wadkins is working on a thank-you letter to the makers of duct tape.

The Florida native set out on what he thought would be a two-hour hike the afternoon of March 18, exploring the canyon near a home southwest of Medora where he is staying.

"I could have stayed out there all day," said Wadkins, who is preparing to spend his second season working for Bully Pulpit Golf Course. "I love wilderness, I love camping, I love being outdoors. A Florida boy doesn't get to hike in the snow very often."

His hike ended up prompting a rescue operation, but not before the 33-year-old experienced an adventure that allowed him to test his survival skills.

As Wadkins started to retrace his steps, he struggled to find his way back. Snow began to fall, dropping about 8 inches while he remained out in the elements, making landmarks unrecognizable.

"The storm had moved in so fast," Wadkins recounted this week. "I couldn't see more than 200 yards."

Walker had dressed warmly that afternoon and brought with him a water bottle, two pieces of apple pie, a basic first aid kit, bandaids, matches, a Bic lighter and a notebook. He also left in his backpack a roll of duct tape.

"That decision may have been what kept my toes on my feet," he said.

Wadkins did not bring his cell phone on the hike because service is spotty in that area.

He continued hiking up and down steep ridges, attempting to find his way back. As daylight began to fade, Wadkins recalled lessons he learned in survival and primitive camping classes.

"I remembered the first rule in survival is to not panic," said Wadkins, who once worked as an adventure photographer and guide in a North Carolina forest.

As temperatures dropped to the mid-20s, Wadkins sought refuge in a small cave, large enough to shelter the top half of his body while his legs hung out.

He attempted to start a fire in the cave using the notebook paper, but it was so wet and muddy that he could only get a small bed of coals going.

His two pairs of socks were wet from snow getting into his boots, and Wadkins began to lose feeling in his left big toe. He used the duct tape from his backpack to carefully wrap his feet, then put his socks and boots back on.

"I never worried about my feet after that," he said.

Throughout the night, Wadkins would yell every 15 minutes in case people were out looking for him and in an attempt to scare away animals. He also prayed.

"When I did pray, right afterwards I'd get this amazing feeling of peace, warmth, comfort," he said. "I trusted in God and the little bit of skills and the bare necessities that I had out there that I was going to be OK."

In the morning, the blanket of snow made everything look different as he trudged through knee-high and waist-high snow.

His gloves were wet and caked with mud, he was eating snow because he had run out of water and he'd eaten the last of his apple pie.

Just as he was starting to feel defeat, Wadkins spotted a cabin in the distance. He set off toward the cabin, going up and down steep hills and crawling through a barbed wire fence before reaching it.

"I had so much adrenaline going, and so much hope, I didn't feel that my feet and my hands were going in the snow," he recalled.

Wadkins used his walking stick to break into the unoccupied cabin, struggling to open the door because his hands were shaking uncontrollably. Inside, he found some dry clothes, turned on the heat and made coffee. He also attempted to make pancakes using mix he found in the pantry and snow.

Around 2 p.m. March 19, about 25 hours after he started the hike, a rescue crew including the Billings County sheriff pulled up to the cabin.

"He was in pretty good shape for being out there as long as he was," said Billings County Sheriff Pat Rummel.

Wadkins didn't tell anyone he was going hiking, but the Rev. Roger Dieterle, whom Wadkins was staying with, had figured out that something must be wrong because Wadkins had left behind his cell phone, wallet and car.

Dieterle called authorities Sunday evening and again Monday morning, worried that Wadkins had gotten injured while hiking.

A crew of about 15 people joined the search effort, including the Billings County Sheriff's Office, Belfield police, ambulance and fire personnel and local residents familiar with the area, Rummel said. The civil air patrol also had been contacted to do an aerial search of the rugged terrain.

"I was very impressed with how they did it," Dieterle said. "They took the resident's call for help seriously."

Wadkins sought medical attention at the clinic in Beach. He suffered some frostbite and he still lacked feeling in his fingertips nearly two weeks later. Wadkins said he's grateful that Dieterle had the instincts to seek help and that first responders found him so quickly.

"If I was an outsider looking at this, I would say 'That guy's an idiot. He deserved to be lost out there,'" Wadkins said.

This summer, Wadkins said he hopes to retrace the steps of his adventure. But he plans to always be prepared, including letting someone know where he is hiking and when he expects to return.

"I didn't think that the worst-case scenario could happen, and it certainly did," Wadkins said.

Wadkins, who plans to reimburse the cabin owner for the damage, said the whole ordeal has left him re-energized.

"It made me realize that you can push yourself further and beyond than what you think you're capable of," he said. "It's given me great strength and courage to take on my fears."