Nick Noland had been in the dark for hours, struggling to find his way down snow-covered Mount Shavano.

A flashlight cut through the darkness — a ray of hope for the Colorado Springs man who’d lost the trail after summiting the Chaffee County 14er on Oct. 22.

At one point, higher up on the mountain, he’d stopped and tried covering himself in leaves for warmth. It hadn’t worked. Afraid and in pain, he forced himself to go on.

“It felt like my life bar was draining like in a video game, just sitting there stopping,” Noland told The Gazette from his hospital bed in Denver. “I felt like I was my own best chance to survive and make it out.”

But what Noland thought might be search and rescue teams with whom he’d been communicating sparingly, turned out to be a party of four elk hunters. The hunters shined their lights on Noland’s feet. He didn’t have shoes on.

Noland’s feet, to him, looked like “frozen meat ground on rocks for five miles.”

The hunters pointed Noland in the right direction.

The 34-year-old husband and father would make it to safety, but at a high price.

LISTEN: Find our full interview with Nick Noland on the OutThere Colorado Podcast, Episode 33: Survival at the Cost of Amputation

The start of the hike

The day prior, Noland started out from his campsite near the head of a trail that led to the top of Shavano, a peak that climbs to 14,231 feet.

He started for the summit around 11 a.m., admittedly a late start, particularly with a winter storm bearing down on Colorado.

Though he knew the skies would soon turn dark, Noland had planned ahead for this. He packed headlamps and additional layers, along with plenty of food and water. His expected timeline would have him descending the peak after nightfall, as he would drop down the mountain on the same route he used to ascend.

Noland felt comfortable throughout the climb, even as he entered the snow scraped, rocky terrain near the top of the mountain. With the summit in the distance, he dropped his bag as dusk approached. His plan was to make the final push without the weight of his additional gear in trail runners that would help him move swiftly.

Things took a turn for the worst.

The summit took longer to reach than expected and he was greeted by gale-force winds. The temperature dropped as the sun fell. His winter supplies he now needed had been left behind in his push to reach the top.

Mount Shavano Nick Noland
Nick Noland’s view from the Mount Shavano summit as the sun sets. Courtesy photo.

The fight of his life

Noland, a native of South Carolina, had spent plenty of time in the outdoors.

As an Eagle Scout, Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and peak bagger, Noland knew the importance of preparation and the importance of following safe practices. However, a lapse of judgment had set him on course for the fight of his life.

As Noland started his descent, route-finding in the winter conditions proved difficult. His tracks had been the only ones on the mountain he could find. That trail soon faded.

He could see the nearby town of Salida in the distance, so Noland made a turn in that direction. He later estimated the turn was about 20 feet too early.

Noland used his dying phone to call his father with a simple message.

“I’m not sure where I am, but I know where I’m going,” he told his father. “I think I’m off the trail, but I think I can find my way back.”

Also in communication with local search and rescue, Noland was told to stay put after reaching 13,000 feet, with help on the way. But the wind chill was too unbearable and given his lack of winter gear, he was too exposed. Haunted by the thought of what might happen if he had to spend the night on mountain, he pushed on.

Noland’s feet quickly became numb, so numb that he failed to notice losing his first shoe.

“I couldn’t really tell the difference between the foot with the shoe on and the foot without the shoe on,” Noland said.

He “took advantage” of this lack of feeling, pushing onward down the mountain through a rockfield and a snowfield, entering a section of treefall that filled a gulch. This prompted him to keep his trajectory tight, following a straight line of 15 feet repeatedly, squeezing past countless branches and downed limbs. Around midnight, his phone died, taking his line of communication and light source with it.

Knowing that crews were looking for him, Noland started screaming for help as loud as he could every few minutes. He would never hear a response — the search teams were on a different part of the peak.

Noland heard water, so he followed that sound in the hope that it would mean the path of least resistance. A misplaced step punched his foot through leaves covering the small stream, at which point he realized that both shoes were gone.

His feet felt like ice blocks covered in only socks.

As Noland moved faster down the mountain, he had no clue where he was or how far he had to go.

A guiding light

Noland didn’t stop moving as he made his trek down the peak. He knew what would happen if he stopped.

When he thought about stopping, he thought about friends who had recently passed in accidents or through suicide.

“I had the unfortunate experience of seeing some of my friends, my age, die in the past couple of years,” Noland said. “I wanted to honor their lives that they couldn’t live by pushing forward.”

Noland was also driven by thoughts of his children, 1 and 3, and his wife, Maggie, as well as his parents and his extended family.

“My legs pushed themselves,” he said. “I didn’t have to think too hard about it.”

When the moon appeared around 3 a.m., it guided Noland over creeks and through tight trees. At one point, he stepped in water again. He felt the sensation of the water, but couldn’t feel whether the water was cold.

As Noland pressed on, he managed to stumble across the Colorado trail. He took a right turn, knowing that it would take him either toward a road or a trailhead.

He saw the hunters and got a look at his feet, his shredded skin dragging behind his steps.

As they pointed Noland to the short path that would lead to the trailhead parking and his car, Noland felt relief. He laughed and joked with the hunters, forming his plan of recovery. He knew he had survived.

His plan was to reach his car and bundle up with every blanket he had in the backseat, sleeping it off before heading into town for a hot drink and making the trip home.

After contacting search and rescue from his vehicle, the crews felt the need to send an ambulance anyway. When the ambulance arrived, the emotions started to hit Noland.

“I realized how close I was to being on the bad end of a search and rescue,” Noland said.

Soon feeling “giddy” in the Salida emergency room, a medical team injected Noland with powerful blood thinners to start circulation in frozen tissue. He was then transferred to Aurora for more intensive care from the UC Health Burn Center.

He soon learned how bad it was.

Noland had black toes on his left foot and a severely damaged heel. His right foot fared better, swollen to a purplish red. Sepsis set in, skewing Noland’s perception of time and ability to communicate with the medical staff. He writhed and clawed at the bed, speaking incoherently without food and water in a presurgery fast. In unbearable pain and close to losing consciousness, Noland was put under.

When he woke up, he was confused. He was conscious, but tied to his hospital bed. When he looked down, he had no feet.

“It’s been one of those things where I can’t believe it’s real and it’s happening,” he said. “We hope for the best and then we have to deal with reality.”

Nick Noland amputation
This photo shows Nick Noland’s legs following amputation. Courtesy photo.

The road to recovery

Noland’s recovery will stretch toward the end of the year, at which point he’ll start training with prosthetics. He’s excited to test out some “new tools,” designed to keep the outdoors accessible .

The searing burn left behind from the amputation will fade, but the “phantom pain” will likely linger for years. He compares it to a “bolt of lightning” that will shoot across his ankles, despite his ankles being gone.

Noland plans to keep hiking, hitting the slopes, and climbing, now with a new mindset and a newfound respect and reverence for the outdoors.

Noland knows he made mistakes on Mount Shavano.

He wants his story to become part of the dialogue related to promoting mountain safety and preparedness within Colorado’s outdoor recreation community.

“It’s about managing the risk and maximizing the fun,” Noland said. “And the way to do that is by doing a lot of research, but also by getting a good guide and learning to experience in a gradual way. Having someone more experienced with you will help you because they’ll catch the dangerous situation far before you would.”

Noland also finds that pride is an easy pitfall. As the final goal gets nearer, he thinks it becomes more difficult to turn back despite the imminent consequences of pushing on.

“This seems to put people in danger a whole lot, where you think you’re so close to the end, or so close to your goal at the top that you sacrifice wisdom for momentary glory,” he said. “And then you end up paying for it.”

A donation page on mealtrain.com has been set up to help the Noland family. More than $16,000 had been raised as of 10 p.m. Sunday night.

LISTEN: Find our full interview with Nick Noland on the OutThere Colorado Podcast, Episode 33: Survival at the Cost of Amputation

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