WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- For most hikers, getting lost is their worst nightmare. For Ian Sarmento, getting lost was nearly a death sentence.
Mr. Sarmento, 21, a 2008 graduate of Twin Valley High School, survived for 10 days in waist-high snow and subfreezing temperatures last month after losing his way hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail near Stehekin, Wash. For the last six of those days, he had no food.
"I felt I just couldn't give up hope," Mr. Sarmento said. "I didn't want to just lie down and die. I could feel myself getting weak and I had to ration after the first day in the canyon. My body started burning fat for energy after I didn't have food for so long. But I knew that if I could at least move, I wouldn't starve to death."
Mr. Sarmento, who lives in Honey Brook, Chester County, with his mother, Jeanne, followed advice given by experts -- if you get lost, stay where you are and wait for help. Problem was that Mr. Sarmento was hiking alone and no one knew he was in trouble until he failed to get his pack of supplies at Stehekin. By that time, Mr. Sarmento was hopelessly lost and out of food.
Mr. Sarmento's journey began May 15, after he set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663-mile journey that starts in Mexico and ends in southern Canada. He felt confident about the solo hike after completing the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail in 2008.
The first few months the weather was mostly good and Mr. Sarmento found the going easy. He kept provisions in his 60-pound backpack, but had no communication with the outside world because cell phone service doesn't exist on the trail, which has peaks more than 5,000 feet high. But when he hit the mid-Washington portion of the trail, the weather started to turn. When he got to Glacier Peak, he passed two hikers waiting out the weather in tents.
The hikers, who call themselves Storytime and Bouncer, were the last to see Mr. Sarmento. It was at 3 p.m. Oct. 19 at Ward's Gap.
"It was raining all day and [Mr. Sarmento] seemed in good shape wanting to continue," Storytime said. "We tried to talk him into camping with us and trying the passes the next day -- Indian Pass, White Pass then Red Pass. He chose to keep going."
Mr. Sarmento stayed on the Pacific Crest Trail hoping to cross Fire Creek Pass, and camp by Milk Creek. But by nightfall, he lost the trail where it crosses Glacier Creek. He dug in next to a boulder, and by the morning, a fresh 4 inches of snow had fallen. There were no signs of any trails.
"The ridge dropped steeply down in front of me," Mr. Sarmento said. "To my left was a steep, treacherous pass, with cliffs and glaciers, and to my right the ridge gradually descended until there were no trees. I couldn't cross the pass and I didn't want to slide down the canyon ahead. I didn't want to backtrack, so I tucked down the ridge to my right hoping to find a sign of the trail once I got into the trees."
Mr. Sarmento continued to look for any sign of a trail and found a flattened area with a patch of small trees under the weight of snow in a canyon.
That would be his home for the next 10 days.
The first few days, Mr. Sarmento rationed what little food he had left, and limited his intake to 300 to 500 calories. During the day, it would often snow. Temperatures were in the 20s most days, and dipped into the low teens at night. Mr. Sarmento hunkered down in his tent and spent most of his time trying to stay dry.
"I lost confidence, and there were times I thought I wouldn't make it," Mr. Sarmento said.
But he stayed put hoping help would arrive.
"I waited, and waited, and waited, and starved and froze, and waited," he said.
The first six nights in the canyon were very cold, Mr. Sarmento said. The snow would melt a little during the day but be replenished at night with new snow. This type of weather made walking out impossible.
There was a nearby water source, so water wasn't too much of a problem.
But after the ninth night, Mr. Sarmento made a decision that ultimately saved his life. Weak and dehydrated, he decided to try to walk out. "I wasn't going to die lying in a nylon coffin in that God-forsaken canyon I had grown to detest," he said.
The skies were clear and the snow had abated. He didn't know what to expect and had no idea where he was going.
On day 10, weak, dehydrated and hungry, Mr. Sarmento began walking down a ridge looking for a trail -- any trail.
When Mr. Sarmento found the trail, it led him to Stehekin.
"When I arrived in Stehekin, I found I lost 18 pounds, and I was extremely sore and a little disoriented."
His first meal after not eating for so long came from the pack he had sent himself. It was rice, pasta and a can of Spam -- the best he ever tasted, he said.
After resting, Mr. Sarmento decided he had gone through too much to give up. He hiked the rest of the way into Canada, where the Pacific Coast Trail ended. He finished on Nov. 11.
"I learned more in those last two weeks of the hike than I have ever learned before," he said. "Now, I have an appreciation of life and more faith in my ability."