Rescued Summit County hiker recounts how he survived 80 hours lost in Colorado 14er backcountry
The nights were long, frigid and he barely slept, but all the while Shuei Kato just tried to maintain his usual even-keeled nature, subconsciously relying on the belief that his abilities to problem solve would eventually bring him home.
With little more than a day’s worth of supplies and perhaps slightly more gear than that of a typical afternoon hiker, the Wildernest resident managed to overcome roughly 80 hours in the backcountry and not only live, but suffer little more than some minor soreness and swelling. The 36-year-old husband and father of two acknowledged pessimism occasionally surfaced after getting lost during a trek up the 14,000-foot peak Missouri Mountain in Chaffee County this past Saturday. However, he said he couldn’t let notions of failing to make it out of the forest cloud his mind or his judgment. The energy was much better spent coming up with solutions.
“All kinds of negative thoughts come down when you stop thinking, or when you stop moving,” said Kato. “I thought about it, that I might be done. But I’m like, ‘I’ve got to survive. If I’m out of options, I’m dead, so I’ve got to always come up with new options and possibilities for what can I do.'”
A fully depleted cellphone battery, no map or compass and no way to flag the rescue mission helicopters he could see and hear — the challenges kept coming. Perhaps from the lack of sleep and calories, Kato even said he began to hallucinate at points by the second night, beginning to convince himself the movement of trees from the wind and sound of a nearby stream were actually people moving and talking.
The overnight snowfall and whiteout conditions Monday night only added to the obstacles, particularly for the expansive search team that had to postpone its operation to locate Kato to Tuesday morning due to avalanche concerns on the arduous terrain. At about 11:15 a.m. on Saturday, after summiting the 15th Colorado “14er” of his career, he got way off course trying to get back to his car at the Missouri Gulch trailhead and accidentally exited the backside of the peak, ending up in a valley near Mount Harvard several miles away across from where the search primarily focused its early efforts.
“I had seen it flying by at least 100 times, very close,” he said of one of the helicopters during the search Sunday. “And the next day there was no helicopter, so I thought the rescue had ended. So I thought that third day that I’ve really got to move. I’ve got to think and move and I’ve got to do something.”
He said water, not food, was his biggest concern, but with a flowing stream close by, he made consistent hydration a chief objective and that persisted in not allowing hope to be lost. Otherwise sheer instinct took over and Kato continued to try and figure out where he was.
“I was thinking as long as I have tons of water, I should be good,” he said. “When my body went into survival mode, I didn’t really eat. I could go miles without feeling the hunger. I was eating little by little very conservatively, although the third day, the very cold night, that was very, very tough, and I probably had a super low blood-sugar level.”
For what turned out to be his final night exposed to the elements, he used basic survival skills he’d learned from personal research and past experience as an instructor with the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park to keep warm. He tore off pine branches to create bedding and then more to cover himself to brave the subzero temperatures.
“It was a roller-coaster ride of emotions with me,” said his wife Valerie. “I said, ‘I know Shuei and if he’s not hurt, he’s definitely out there somewhere alive.’ So I did have hope, but it was dwindling for sure.”
Getting through the night on a piece of chocolate each hour to stay awake and avoid freezing to death, Kato decided the limp he’d developed from a right shin injury after walking what he estimates to be 50 miles over three days would hinder him enough to call for a new strategy. He’d again try to build a fire with the Jetboil he’d packed after an unsuccessful attempt on Monday night due to snow and gusty winds.
Unbeknownst to him, the search party was back at it Tuesday morning. The flames he was able to generate then registered a heat signature with a helicopter from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control’s multi-mission aircraft around noon. They had found him.
“Finally,” Kato recalled. “That same helicopter probably passed by 10 times that day. But I was really glad when the rescue came, because I didn’t want to walk. I didn’t know how long it was going to take.”
Medical staff checked him out on the flight to Buena Vista and he subsequently declined to go to the hospital for what amounted to faint sunburn and chapped lips. By continuing to walk, staying mostly dry with layers and periodically rubbing out his muscles and feet to keep blood flowing, he dodged any frostbite.
Soon after his rescue, he was reunited with Valerie and his two young boys, 3-year-old Kota and 7-year-old Reo. Kato promised his wife of a decade he’d never go out hiking alone again, though he does plan to return to Missouri Mountain next summer — with plenty of friends — to try and understand where he went wrong and to learn from the nearly fatal mistake.
Kato said he’s incredibly thankful to all the rescuers and community members who stepped up to provide comfort and optimism for his family while he was lost. And if nothing else, his respect for nature and the risks it presents has grown considerably.
“It was beautiful, and tough,” he reflected, the remnants of his sunburn still visible around his nose and cheeks. “The stars were so pretty, the mountains so pretty, but it wasn’t that good a feeling. There were shooting stars all over the place, but I kept wishing I wasn’t here looking at this.”
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