An unlikely tale of winter survival and a very fortuitous toilet.

In the wilderness, when misfortune strikes, one never knows what form sanctuary might take.

Perhaps it’s a pack of Lazy Frog bar matches found deep within the confines of your pocket. Or, maybe, it’s that trusty pocket knife you forgot to take out of your jeans that ends up saving you from certain starvation.

For two Vail, Colorado girls, it was nothing so conventional. It wasn’t a tent or a GPS, a space blanket or a fire striker (though, they probably could have used all of those). Their saving grace came in the form of a remote outhouse — a toilet that saved their lives. Now, they’ve come forward with their story, so that others might learn from the harrowing experience. 

Lauren and Patricia, two avid hikers and adventure gals, had a plan. It was February, and they wanted to get out and away from civilization for the weekend. So they’d booked out the Polar Star Inn, a 10th Mountain Division hut on the west side of New York Mountain. It was sure to be a weekend full of fun and exercise, full of snow and fresh air, fireside comfort, and even, possibly, romance.

But unfortunately for them, Mother Nature had other plans.   

 The hike began as so many do: with hope and gusto and naiveté. Patricia and Lauren began the adventure by leaving their car and the safety of the parking lot for the winter wonderland beyond. They were equipped with only the clothes on their backs and the snowshoes on their feet. After all, they’d be staying the night in one of Colorado’s infamously cozy backcountry huts — where there would be comfortable beds, wrought iron wood stoves, a full kitchen, and even a sauna. No need to lug up loads of camping gear, they thought. 

About a mile in it began to snow.

“It was a full on whiteout,” says Lauren. “Which doesn’t normally stop us.”

And it didn’t this time, either. They had anticipated weather — a little snow on a winter hut trip is no deal breaker. In fact, it’s expected. 

So on they trudged, despite the fat snowflakes coming down in torrents, covering up their tracks, and limiting visibility to an unsettling degree. Thoughts of the warm wooden hut and a steamy sauna running through their heads with each passing step. 

Things were fine. Right up until they came upon a fork in the path. 

“We had a very detailed description of where to go,” says Lauren. “But we thought we had already made the left turn described in the directions. It was kind of confusing.”

“We did have a conflict of interests,” admits Patricia, who had done the same hike earlier in the summer. “But I had a little mental dialogue: ‘You know something,’ I thought, ‘you need to honor other people’s perspectives. Don’t always be stubborn. Trust Lauren.’”

“And at the same time,” Lauren quips, “I was thinking, ‘Is Patricia right?’” 

It was a classic dilemma. One of those moments that, on a whim or a hunch, changes everything. Which is exactly what happened. 

After several moments of debate and a confused examination of their topo map, they decided to go right.

Anyone who hikes to a 10th Mountain Division hut in the wintertime understands that following the trail in a snowstorm can be tricky. The paths are indicated only with blue plastic diamonds nailed to pine trees. Otherwise, there are very few markers and often limited visibility. 

Hours went by, as did the miles and many blue diamonds; and the storm slowly worsened. Though they were following a 10th Mountain trail, there was no sign of the Polar Star Inn. The afternoon light was beginning to fade into evening darkness. And the temperature was dropping quickly with it. 

“The whole time, as we kept hiking, it just felt wrong,” recalls Patricia. 

And, wrong it was. But there was no way to tell that. So, on and on they hiked — deeper and deeper into the wild, deeper and deeper into the night. 

By the time darkness was complete, their fun weekend getaway had become a serious survival situation. They were lost. And the frigid winter temperatures were starting to pierce their coats.

“I realized, this is dangerous,” adds Patricia. “And I had this moment where everything just kind of overwhelmed me.”

Death — though far from certain — was beginning to look more and more like a real possibility. 

That was when fate interjected. 

Everyone has had emergency bathroom situations, times when, if an open restroom didn’t present itself, the real possibility of wet pants is faced … or worse. But few have ever felt the kind of total relief Patricia and Lauren say they felt when stumbling upon a lone outhouse. It was partially filled with snow, but it had four walls and a door — perhaps the only such structure (besides their original destination) for miles. 

“I was so thankful,” confesses Lauren. “I’d never been so happy. I felt like there was someone watching over us.”

The two girls immediately shoveled out the snow within the outhouse, crammed inside and shut the door. They were safe — though, not yet out of the woods. 

What followed was, they both agree, the most miserable night of both their lives. The outhouse was far from sealed, and a freezing draft blew through the cracks in the door. Luckily, because of the freezing temperatures, most of the “substance” in the hole was frozen. However, any music festival attendee knows, a haphazardly placed bathroom isn’t a place for comfort. Get in, get out. 

But they had a roof. And they had each other. And, while their sleeping bags were wet for lack of ground pads, and their spirits dampened for lack of hope, they were kept warm on some level by gratitude — deep, unyielding thankfulness that the universe, or a god, or simple dumb luck had provided them with shelter of some kind through a heinous blizzard.

“If we hadn’t found that outhouse, it would have been a different story,” says Lauren.

“We would have been in trouble,” Patricia agrees. 

One cold, sleepless nocturnal hour passed after the next. The only source of heat they had, each other. The only distraction from their misery, a few episodes of The OA Lauren had downloaded on her iPad. 

When the first rays of sunlight at last crept under the outhouse door, they were both wide awake, partially delirious from sleep deprivation and cold, but alive. And ready as hell to GTFO of there. 

So, with the kind of sluggishness one only feels on the brink of hypothermia and sleep deprivation, they rallied, reattached their snowshoes, zipped up their jackets with trembling, frozen fingers, and plunged once more into the winter world outside. Out of the fridge and into the freezer.

When, finally, after hours of backtracking, they came again to that pivotal fork in the trail, and ran into another group. They were the only people they’d seen since they’d left town the day earlier. And, in a cruel twist of chance, it was a band of young men. Hunks,  six of them, the girls say, who had naturally spent a lovely evening relaxing in and enjoying the amenities of one Polar Star Inn. 

Single as they were at the time, this was the cherry on top of a frozen shit-sundae. 

Talking to the men, the two discovered that the trail was a 12-mile loop, and from the outhouse they’d only been a stone’s throw from the parking lot; and from the fork, only a leftwards jaunt from the Polar Star Inn. They’d been on the right trail, only they’d made all the wrong turns. 

Eventually Patricia and Lauren made it back to their car. The drive down was perilous, and full of doubt, but it was successful and without incident. They had survived a very dangerous wilderness situation, if only by the grace of an outhouse bathroom — a very fortuitous toilet.