Staring Death in the Face Abroad

Updated: Nov 11, 2018

So, I thought I could travel the world without having a near death experience. What a ridiculous assumption. Here's what happened...

My friend Lauren and I arrived on the beautiful island of Kho Tao, Thailand, with the intentions of days full of yoga, hiking, and snorkeling. The first couple days were just that. I found myself swimming in coral, lounging in hammocks, and witnessing the most beautiful sunsets the world has to offer. Then one fateful morning, we woke up and decided it was a perfect day for a hike. We wanted something short that would only take up the morning so we'd have the rest of the day to swim and explore. We approached the owner of the hostel we were staying in and asked what she recommended for a brief, somewhat leisurely hike for the morning. She suggested we take this hike known mostly to locals, that led to an abandoned hotel with a "to die for" private beach. Little did I know it was truly, "to die for." Lauren and I were like "hell yeah!" that sounds incredible right? Our instructions were to take a right onto this dirt path up the road and then to keep going straight. "No matter what keep going straight" she emphasized again. Can't be too hard right? So we grabbed our snorkel gear, three water bottles to split between the two of us, and we headed off. We took the right onto the dirt path and quickly realized we were in for a steep hike at first. About 15 minutes into it, the dirt path became a path of destruction. Large rocks and downed trees scattered the path (picture 1). Apparently some treacherous storm tore up the path a few months back. It was definitely not for beginner hikers, but if we paced ourselves it was doable. We didn't hesitate or go back because we were excited to be out in this beautiful, remote paradise. Who wouldn't want paradise to themselves (picture 2)!

Then things started to take a turn... Turns out the large rocks and downed trees were just the beginning (picture 3). The path got more treacherous. The rushing water from the storm dug deep crevices into the dirt path, we're talking four, sometimes five feet deep (picture 5). Palm branches from the downed trees often covered these crevices. Watching where we stepped was critical. The path became trickier to follow because the rushing water from the storm washed away foliage, giving the illusion of another path. We also lost all cell service. Pro hiking tip, ALWAYS know where the edge of a dead zone is when it comes to cell service, that way you know just how far you have to backtrack in order to call for help. The hike remained steep. The sun began to get hotter as it rose further. The humidity spiked. About 45 minutes into the hike, the path took us into a clearing (picture 4). The largest boulders I've ever seen created this path heading downwards, we could see the ocean in the distance. Thank god because we were running quite low on water, and we were exhausted. we started heading towards the direction of the ocean, climbing the boulders, grabbing vines to help balance ourselves, sliding carefully. Only about 5 minutes into the boulders, the hairs on the back of my neck start standing up. I could sense something was not right. The boulders became sketchier, steeper, more reckless to pass and climb (picture 6, 7). There were large holes between boulders and I knew that if one of us were to get stuck, we were an entire hour into a dead zone. That meaning it would take the other person at least an hour to hike back to cell reception to call for help, then at least another hour for help to arrive. There was no shade from trees anymore, so the intensity of the sun began racing through my body. Lauren starts getting nervous too. Both of us are starting to deteriorate from the conditions, quickly. I can sense her start to panic a bit as we both begin to realize we could be in a really bad predicament. "This path doesn't make sense" she says, "I'm getting freaked out, it's too dangerous." She was right. I told her to sit tight on this one boulder, and that I was going to head down just a little ways and take a peak around the corner to see if I could see any sign that we were approaching safety or our destination.

I slowly make the steep decline around the corner, to only find more treachery. My heart sinks as I turn around, knowing we now have to backtrack at least 30 minutes in this doom zone. Only this time, we have to work against gravity, and try to scale the boulders going uphill. As I'm making my way back to Lauren (picture 8, can you spot her?), spots start appearing in my vision.... heat stroke is looming. My breathing starts becoming a bit irregular. Panic sets in a bit. I know that if I am to pass out, best case scenario I fall and suffer a concussion. Worst case scenario, I fall, break a bone, or get a bad concussion/ bleed that needs immediate attention... something we cannot get. As I approach Lauren I make the mental note to stay as calm as possible. All I can think is get out of the sun. We had maybe a quarter of a water bottle left. I make it back to Lauren and share the bad news. We have to go back. Her face drops in horror. I know she's thinking what I'm thinking, "will we make it back?" There is no one for miles. No one knows where we are. We have no way of contacting anyone. The heat is getting worse. We're drenched in sweat. We are almost out of water. I lead the way promptly, thinking only of how I need to make it to level ground and shade before succumbing to heat stroke. My shaky voice speaks confidently, to try to convince both Lauren and myself that we're going to get out of this. I go a little ways ahead of Lauren to "scope out the path" but also to make sure she doesn't see me struggling. I need her to stay strong so that I can stay strong. I couldn't let her down. I'm about 15 yards ahead of Lauren, and I keep calling out to her to make sure she's still on the move. I keep yelling words of encouragement, hoping that if she believes I'm not worried, that'll help. I need her to keep moving so that i can make it to shade. I don't know how much longer I'm going to stay conscious. My vision is blurred, my body shaking, my breathing irregular. All of a sudden I call out for Lauren and she doesn't answer. "Lauren I need you to answer me!" I yell again, only to hear a scream in return. I spin around, my view of her blocked by a boulder. "Lauren!!! Call out!!" A moment of silence followed by another scream. I rush backwards, not knowing what I'm going to find behind this boulder. Did she fall? Did she split her head open? Break a bone? Get stuck? Have an encounter with a poisonous snake? Adrenaline rushes through my veins as I leap over the boulder. I find Lauren wide eyed, tears down her cheek, blood on her arms and legs, tied up in vines and a thorn bush. As I reach her I'm relieved to find out that the blood is only from the thorns. I start trying to get her free and keep on saying "you're ok, you're ok". Little does she know I was saying that to both of us. We finally get her untangled and we hug. "I don't think I can do this" she says. She is saying exactly what I'm saying in my head. But hearing it from her was all the motivation I needed. "We can do this. We can do this together." After a moment of embracing and talking through our panic, we press forward.

The adrenaline rush from Lauren getting caught in the thorns is what I believe made it possible for me to reach the end of the rock clearing. I truly believe that I would have collapsed from heat stroke, exhaustion and dehydration if it weren't for that little boost of adrenaline. I know Lauren thought she needed me, but I needed her just as much in that moment. Once we reached the shade we each had a couple drops of water. Then we hear voices. Two french girls come down the path and ask us if we have been to the abandoned hotel. I explain how we got lost. They offer us a little bit of water (god bless them). They could see we were in rough shape. Turns out they got lost at the exact same point the day before, only they turned around much sooner than we did, before it got dangerous. The four of us found the right path blocked off by fallen trees just yards away from where we were standing. The girls ask if we want to continue with them to the abandoned hotel. They say it's only about 10 minutes out. Lauren and I discuss and we decide to follow them to the ocean front abandoned hotel, because there would be a chance of finding more water and people there. And in all honesty I didn't think I was going to make it 45 minutes back down the path to civilization.

After struggling the final 15 minutes, we collapse on this remote beach, truly a paradise (picture 9). There were colorful fish swimming in turquoise water, the sand was as soft as could be, a small cool breeze flowing through my hair, and all I could think about is how the hell are we going to hike the hour back. Lauren and I took the opportunity to cool down, easing our way into the cool water. After my heat exhaustion the cool water felt like cloud 9. It felt so bizarre being in such a beautiful place and not be able to truly appreciate it. Dehydration was taking a serious tole on both Lauren and I. After cooling off in the water we sat under a tree on the beach and tried to figure out a plan back. There were a couple other people on this remote beach besides the two french girls. I approached the others and asked if they had any water to spare, they said they didn't. I then saw the other people leaving by boat, to which I asked where they were headed and if we could leave with them, to which they declined. I reluctantly walk back to Lauren empty handed, with no water and no ride. As we pack up our things and mentally prepare ourselves to try and get back, the two french girls offered us a little more water that they could spare. We now had half a water bottle for the both of us to get back. It was better than nothing.

Having cooled down my body temperature, I felt better, but my body was still struggling with dehydration. We had an hour hike back. That may not sound like much, but in 90 degree heat, extreme humidity, with rationed water, and questionable terrain, it was going to be a journey. The lack of water was the problem. I didn't know how we were going to do it. But I knew this was going to be a big mental battle. I needed to pace myself to match Lauren's speed, stay positive, motivate her, and just get us back safe. I knew that once we started it wouldn't be long before I'd get heat stroke symptoms again, but I didn't want to tell Lauren that because I knew that would send her into a panic. She was counting on me and I couldn't let her down. As we headed out I swallowed the anxiety inside me, and I turned on the music on my phone to help keep our spirits up. Lauren and I paced ourselves back into the jungle of Koh Tao. Ten minutes in and we were already drenched in sweat. My muscles began to spasm from the stress. I knew we needed to drink what little water we had sooner rather than later if we wanted a shot at making it back. I told Lauren that once we reached the rock clearing where we initially took that wrong turn, that we would drink the water. I knew I couldn't make it further than that. We reach the rock clearing, we stop, and split the half water bottle between us. I look down and see blood on each of our legs and arms from being cut on the rocks and thorns. In that moment I was so grateful for this badass woman next to me, pushing herself so hard, trusting in me to get us back, and trusting in herself to not give up either. As the last drop of water hit my tongue, I took a few meditative deep breaths, picturing pitchers of water waiting for us back at our hostel. If you have never been in a position where you are so thirsty that all you can think about is water, consider yourself lucky. The dehydration was like this giant cloud, blurring my vision, my thoughts, my ability to keep going. But we were determined. Just as we turn to continue the trek with no more water, I hear a jingle of a bell. I turn around to see a dog approaching us, a local woman not far behind him. This angel approaches us and asks if we are alright. We tell her we have run out of water. She gives us a look of horror and says "oh no, you girls must be careful. You could die out here." As she says this, she pulls out a giant jug of water. She lets us drink to our satisfaction, then says "do you have bottles, I'll need to fill those for you if you want to make it back." She fills our water bottles, and I have never been more grateful in my entire life.

Lauren and I make it back in one piece just under an hour later. We didn't end up on the 6 o'clock news as the two girls who went missing in a foreign country after disappearing into the jungles of Thailand alone. Instead we came out stronger friends, and more resilient people. I'll forever be grateful for the kindness of that local woman. But it's safe to say we won't be doing that again anytime soon.