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SALT LAKE CITY — A couple of things kept Nicolas Stacy-Alcantara alive through the night up Millcreek Canyon. But his attitude, doctors say, was the most important.
“I didn’t want PB&J to be my last meal,” he joked on Wednesday at University of Utah Hospital, where he is recovering from second-degree frostbite and hypothermia. He knows, however, that surviving below-freezing temperatures the night of Jan. 2 was nothing short of a miracle.
A 17-year-old Fresno, California, native, “Nico” was in Utah visiting friends and checking out colleges when he decided to hike 16 miles from Millcreek Canyon to Snyderville last week. When the weather turned bad, he quickly improvised and, tragically, fell short of finishing the much shorter Murdock Peak Trail.
“I knew exactly where I was,” Stacy-Alcantara said. He didn’t have cell service, but the GPS and mapping applications on his phone were “working just fine.”
The teen’s instincts told him to use the extra clothing he packed as layers to keep him warm, but also to find shelter fast. He dug a snow cave near the roots of a big tree and when his fingers and toes got cold and eventually lost feeling, he knew he had to keep his head and heart warm, so he snuggled deep into his jacket.
He set alarms on his phone to go off every 30 minutes so he wouldn’t fall asleep. And, he didn’t eat the food he packed because his stomach had turned sour and he didn’t want things to get worse.
“People even overnight in the cold in this area often lose both feet and both hands,” said Dr. Stephen Morris, who specializes in treating burn victims. He said Nico was lucky, but probably saved his feet by not worrying about them so much.
“Repetitive freezing is probably the worst thing that can happen in a situation like this,” Morris said, adding that thawing and freezing leads to further tissue damage, which would require amputation.
Stacy-Alcantara was prepared to lose his fingers or toes. He just didn’t want to lose his life.
But, even still, there were moments when death seemed better than freezing, he said.
He visualized his friends in the cave with him and carried out what he thought could be final conversations with them, and he wrote letters to his family to express how he was feeling in what might’ve been his last moments alive.
“I wanted them to have something of mine before they never saw me again,” Stacy-Alcantara said. He was shivering and alone and, yet he pushed himself to survive. He couldn’t let his mind go anywhere near actual death and dying.
His frozen fingers couldn’t lace up his boots after changing his wet socks, so they fell off as he meandered out of the cave at first light on Jan. 3. Fortunately, not long after that, he encountered some skiers who had a satellite phone and they called for help.
“My son was missing 20 hours and those were the longest, scariest hours of my entire life,” said Nico’s mom, Jennifer Stacy-Alcantara, who drove from California after her son was reported missing. She said knowing her son was looking at the same bright sky that night was affirmation enough that “he was going to come back to me.”
On top of that, he owed her a hug — because he always gave her one when he left, but had neglected to this time.
“When that chopper came over the mountain ... I had no idea if my son was going to come off on a stretcher or walking ... and then he came skipping off of it,” she recalled. “It was so surreal. ... That was the most amazing feeling ever to see him alive — to see him walking.”
“The expression ‘take a hike’ is going to have a whole new meaning in our family,” Jennifer Stacy-Alcantara said.
Doctors advised the teen that he shouldn’t have hiked alone, but, nearly everything else he did was right.
“Things like finding water or getting more food are things you can get to in the next few days,” said Dr. Robert Brickley, an emergency medicine physician and wilderness medicine fellow at the University of Utah. Immediate threats when stranded outdoors, he said, are finding shelter and preventing further injury.
Rescuers found Stacy-Alcantara with plenty of time for doctors to administer tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, a “clot-busting” medication often used after a stroke or heart attack, that ultimately got the blood flowing again in his lower extremities. While his fingers and toes were saved, Morris said the boy will have to be careful not to get even close to that cold again anytime soon. He may also have lasting sensitivity and pain from the nerve damage that has occurred.
“My toes are blistering. They’re nasty,” he said. “But at least they’re not gone. I can play basketball.”
The teen knows he made “a dumb mistake,” but thinking about his family, his friends and others kept him going the 30 hours he was out in the snow.
“It was scary, but I was learning something new about myself,” Stacy-Alcantara said. “It was discovering that I had something in me that I didn’t know I had. I didn’t know I had this ability to push past a situation where I knew I was going to die.”