On Saturday, March 31, Pedro Álvarez Icaza went out for a run in the woods bordering the rural community of Pinar de la Venta, located eight kilometers west of Guadalajara, and my home for many years.
It was 7:20 a.m. “I’ll be back for breakfast in two hours,” he told his family. Since he was familiar with the trail he planned to take, he brought with him neither cell phone nor water.
Noon arrived, but not Pedro. Worried, his family started calling friends and a search begun. Instead of relaxing on the sofa writing about my past adventures, I found myself on a team assigned to cover one of the many possible trails Pedro may have taken. Little did I know it was just the beginning of a very long day of scouring the woods.
“All we have to do is walk as far as he could have jogged in one hour,” we figured. The trouble is, there are very deep canyons everywhere in the northern sector of the Primavera Forest, so much so that it is known as one of those places “where a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.” So, at the edge of every 50-meter drop we shouted “Pedro, Pedro!”
Several hours later we were no longer the only ones out there. Helicopters were buzzing overhead and the woods was now filled with Protección Civil officers, firefighters, foresters and even federal cops, all of them shouting “Pedro, Pedro!” in every corner of the forest. Yes, 911 had been called and everyone was there but the Mexican Army.
Meanwhile, far away from the searchers, Pedro was in a bad way.
“I had started out on a trail I knew,” he told me the next day. “But I simply got distracted. All of a sudden I realized I had gone off onto another trail, but I figured it would rejoin the first one, so I wasn’t worried. At 10:30 a.m., however, I could see that this was not going to happen. I was lost.”
Pedro still had a good idea in which direction he had to go to get out of the woods, but that’s when he ran into his first slot canyon, not wide but very deep, with walls much too steep and crumbly to climb. “I simply had to walk around it and what did I come to next but another deep canyon .. and then another. At the end I was completely disoriented. On top of that, I was now severely dehydrated, so I had to stop and rest in every shady spot I came to. Then I suddenly found myself sliding down a steep slope with a sheer drop beneath me. I used my walking stick as a piolet but I didn’t think I had enough energy to get back up to the top. But taking long pauses to rest, I made it. It was now 3:30 p.m. and I heard a helicopter in the far distance. I actually shouted, ‘Here I am, here I am!’ even though it was much too far away.”
The sight of the helicopter gave the lost jogger the boost he needed. “Slowly, slowly, I inched my way up to the top of the highest point near me and from there I could see the Villas Panamericanas (the abandoned Pan American Games village). I could make out lots of details so I knew they were not far away at all. Now I struck out for them, trying to walk like a respectable lost hiker instead of a disheartened bumbler.
“Next I came upon a little cave the height of a man. It was damp inside and I dug and dug in the floor until I reached mud. This I spread all over my face and head and did it ever feel good! And I thought, ‘now I’m going to look like an orangutan, but who cares.’”
Finally reaching the edge of the forest, Pedro found bottles half full of who-knows-how-old liquids, which he happily poured on his head. Finally, he came to a cobblestone road. A car approached, he waved his arms and the car sped away. “Covered with mud, my hair sticking out every which way, I must have looked like the Devil himself,” said Pedro.
At last he came to a house where he was given water to drink and a chance to make a phone call to his wife Ana. Around 8 p.m. Protección Civil picked him up.
“They tried to give me an intravenous saline solution,” he says, “but they couldn’t. They said all my veins had collapsed.” At last they returned him to Pinar. The adventure was over.
When training cave explorers, I frequently repeated, “Expect the unexpected.” I offer the same advice to hikers. A small backpack with water, a first-aid kit, a windbreaker, a compass and even a little headlamp can make all the difference if you find yourself immobilized by a twisted ankle. That’s my advice and here is Pedro’s:
1. Don’t be afraid. Fear just paralyzes you.
2. Remember there is someone out there looking for you.
3. Breathe through your nose, not through your mouth, to avoid dehydrating.
The day after his ordeal, Pedro Álvarez Icaza made this final comment, which I think helped a lot to keep him calm and focused:
“I never lost faith, but I told myself again and again that if I have to die, I’m glad it will be in this beautiful forest.”