Over the Volcano: Stranded and Hallucinating in a Hawaiian Snowstorm


Alex Sverdlov had climbed the volcano alone a year ago. It took him three and a half days to reach the top and get back to sea level. The hike was peaceful and not steep, but it was challenging enough that he decided to summit the volcano again. He was an experienced outdoorsman and strenuous adventures appealed to him. One time he signed up for a guided group hike in the Alaskan wilderness because a local told him it was “difficult.” He realized within minutes that it wasn’t, so halfway through he split from the pack and ran the rest of the way.

He knew his friends wouldn’t want to join him on the volcano. They had small children and had come to Hawaii’s big island for “touristy stuff” (as he called it), not for a “nutty hike” (as his friends called it).

It’s about a 25-mile hike to reach the summit. Natives long ago named the volcano Mauna Loa: “Long Mountain.” It’s the biggest volcano on earth, but it rises gradually from the sea, like the belly of a submerged giant. Its flat terrain and gentle slopes can deceive. The climate at the top is fickle and conditions are unpredictable. Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, the first person on record to reach the summit, called his experience in 1794 “the most persevering and hazardous struggle that can possibly be conceived.” David Douglas, the next man to complete the journey (40 years later), struggled to reach the top and described the trip back down as “even more fatiguing, dangerous, and distressing than the ascent had proved.”

Sverdlov found these historical proclamations too dramatic to apply to his own adventures. With modern equipment and a marked trail, man had tamed the mountain, and Sverdlov had mastered Mauna Loa the first time around. He knew what to expect and was eager to document his journey in photos. He’d landed in Hawaii the previous morning and signed up for a Mauna Loa backcountry permit that afternoon: depart Sunday morning, January 26; return Wednesday night, January 29.

He parked the rented white Ford Focus on a dead-end dirt road near the trailhead. The sky was bright blue, the sun mellow, and he felt grateful to be on this island in 70-something-degree warmth, instead of home in New York City, where the week’s forecast predicted subfreezing temperatures and snow.

He strapped on his backpack and walked toward the trail, pausing to photograph a tall sign bearing warnings:

Hikers must be physically fit and properly equipped for the arduous 3-4 day hike. Extreme temperature variations and freezing conditions may occur at any time of year.

Know Before You Go: Trails are marked by aha (stone cairns). Beware of deep earthcracks, loose rocks, and thin lava crusts. Stay on the trail. Do not hike after dark.

The ground was rocky and dusty at the start. Trees were gone once Sverdlov hit 7,000 feet elevation, and the landscape looked like Nevada desert. Green shrubs and the white branches of dead ones disappeared at 9,000 feet. Seven miles in and 10,000 feet above sea level, the trail’s incline increased, and when he reached the top of the slope, the trail opened onto a plain of grainy reddish dirt that stretched from a hill to a cliff. At the base of the hill sat a wooden cabin with an orange roof. In the distance beyond the cabin, he could see the rounded peak of Mauna Kea, the volcano to the north.

He had arrived at Red Hill Cabin ahead of schedule. It was still early afternoon and he planned to spend the night here. He was a bit tired but could have hiked miles further if he wanted. He napped, ate dinner, went to bed.

He hit the trail around sunrise the next morning, a Monday. The terrain changed often at this altitude: wavy, light brown dried lava . . . soft, dark brown dirt clumps . . . brick-red stone fields . . . charcoal-gray volcanic rock . . . layers upon layers of magma once flowing and scorching but now hard and cool, a landscape shaped by countless eruptions, the last of which occurred in 1984. The trail curved around sudden depressions and gorges and cracks in the ground more than ten feet deep. Every 100 yards or so, rocks stacked into hip-high towers delineated the trail. He did not see a single cloud overhead.

This leg of the hike, to Mauna Loa Cabin, measured about 12 miles, and Sverdlov arrived minutes before the sun dipped below the horizon. He now stood 13,250 feet above the Pacific Ocean. The trail had veered away from the summit, down the southwest face of the mountain. The idea was to sleep at the cabin, reach the summit early Tuesday, then trek down to Red Hill by nightfall. He’d be back in civilization to meet friends for dinner on Wednesday. The trip was going perfectly.

He tossed his backpack beside one of the barrack-style room’s bunk beds, refilled his red plastic water bottle from a tank outside, then went into the small kitchen to look through the cabinets, which usually contained leftovers from past journeys. A package of dehydrated egg, cheese, and bacon mix — what luck! His diet to this point in the hike had consisted of granola bars, macadamia nuts, oatmeal, bagels, soup, and beef jerky.

He lit a candle on the picnic table at the center of the room and boiled a pot of water over the portable stove he’d brought. He poured in the breakfast mix. Within seconds it boiled over, white froth bubbling onto the table. When he reached for the pot, he toppled the stove and fuel spilled all over the mix, igniting streaks of flame across the table and into the air. An orange glow lit the room. He grabbed the water bottle and put out the fire.

The cabin smelled of scorched eggs. As he nestled into his sleeping bag, he couldn’t believe he’d nearly burned the place down.

He woke up with a bad headache. The altitude, he figured. He popped an aspirin and left the cabin. Clouds had rolled in overnight, dropping thick fog and a light speckle of snow. He hadn’t expected the snow, but he knew weather turned quickly this high up the mountain. He wasn’t concerned. The walk to the summit would be short. He’d covered the five miles in three hours last time. He exceeded that pace on this ascent.

Halfway to the summit, near the intersection of two trails, he stopped at Jaggar’s Cave, an eight-foot-deep hole explorers once used to stow gear. He dropped his backpack into the pit. It was heavy, filled with his sleeping bag, spare clothes, extra-thick down jacket, flashlights, headlamp, candles, stove, all his food, and other supplies. He’d pick it up in a few hours on his way back to Red Hill. For this final stretch, he’d need only a water bottle, two granola bars, and his camera.

It started to drizzle, and when Sverdlov was half a mile from the summit, the rain turned to snow. He considered turning back, but the snow was light and the scene was beautiful. Hell, if he jogged from here, he’d be up and back to this point in 30 minutes, tops.

He reached the summit at about noon. A white curtain shrouded the vista that had greeted him on his previous visit. He’d planned to stay an hour and savor his granola bars, but it was cold. He snapped photos, then began his descent. A minute or two later, the snow picked up. The wind blasted the flakes into his face, partially blinding him. He took off his gloves, which had frozen stiff on the way up, and stuffed his bare hands into the pockets of his fleece. He tried to jog, but the snow was ankle deep. Before long it was up to his shins, making it difficult even to walk.

He trudged through the soft powder. The thought that he had to reach Red Hill by nightfall pushed him onward. Should have brought snowshoes, he chided himself. He’d hiked through snow this thick plenty of times across upstate New York, but always with snowshoes.

Just as the thought crossed his mind, his hiking boot punched through a thin crust of dried lava beneath the snow and tumbled him onto his back like a helpless bug. As he clambered to his feet, he felt a pain in his knee, but the cold numbed it away a few minutes after he continued his march. The landscape was an uninterrupted blanket of snow, but he knew the terrain underneath was not flat. The day before, he’d seen wavy fields, deep craters on either side of the trail. Now he had only the stone markers to confirm he was headed in the right direction. One misstep and he’d find himself buried in a casket of snow.

The wind whipped up drifts that disguised steep dips as modest slopes. Stepping onto a false flat, he suddenly found himself in free fall through the snow. For a split second, he wondered how far down he would go. Then he felt his feet slam the ground. The snow was up to his chest. He began to swim through it, dragging his boots to guard against sinking deeper, until his torso emerged from the drift. He marched on. Snow continued to fall and the wind gusts blew stronger. The water in his bottle had frozen. Despite his thirst, he knew better than to eat the snow, which would lower his body temperature and hasten dehydration.

As the sun set, he passed a wooden sign that showed he’d descended two miles from the summit. It was another half mile to Jaggar’s Cave, where he’d stowed his pack. Now the world had turned gray. Snow and sky were indistinguishable. Having been certain he’d reach Red Hill, he had no backup plan. Now he realized he’d have to walk through the night: He wasn’t sure he’d survive sleeping outside in these conditions. His phone was useless, so he turned it off to conserve battery power. As the gray darkened, the trail markers were hard to make out. His surroundings faded into blackness.

If he’d turned around when the snow began, he admitted to himself, he would have had enough daylight to make it to the cave. He was frustrated at himself. He was rarely without a flashlight. Ever since the New York City blackout of 2003, he’d always carried one — to the grocery store, to work, to wherever. But even his keys, which were hooked to a penlight, were in that pack.

His water bottle was gone now, too. He didn’t remember dropping it. It simply occurred to him suddenly that the hand that had been holding it was empty. No use searching in this darkness, though. He had bigger problems.

Sverdlov had never been in this much trouble on a hike, and he’d gone on scores of them. Growing up the only child in a single-parent family in Queens, he often went hiking in the Catskills with family friends. In his spare time indoors, he engrossed himself in computers. He taught himself to code and designed games in high school. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he got a job there as a computer-science professor and worked consulting gigs on the side. The setup was ideal, providing the funds and free time to pursue the adventures he craved. He went on a dozen long hikes a year, extended trips in the summer and weekend excursions during the semester. He climbed Mt. Marcy, Mt. Washington, Mt. Whitney. Hawaii was an annual destination. He conquered Mauna Kea in 2012, Mauna Loa the following January. And now here he was back for a rematch, and the mountain was killing him.

Where was the trail marker? It had been several hundred yards since the last one. He looked around out of instinct, but it was nearly pitch black. He shifted his path and kept walking because there was nothing to do but walk until he found the trail. He spotted a dark smudge in the snow and bent down. It was his water bottle. He was surprised how happy this made him. Then he realized he’d walked in a circle.

His watch said 9 p.m. He sat down, hugging his legs. He hadn’t dressed for a snowstorm. He wore sweatpants, a face mask that covered his mouth and nose, a skullcap, a wool undershirt, a fleece jacket, and a windbreaker. He tucked one jacket sleeve into the other to keep his hands from freezing. The wind stung his cheeks and forehead. He coughed violently and it hurt every time he swallowed. He had no food. He was shivering, dehydrated, and breathing thin air.

Time passed. He felt enveloped by warmth and comfort. He was no longer on the mountain. He was floating. It felt good, and then he snapped back to reality.

“I’m still here, damn it!” he shouted.

He dazed in and out of hallucinations for hours: a false reality seamlessly replacing the true one, then shattering, then returning. At some point he fell asleep.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was short-staffed on Tuesday, January 28. Two rangers had the day off, a third had been furloughed. John Broward, the park’s search-and-rescue coordinator, knew it would be just him and the office dispatcher until a second ranger clocked in for the afternoon shift.

Broward arrived at the Visitor Emergency Operations Center, a long brown building near Mauna Loa’s southern base, at about 8 a.m. He strolled down a hallway, past his office and up into the dispatch center, perched above the first-floor roof like an air-traffic-control room. He picked up a fax with a 3:17 a.m. timestamp.

It was an advisory from the National Weather Service. A storm was on the way that would hit the summit with a foot of snow, temperatures in the 20s, and wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour. Broward had worked at the park for 13 years and he saw two or three of these storms every winter. He plugged the forecast data into a threat-level chart, which confirmed what he already knew: Conditions were in the Red Zone. The park would be closed for the day. He told the dispatcher to spread the word, then checked the backcountry permit records. There was someone on the mountain: Alex Sverdlov, age 36, had left on Sunday and was scheduled to return on Wednesday. Broward knew the hiker would be at or near the summit when the storm hit.

His mind flicked through memories of past searches like a slide show. He’d handled more than 150 searches at this park, following the dozens he’d conducted during his days as a ski-patrol coordinator in Oregon. (He’d left that job because his wife thought Hawaii would be nicer than a cabin on a snow-covered mountain.) He thought about a snowmobile accident and a fall from a cliff. He thought about footage he’d seen of a rescue helicopter crashing in bad weather. He thought about the story he’d heard about the last person to die on Mauna Loa, a park employee about 20 years back. The body was never found. He thought about what lost hikers tended to do when caught in a snowstorm. Some curl up on the ground, and some keep marching. Some follow the fence line. Some hide in caves. There are many caves on Mauna Loa; if Sverdlov hunkered down in one, they might not find him for years.

Broward sought to get inside the hiker’s head. He called the person listed as Sverdlov’s emergency contact, his mother. He told her about the storm, and she was as worried as any mother would be. (“Going nuts,” one relative later recalled.) She put Broward in touch with a friend of Sverdlov who planned to meet him after the hike. The friend told Broward that Sverdlov kept a blog.

Broward read every word. He learned that the man he was trying to locate was a knowledgeable and fit hiker. One who’d carried rocks up Mt. Washington in December to keep from falling over in the wind, who’d run 10 miles along the Grand Canyon rim in August, who’d lost a toenail after climbing Mt. Marcy the previous winter.

Broward filed an affidavit with Sverdlov’s phone-service provider. Even when a phone has no bars, it emits a faint signal to the nearest cell towers, and the company can triangulate its location. Sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes it’s off by miles. Of course, the phone must be switched on. Then Broward called the landline at Red Hill Cabin. No answer.

Nothing more he could do tonight. The storm had to pass before he could send rangers onto the mountain. Even then, protocol required that unless there was clearly an emergency — a hiker who needs medication, is injured, or is grossly unequipped for the conditions — a search-and-rescue mission could begin only after a hiker was overdue. Scheduled to be on Mauna Loa through Wednesday, Sverdlov wasn’t officially missing. For now he was on his own.

The thought of death first crossed Sverdlov’s mind shortly after he awoke Wednesday morning. It came and went quickly, like a blink. In fact, it wasn’t exactly death he thought about, but the absence of it. He was relieved to have survived the night.

His watch said 6 a.m., and the world around him was dark blue. Sunrise was an hour and a half away, but it was light enough and the storm had calmed enough for him to see his surroundings: A carpet of snow in every direction. A desert of white powder as far as his eyes could see. Not a trail marker in sight.

He shouted for help a few times. The trail couldn’t be far. He was sure he would reach Red Hill today. If he made it early enough, he’d keep going and reach the bottom of the mountain in time to meet his friends for dinner. The snow line couldn’t be much further, and it would be an easy march once he was back on sturdy terrain.

His footprints from the night before seemed to stretch to the horizon. He followed them. He saw that he had gone in many circles during the night and after several hundred yards he came to a tower of stones cloaked in snow. He couldn’t see the next trail marker, so he guessed the trail’s path and walked. He soon passed another snow-covered tower of stones. Then another. Then he spotted three trail markers clustered in the distance. His heart thumped faster. He wanted to sprint, but the snow was too deep.

He dug with his hands into the snow beside the markers. He pulled out his backpack and sat down. He set up the stove and scooped snow into the pot until it filled to the brim. He hadn’t had a drink of water in nearly 24 hours, so he was disappointed to learn that a pot of snow boils down to less than a cup of water. The drink cost much of his fuel and tasted of burnt eggs. He packed the stove and pot, then tugged out some gear. He put on a down jacket and thick mittens. He strapped on the headlamp. He ate a trail-mix bar. The storm had passed, and he felt unstoppable, equipped for the cold and the darkness. Back on the trail, he was less than 10 miles from Red Hill Cabin.

The snow was deeper than yesterday, almost knee high in some stretches. His pace slowed. Cracks in the ground tripped him, snowdrifts swallowed him to the shoulders. He was glad he had the headlamp, because he judged he might have to walk through the night. For a while he thought it was Tuesday. His mental calendar was calibrated to where he was on the mountain, and his mind would not accept that the storm had rendered his itinerary meaningless. He focused his mind and energy on each step, methodical and cautious. He paused to snap photos here and there, giving his legs a few seconds to rest.

He doubted he was more than a mile from the cave when the sun set. The headlamp was not powerful enough to illuminate trail markers in the distance, but at least he could see more than shadows.

He saw the tents at the edge of the headlamp’s beam. Three or four tents. And people! Standing outside the tents! They seemed not to notice the light coming their way, or maybe they were ignoring him. Then he blinked and they disappeared and only snow lay ahead. Minutes later, he took a step and found himself on a theater’s bright stage. He walked and walked and the hardwood seemed to stretch to infinity. Then he blinked and was back in the snow.

He had suffered hallucinations on a hike once before, when he climbed Mt. Whitney faster than his body could adjust to the altitude. He’d be walking down the mountain, and next thing he knew he was sitting on a rock, snapping out of a daze in which he hallucinated that unseen forces were reprogramming his brain. It had made perfect sense, the way all bits of nonsense do in dreams. There were no visuals on Whitney like there were now, though. The night went on the same way for Sverdlov; he was awake, but in and out of consciousness.

He approached another trail marker, and in the headlamp’s glow he saw that it was not covered in snow like the others. Coming closer, he noticed that this marker was not a tower of stones but a narrow lava rock protruding from the ground.

It wasn’t a trail marker. How many snow-covered rocks had he mistaken for markers?

He turned around and followed the footprints he had left. He coughed. He’d been coughing at a steady rate for two days now. He hadn’t had water since morning, and his mouth was dry and his throat aching. His face burned. He was very tired.

Around midnight, he determined that he couldn’t walk any further. He stomped his boots to pack the snow he would sleep on. He unrolled his sleeping bag. He couldn’t feel his toes and he wanted to take his boots off to massage the circulation back into his feet, but the laces were frozen. He pushed the worry out of his mind, slid into the sleeping bag, and zipped it. He turned on his phone to check the signal. Nothing. He turned it off.

He should have been at the hotel by now. He considered that he might not make it off this volcano. Two days of struggle, and he was barely three miles from the summit. Nine more miles to Red Hill. Perhaps this situation was beyond him, he thought. Then again, every day a few of the 8 million New Yorkers who wake up don’t make it to the next one, taken out by a bus or stray bullet or heart attack or falling air conditioner. Death lingers in the back of all minds. He found comfort in this truth as he dozed off.

Thursday morning was different. Unlike on Tuesday and Wednesday, he didn’t awaken with the confidence that he’d reach Red Hill Cabin on this day. He thought he might, but he wasn’t sure. The snow line couldn’t be far off, he reasoned.

He found the trail shortly after sunrise and trudged forward with less urgency than before. The sky was clear and the sun was bright and he could see snow-capped volcanoes in the distance. The ground was white and soft and rose and dipped like waves. Mounds of jagged black lava rock dotted the landscape. The tops of clouds peeked over the horizon and the wind had calmed. He savored the beauty and quiet and took photos.

By now he was almost used to falling through snowdrifts. Sometimes the snow was hard and supported his weight, sometimes it held for a second before giving way. He tried sliding down a slope on his butt. He’d used the strategy to great success on Mt. Washington, but this snow was too loose. He felt the powder and crumbled it through his fingers. He scooped up a handful of snow and patted it into a melon-size ball and gently placed it on the ground. He scooped up another handful and made a smaller ball and planted it above the first one. He sculpted a third, plunked it on top, and took a few moments to stare at his snowman before continuing on.

John Broward returned to the office at 4 a.m. on Wednesday. After the snow stopped falling six hours later, he sent a ranger up the Mauna Loa trail. Another ranger left a note under a windshield wiper on Sverdlov’s car:

If the gate on the bottom of the road is locked, it has a combination lock. The combination is [redacted]. Please call the dispatch center and let them know you came out OK. Number is [redacted]. Thank you. Manuel Uribe. Park Ranger.

This was a day of preparation. If Sverdlov didn’t turn up by nightfall, the search would begin.

Broward gathered his staff, now a half-dozen strong, in the dispatch center. Eight computer screens bolted to a wall projected maps and graphs showing every knowable detail about Mauna Loa. Opposite that, floor-to-ceiling windows looked out over a flat and seemingly endless expanse broken only by a crater that could fit a basketball court. He laid out the plan for Thursday. Several rangers would fan out from the trailhead and work up the mountain. Another would wait beside the rented Focus. Broward would search from a helicopter.

There are about 20 search-and-rescue missions on Mauna Loa every year, and Broward had led nearly all of them. To date, his team had found every hiker alive. Only once before had a hiker gone missing in the snow, though. Broward found him minutes after the search began: The hiker was at Red Hill Cabin when the ranger phoned the landline.

It was the thrill of the rescue that had drawn Broward to the job. He’d been an archeology major at Florida State University in the early 1980s, diving around reefs to study underwater artifacts. Park rangers joined students on the boat to repair gear and fill air tanks. One afternoon a few rangers tossed Broward a beer and told him some stories: jumping out of helicopters; fighting fires; rappelling down ravines. Spending days enjoying nature’s beauty and protecting people from its cruelty.

Broward felt no thrill on Thursday morning, just nerves. The helicopter lifted off at 8:30. He looked out the right side of the window. The pilot, a private contractor who’d flown more than 70 rescue missions with him, looked out the left side and up ahead. The helicopter hovered above the trail. An experienced hiker might manage to locate the snow-covered path, Broward thought. The helicopter soared past the volcano’s 11,000-foot marker.

It moved slowly enough for the two men to scan to the horizon and back, looking for any clue: footprints, or an object, or a movement, or anything that looked off. To Broward, the snow was now a blessing. The uninterrupted white landscape that made it easy for a hiker to get lost also made a lost hiker easier to spot. The further up the mountain they flew, the more barren and uniformly white it got.

Past 12,000 feet. Still nothing. Not a glove or a hat or a hiking pole. No sign of life.

This was a massive mountain, encompassing more than 2,000 square miles — plenty of space for a lost hiker to wander into. Broward saw nothing but unbroken snow.

“He’s right there,” the pilot said suddenly, with the composure of a pro.

“Where? I don’t see him.”

“There. Right in front of us. Twelve o’clock.”

Catching sight of Sverdlov, Broward felt the tension leave his body for the first time in two days. The chopper circled, floated down, and landed in a field at the base of a hill less than a football field away. Broward hopped out and the hiker met him halfway.

“Are you search-and-rescue?”

Sverdlov embraced him and together they walked to the helicopter and climbed aboard, Sverdlov taking the seat behind Broward, who told the pilot to make another loop around the volcano in case there were any other stranded hikers — this wouldn’t be the first time someone snuck onto the volcano without a permit. Waves of snow passed beneath them, the steep cliffs and deep craters half-filled with snow. The whiteness faded as the helicopter soared over the dark brown dirt and charcoal fields, then green shrubs and trees, then paved roads and buildings.

A television news crew awaited Sverdlov at the Visitor Emergency Operations Center — as it turned out, the crew had been at the park for something else entirely when the reporter got word of a rescue in progress. Dozens more reporters would contact him in the coming days, and he would find the attention amusing. Upon his return to New York the following Monday, he’d write on his blog: “It’s amazing: You do something stupid to get yourself stuck in some place, get rescued, and then you’re treated like you did something great.”

He dined with friends Thursday evening and they all told him how he should never worry them like that again. He laughed and nodded, but after dinner he went to Walmart to resupply. He already had a backcountry permit for a Friday-morning start on a two-day, 10-mile journey across a chain of craters to a beach along the island’s southern coast.

He rose before 3 a.m., drove to the Halepe trailhead, and parked the rented white Focus. He stepped out of the car and felt a discomfort when he walked. He took off his shoes. His feet had swollen to nearly twice their normal size. They’d been fine when he left the hotel, but now they were numb. Sverdlov decided to scratch the hike.