In the midst of this summer’s record breaking heat, a Texas hiker defied deadly odds and survived for more than 24 hours lost in the West Texas desert.
59-year-old marketing executive Jeff Hahn and his daughter Harper found themselves disoriented and out of water while hiking in Big Bend Ranch State Park. The pair decided Jeff would wait at a designated meeting place while Harper hiked ahead to get help. But the situation soon took a dangerous turn.
Jeff Hahn joined the Standard to share the details of how he defied the odds to stay alive. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us about those moments when you realized you were lost and running out of water while you were hiking in Big Bend Ranch State Park. What was going through your mind?
Jeff Hahn: We were out for a very casual morning of hiking. We didn’t prepare for a situation that we found ourselves in.
The plan was simply to do about 90 minutes out, 90 minutes back. The way that the trail is configured is a loop. From our view of the map, it seemed like we would just walk out and around and be right back at our vehicle. That wasn’t the case.
The decision for your daughter Harper to hike ahead and find help while you waited behind was a critical moment. Do you remember the conversation between you and Harper?
It’s the crux of the story where it takes a turn. That conversation was precipitated by the fact that I had a condition I never before experienced called rhabdomyolysis. It’s where you have effectively a Charley horse in every muscle in both your legs.
We’ve heard the stories: If you’re traveling with someone, one of you stays put, the other goes forward. You decided Harper would go?
Well, Harper’s an endurance athlete, so that is a real advantage. The idea of us separating was simply, “go on ahead and I’ll be right behind you.”
But you ultimately decided to keep moving instead of staying put.
It’s not something that I thought about at the moment. With the way that my legs felt and the cramping condition I had, I didn’t really have a choice to sit still. You can’t do it.
Also, the outcropping that I stayed under for just about 15 or 20 minutes while she went on ahead… the idea was I was going to stay out there under some a little bit of shade. The shade disappeared when the sun moved. So, you put one foot in front of the other and simply say to yourself, “I’m going to close the distance between where she is and where I am.”
When you eventually headed out yourself, you very quickly found yourself dehydrated and overwhelmed in that searing desert heat. You experienced three miracles that you say played a role in your survival. Can you tell us a little bit about those?
The three miracles happened in a sequence. I think if they had not happened in that sequence, I wouldn’t have made it.
The first one was as Harper left, I decided, “I don’t have any more shade. My legs are in severe cramps. I have to move.” I got myself up out of a little bit of a canyon and looked way off in the distance – maybe three, four miles off in the distance. I saw a building. There’s nothing inside that building except two long tables with benches. But miraculously, in a windowsill, there were two 16-ounce bottles of sealed water.
What happened then? Where did you head and what did you encounter?
I stayed inside that shack for probably four hours, watching the sun go down. The second miracle took place right about then.
The sun’s down. It’s pitch black. I couldn’t even see my feet. At that moment, I tripped over a rock and I slammed into the ground. Your instinct is to put your hands out, so I did. I broke my right wrist in the process. So, I’ve got this cumulative set of problems that keep coming.
But as I roll over, my left hand drops onto a rock, which had enough of a divot in it that it collected rainwater, probably weeks ago. I ended up falling right at a waterhole.