by Michael Farrell Smith
Despite being right next to the city of Albuquerque, the Sandia Mountains contain real wilderness. This, of course, was even truer in past decades than it is today. A young Canadian man, Stuart McIntosh, learned this firsthand, starting on June 27, 1982. He barely survived to tell about it.
McIntosh, 20, had been visiting Albuquerque from Martintown, Quebec, here to visit his cousin, UNM employee Judy Erickson, and to study Southwestern pottery techniques. The son of Ottowa-area dairy farmers, McIntosh was an art student set to attend the fall semester at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. In one Albuquerque Journal photo, he appears thin and long-faced, with dark floppy hair and serious eyes. He had poor eyesight and wore eyeglasses, without which he could not see more than a few feet away.
On that late-June day, McIntosh drove his small car from his cousin’s house, leaving it empty, as his cousin was in Boston at the time. (This would later be a factor in this story, when authorities would be unable to contact Judy Erickson for information on the missing hiker.) McIntosh drove east, and north, the grayness of the Sandia Mountains ahead and to the right, parked in front of a Sandia Heights home, asking the house’s owner’s permission first, near the Domingo Baca trailhead, in the almost-northern foothills—which in 1982 were even less-developed than they are now, the trails cruder, unmaintained, the area less-visited.
McIntosh wore boots, shorts, and a light shirt, and carried a daypack with two days’ worth of food in it. Cantaloupe, granola, a sandwich. And two water bottles. He planned to spend only one night in the mountains, sleeping rough. He hiked up Domingo Baca Canyon (“The identity of [Domingo Baca] has been lost,” says the Field Guide to the Sandia Mountains, by Robert Julyan and Mary Stuever, but a Hispano-Catholic shepherd or goat herder might be a decent guess) and into a side canyon, into the labyrinthine forest-canyon world that hides away downslope from the wreckage the of the TWA airliner that hit the mountains in 1955, during a blizzard, a tragic mechanical failure that killed 16 people.
Like that ill-fated plane, McIntosh collided with rock, after dead-ending at a steep incline, climbing it up to what he called “a cul de sac,” classic mountain-canyon topography, where he stumbled and took a 35-to-50-foot fall, sliding, tumbling, smashing his glasses, lacerating his forehead, and leaving him too disoriented to easily find a way out.
For a day and a half, McIntosh just lay there, where he fell. “Then I knew I had to work my way back to water, so I went back to a stream,” he later told the Albuquerque Journal, in a story that ran July 15, 1982. “Hiker Never Afraid Despite 17-Day Ordeal,” reported the Associated Press, the next day. This stream McIntosh found, he would later learn, was at the time the only active stream in that basin, a small stream that flows from the Crest, according to his description. He was extremely lucky to have found it. But here the events of McIntosh’s ordeal get uncertain. He had a head injury that would later require two-and-half hours of surgery to remove a blood clot. His glasses were broken. He was surrounded by trees, scrub, dirt, rock. And the sky pressed down on all of it, like half a vice.
From that same July 16 Associated Press article:
“McIntosh said remembering what happened to him from that point on is difficult.”
And: “Instead of feeling fear . . . said he ‘just felt out of touch.’”
During the days, the temperatures rose into the 80s. At night, they plummeted to the low 40s. Only at first did McIntosh feel he was going to die. Then, according to the Journal, he thought, “I can’t die.” When searching for the stream, McIntosh hiked beneath the towers and lines of the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, waving desperately at the smiling tourists passing overhead, and yet the tram’s passengers assumed he was simply being friendly and waved back, we might imagine while McIntosh screamed and cried. McIntosh rationed his food carefully and stayed by the stream once he found it, following it down, too weak to do anything else. For 17 days, he wandered the Sandias, as if wandering a dream, unable to see clearly, unable to comprehend fully, keeping his calm despite significant dangers and challenges.
During this time, a search party searched for him, after his cousin’s roommate reported him missing; the search party searched, found nothing, and then stopped.
McIntosh grew so hungry he began supplementing his rations with grass. He was following the stream, but through a head-injury-induced delirium, and the canyon was so rugged, its floor often choked with brush. He tried moving along its sides, but those were steep, bouldery, and spiny. A day went by. A week. Another week. Another day. Imagine what that must have felt like. Feeling hungry, parched, fatigued. Feeling . . . not frightened . . . but “out of touch.” Almost everything a blur. Somehow not encountering anyone at all beside the people in the tram, despite ending up only two miles from a house.
Seventeen days after McIntosh had wandered out of the city and into the mountains, four volunteers were walking up the stream where McIntosh was now slumped beside. They had received a report of an unauthorized cabin being lived in back there, but what they found instead was Stuart McIntosh, covered in cuts, scabs, bruises, and dirt, wearing only his boots and shorts, and with his blood-stained shirt tied around him as a bandage. He had made mistakes, he would soon admit—he should never have climbed that wall—and he should have packed more food, a jacket, and emergency supplies. But his later rationing of his food and his finding and following of the stream proves he was no fool. He was a survivor.
The volunteers spotted McIntosh. They waved. He didn’t wave back. He looked off. He looked—according to one rescuer, volunteer patrol leader Allen Korpinen as quoted by the Associated Press—“‘all banged up.’”
And then McIntosh spoke: “I think I’m the guy you’re looking for.”
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