Shari Burns and Dave Geithman thought they were going to die on Cave Creek Trail No. 4.
What started out as a six- to seven-mile hike May 1 in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area ended with Geithman being airlifted to Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix and Burns happy they survived.
Hiking partners for the last year, Geithman, 61, an Anthem resident, and Burns, 51, of Phoenix, hope to alert other hikers to be cautious and plan carefully. With rising heat and dehydration a major factor this time of year, their story of survival could just as easily have been one of death.
Geithman, who has been hiking for 10 years, passed out twice. Doctors later determined he suffered heart arrhythmia. By themselves in the high desert, Burns became terrified — and the sound of rattlesnakes hidden in the thick brush didn’t help.
"He wanted to show me what Spur Cross was all about," said Burns, who has been hiking for five years. "I looked forward to the hike. I hadn’t gone up there before, and it will be a while before I go back."
About 4 1/2 hours into the hike, Geithman told Burns, a nurse anesthetist, that he wasn’t feeling well. He became short of breath. Dizzy and fatigued, he experienced chest and arm pain. They were at about 3,000 feet, the highest point they reached.
Burns tried to call 911 on both her cell phone and Geithman’s, but neither was in range. She figured they had to walk a bit to try to get a signal.
"I thought he was going to die," Burns said. "I was in unfamiliar territory. I feared for my own life as well. I didn’t know if my family would know where I was. It was pure terror. It’s the most afraid I’ve ever been in my life, and I’ve been through a lot."
Geithman credits Burns for staying calm and continually reassuring him, although he doesn’t remember most of what happened.
"If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be here today," Geithman said. "I had a tough time standing. I could barely put one foot in front of me, then the other."
Burns, a 21-year Air Force veteran, said despite being about 15 minutes from her home in Phoenix, she felt like she was miles away without a friend, except for Geithman and those pesky snakes.
"I still have nightmares about rattlesnakes," she said. "I keep hearing the snakes and seeing Dave go down. Their rattles were so loud. I just stayed calm and in control — for him. I didn’t even cry until he passed out the first time and couldn’t hear me. I wasn’t going to let him know I was afraid. I just knew I had to get us out of there. As a nurse, I had nothing I could use up there, so I prayed out loud."
Geithman didn’t hear Burns’ prayers, or much of anything else. The first time he passed out, his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell into a post covered with rusty nails and barbed wire. One of his hands caught on a nail, hanging him while his head hit the wire, slicing into his nose, according to Burns.
"He talked about seeing a white light," Burns said. "That’s when I started to lose it a little. I said, ‘You are not dying out here. I won’t let you.’ "
Geithman opened his eyes after several minutes, and the two slowly tried to make their way to a spot Burns could use a cell phone. It took about an hour, but Burns finally got a signal.
An Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter piloted by Pete Sadler, with Mark Serna, a department medical officer, on board, searched for the pair.
"They still had several more hours to hike out from where we found them," Serna said. "They had no idea where they were. On the cell, she said she could hear us but couldn’t see us. She waved a foil blanket they had in a safety kit. That’s when we spotted them."
Geithman said he didn’t want to take the kit but is glad he did. Serna said materials in such kits are helpful, with cigarette lighters, flashlights and even camera flashes used to spot people, especially at night.
"They’re both pretty lucky," Serna said. "They seemed like intelligent people who prepared. What happened to them is a common occurrence."
Jay Slevin of the Arizona Hiking Shack in Phoenix said there’s no such thing as overpreparation for a hike. Although many hikers think they know what they’re doing, they may not, according to Slevin.
"Poor planning and no foresight are the biggest problems," he said. "You can be spontaneous and want to have a good time, but there are some things you must think a lot about, like bringing bandanas, water and snacks to avoid shock. Sometimes, you do the Superstitions for a long hike and it’s in the 100s when you start and its in the 30s or 40s at night. Did you bring the right clothes?
"Most importantly, you have to be honest with yourself. You have to know what your abilities are and not go beyond them. You can be a couch potato and want to do a 10-mile hike, but do you really know what you’re getting into?"
Burns said while she and Geithman were close to where the hike began, it seemed very far away.
"It was only a 16-minute helicopter ride to the hospital," Burns said. "We left at 8:30 a.m., and it was about 5:15 p.m. when the helicopter came back to get me after they took Dave to the hospital."
What did Burns do while she was waiting for her ride? "I called my daughter in New Jersey," she said. "We had a lot to talk about."
Safety tips for hikers
• Bring more water or sports drink than you think you’ll need. Don’t ration it; don’t give heat exhaustion time to take effect.
• Wear appropriate clothing for sun, with at least a light top, and use sunscreen; wear closed shoes.
• Make sure your cell phone is fully charged and stay within cell range.
• Cell phones have Global Positioning Systems; stay in one place and wait for help.
• Tell others what time you’re leaving and where you’re going.
• Watch for snakes and other desert animals.
• Never hike alone or during the hottest part of the day.
• Don’t get too far into a trail.
• Stay in well-traveled areas, especially if you’re not used to hiking.
• Take survival supplies and medication if you’re allergic to bees or any stinging insects.
SOURCES: Arizona Department of Public Safety, Southwest Ambulance