WINNIPEG – Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister choked up Tuesday as he recounted a harrowing night in the New Mexico desert that left him lost, wandering and with a broken arm.
“I am so happy to be alive. I am so thankful for the people down there,” said Pallister, who paused briefly to collect himself as he gave his first comments to media since an ill-fated hike Nov. 13.
His left arm, fractured in several places, remains in a sling.
“It’s been a humbling experience for me.”
Pallister was on vacation with his wife Esther when they decided to do a hike in the Gila Wilderness — a remote protected area in southwest New Mexico with limited roads, amenities and cellphone coverage.
Thinking it would be a short day hike, Pallister dropped his wife off at the north end of a trail, drove to the south end and started hiking toward a meet-up point halfway, he said.
The trail was much harder than expected, Pallister said. It was covered in some areas by downed trees and washed out in others by earlier flooding. As sunset came and the desert temperature dropped, Pallister, who was without a flashlight, got lost.
“I ran out of light. I lost the trail,” he said.
“It wasn’t a new moon but it was pretty close, and you can’t see well, so I fell I don’t know how many times … probably a couple of dozen.”
Pallister also recalled running into barbed wire. He suffered scrapes and bruises as he stumbled along, he said, and decided to turn back. His thinking was he would either meet Esther at his starting point or retrieve their vehicle and drive to the other end and pick her up.
As he made his way back, he lay down at one point, but it was too cold to stay put.
“I was trying to cover up and rest and I just started to shake and I knew I had to get up. And I got up and saw a spotlight,” he said.
“I’d been wandering around in the dark for four hours, so that’s where the 70 lacerations and the cactus stuff that I’m picking out of my body came from mostly.”
The spotlight belonged to a police officer. But after a few moments, it went out, the premier said. By this point, he was cramping with exhaustion and cold, and bleeding from some of the cuts.
“I screamed as loud as I could, and the guy went, ‘Whoop’ with his siren and then I knew I was getting out of there.”
But the final trek to the spotlight would lead to the most serious injury. The spotlight came back on, Pallister walked toward it, hit some more barbed wire, climbed over it and started sliding down an embankment into a small valley out of the spotlight’s range.
“I slid, and my arm … caught, spun back and that’s when I broke my arm.”
Pallister was rescued. He spent the night in hospital, recuperated at a rental property and returned to Winnipeg on Friday.
His wife had passed him at some point — he was already lost — and she made it to the trailhead where he had started and reported him missing.
Pallister said he doesn’t think he will need any more surgery to his arm, but his knee is going to be examined.
The Opposition New Democrats have raised questions about how long Pallister was out of contact on his vacation and why days went by before the public was told about what happened.
Pallister said he had a cellphone on the trip, just not on the remote hike. He said he was focused on recovering after the accident and his staff was aware of what was happening.
“Had there been some type of an emergency here in Manitoba, we have a structure on our team with people delegated and designated to be in charge of that.”
Pallister and his wife plan to return at some point to the Gila Wilderness — likely with flashlights and other supplies.
“No trail beats me. I’m going back.”