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Mauretania RPCV Peter Schlesinger's life saved by a friend on the Inca Trail
Mauretania RPCV Peter Schlesinger's life saved by a friend on the Inca Trail
Chance encounter changes lives
Strangers from the state meet in Peru
By DONALD MAHLER
July 06. 2004 8:00AM
Two men - two strangers - met one day while going for a hike. After speaking for a few moments, they realized they were both from New Hampshire. What are the chances of two New Hampshire guys meeting up on the Inca Trail . . . in Peru?
But that's what makes life so interesting: Chance. Yes, it was chance that brought these two men together thousands of miles from home. Chance and fortune.
And without both, one of these men might not have come back off that trail alive.
A tale of two hikers
Mike O'Neil came over the crest of the 600-year-old stone trail and surveyed his Inca empire stretching out below. The sky was a perfect blue, the countryside rich in color and alive with the natural beauty of high altitude flowers, the views magnificent and endless.
O'Neil was loving every minute of it. He had let his group go on ahead so he could revel alone in the sights and auras - taking pictures of the breathtaking views from his 14,000-foot perch.
One of the principal owners of Hutchens Investment Management of New London, O'Neil has lived in Lebanon the past 11 years. A New Hampshire native, he went to high school at Manchester West, where he played soccer and hockey.
For the past six months, O'Neil had traveled through South and Latin America learning Spanish, living the culture and training for and competing in triathlons in Chile, Honduras, Belize, Mexico and Peru. He also made a point of finding places where he could indulge in his other sporting passion: fly-fishing.
For O'Neil, the four-day expedition along the Inca Trail was hardly a challenge, just a beautiful walk surrounded by Incan history.
"For me, it was about the journey, not about the destination," says O'Neil of his Inca Trail hike. "I was just observing a lot of things."
One of the things he observed was another hiker along the trail obviously in some distress.
"I saw Peter from about 300 meters away. He was walking with two sticks and staggering down the trail. He was still wearing his heavy clothing from the morning and was sweating badly. I could tell something was not right."
It was the same hiker O'Neil had seen on the first day of the hike. "He was going out too fast. I told the people in my group he was eventually going to pay for that pace."
Trying to outlast the hurt
The pace had caught up to Peter Schlesinger - and with a vengeance. The pace, the altitude and a few other maladies, as well. The dream trip was quickly turning into a nightmare.
The four-day trek to Machu Picchu was the chance of a lifetime that Schlesinger, 45, had planned as a special treat after a business trip to Lima, Peru.
Schlesinger, who grew up in New Hampton and graduated from Newfound High School and the University of New Hampshire, was no stranger to foreign travel. He had spent two years in Israel on a kibbutz and two more years in the Peace Corps in Mauretania, West Africa. For the past 15 years, he has worked as a geographer and ecologist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts studying the impact of humans on the terrestrial ecology.
After three days at a conference in Lima, Schlesinger headed to Cusco, Peru, to meet up with a friend and head out for the Inca Trail. It had been a few years since he had undertaken such an arduous adventure, and at 6-feet, 3-inches tall and 260 pounds, maybe a few years since he was in top shape, too.
Still, it was the hike he came for and the hike he was going to accomplish.
Schlesinger was so excited about the opportunity that he hardly gave his body the chance to get acclimated to the very high altitude and the stress that it would bring.
First, he was suffering from dysentery, picked up during his stay in Lima.
The first night of the hike he spent going to the bathroom. And to top it off, he was taking medication for altitude sickness that happened to be a diuretic as well.
The next morning he was exhausted, dehydrated and beginning to feel the effects of altitude.
Peter Schlesinger was a classic case of a hiker who didn't know how bad off he was. He was suffering but still pushing himself onward and higher.
Yet, nobody in his group - neither his guide nor the people he was hiking with - seemed to notice. And worse yet, nobody seemed to care.
Help is on the way
"I didn't realize how bad I was,"says Schlesinger. "I'm out of shape, water is pouring out of me and now we're heading up to 14,000 feet. But I just had it in my mind to keep going. I took some Imodium (anti-diarrhea medicine) and started back out."
When he finally reached "Dead Woman's Pass" (named for a rock formation on the trail) Schlesinger found his party waiting, unaware of his plight.
Rested and hydrated, they were taking pictures of the views, eager to continue the day's hike. But all Schlesinger could do was fall down on his belly in agonized exhaustion -trying to figure out how he was going to continue in his condition.
As his group left him to return to the trail, Schlesinger staggered to his feet and started his descent -alone. "I had two walking sticks and was doing the best I could not to fall.
Behind him, O'Neil came over the pass. "When I saw Peter, I thought he was hiking alone. There was no one around him," says O'Neil. "And you could see he was in trouble.
"I got next to him and asked him if he was all right. He just grunted. I could tell he needed help. I started back up the hill to find his guide."
After running about a half-mile, O'Neil found Schlesinger's guide and part of his group. After explaining the situation, O'Neil realized that the guide did not share his sense of urgency and trouble.
O'Neil knew better and ran back to check on Schlesinger. "He could have fallen off the trail at any time,"recalls O'Neil. "He may not have been in immediate medical danger, but physically he was in danger of hurting himself."
O'Neil ran to find his group. As fate would have it, O'Neil's group included five doctors from New Zealand. The group immediately turned around and made its way back toward Schlesinger.
"I remember hearing someone call my name and ask me if I was all right," says Schlesinger. "I was so delirious, I almost fell off the trail."
Rescued by kindness
Schlesinger fell into the arms of his rescuers.
The doctors saw that O'Neil's warning was correct. Schlesinger was suffering from the effects of altitude, though by this time, he was incapable of realizing it, much less doing anything about it.
His pulse, normally 68, was up near 200. He was still sweating profusely and talking incoherently.
They sat him down and immediately gave him some water. They fed him cocoa candies to help with his blood sugar and gave him oxygen to help revive him.
O'Neil and his group stayed with Schlesinger for about an hour. When it was clear he was finally out of the woods, they started down the trail together, taking breaks every 10 minutes of so.
The help came just in time. "Nobody else around me recognized the symptoms of altitude. I still had six to eight miles to walk to get to camp. I was in rough shape," admits Schlesinger.
"You have to look out for other human beings. It doesn't matter what country they're from or who they are," says O'Neil. "You're out there on the trail, and if someone is in trouble, you help them. It's that simple."
A new lease
Schlesinger has been back at work for a few weeks. He still suffers from the effects of the dysentery -he's lost 30 pounds since the harrowing journey - and has put off plans for a trip to Brazil later this month.
But no matter what they are doing or where they are in the world, Michael O'Neil, the triathlete from Lebanon, and Peter Schlesinger, the Woods Hole researcher, will forever be linked.
Two men - two strangers - who met one day while going for a hike. Brought together by chance, a life-changing trip became a life-saving moment.