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An Austin hiker survived more than a day lost in the scorching West Texas desert

Jeff Hahn survived 27 hours lost in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Michael Minasi
Texas Standard
Jeff Hahn survived 27 hours lost in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

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.”

» RELATED: Grand Canyon National Park has a unique protocol to keep hikers safe in the heat

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.

Jeff Hahn displays a scar from his Big Bend ordeal. Hahn broke his wrist while lost for 27 hours in the park.
Michael Minasi
Texas Standard
Jeff Hahn displays a scar from his Big Bend ordeal. Hahn broke his wrist while lost for 27 hours in the park.

What was the third miracle? 

It was probably 4:00 in the morning when I finally stood up. As I thought about my next move, I knew I needed to go south, because what is south? South is three things: the highway, the border where border patrol might be, and the Rio Grande.

That decision required me to climb out of a canyon that was probably about 40 feet high. I was grabbing onto cactus, grabbing onto rocks, pulling myself up. I finally made it. The third miracle turns out to be a rock over on the side of this canyon that I’m in, with a metal bar sticking out of it. It’s like a horseshoe stake.

I was able to shimmy up onto the rock. The relief from being able to dangle my arms was terrific. Then, I hear an airplane. With that, I began to ask, “what’s my next move?” Before I could even shimmy off the rock, here comes a helicopter. It’s Texas DPS, and it’s moving slow.

I’m waving and waving and waving to try to get its attention. That is super difficult, as it turns out. I watched the helicopter fade off. I think I hear a voice. By this time, you don’t know if you’re hearing things, if you’re imagining things, if you’re delusional. It’s been a long time and it was getting hot again. I do know that I need to get down this canyon and find shade and keep moving my way south.

I hear this voice a second time, and I decide to pull that metal bar out of the side of the canyon with all the strength I had left. I start pounding it on that rock. It’s the loudest tuning fork in West Texas at that moment. I couldn’t see him. But sure enough, here come two Border Patrol rangers on foot. They’re coming my way, calling my name. That was my third miracle.

You were rescued, taken to the hospital, treated for your condition and injuries. Any final thoughts or takeaways from this experience?

My wish this Thanksgiving week is to convey thanks to the Rangers who scrambled and who were searching that area. There were dozens of them searching for me. I’d also like to thank the helicopter pilots who pulled me out of the canyon and then conveyed me up to Alpine to the hospital, and thank the nurses and the emergency room doctors who were able to reverse my condition.

I was in acute renal failure, as it turned out, which is why I got flown to El Paso. And then I spent four days in El Paso. So I can say to those people, thank you.

Clarification: A photo caption accompanying this story has been updated to say that Jeff Hahn was lost in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.