ROOSEVELT — Duane Lawson says he was having a hard time just putting one foot in front of the other on Aug. 4 when he thought he'd found help in the form of a U.S. Forest Service work crew.
The 51-year-old had traveled from Mesa, Ariz., to Utah to join four friends for a hike along the Highline Trail in the High Uintas Wilderness Area. The party set off Aug. 2 from Hacking Lake in Uintah County and planned to wrap up its adventure one week later at Mirror Lake in Duchesne County.
But by his third day on the trail, Lawson said he was experiencing severe symptoms of altitude sickness. He was nauseous and dizzy, wasn't sleeping well, and he was having difficulty breathing.
"Every step, I was gasping for air," he said. "In fact, if I did just about anything I was gasping for air."
To add to his problems, Lawson's heavy boots weren't properly broken in. His heels were blistered. A few of his toenails were showing signs that they might fall off. And the hip belt on his aluminum-frame backpack, which was loaded down with camera equipment and 10 days' worth of food, had rubbed Lawson's hips raw.
"I knew the best thing for me was to get out," Lawson said, sitting in a booth at the Frontier Grill in Roosevelt. "It was kind of a forced death march for me at that point."
Lawson's group decided he would follow the Chepeta Lake Road down out of the mountains in search of help. About five miles into his hike, Lawson encountered a team of Forest Service employees replacing a culvert under the road.
"I told them, 'I have altitude sickness, my feet are an absolute mess, I'm having a very difficult time putting one foot in front of the other. Could you please just give me a ride out to town?' " he said. "The head guy said, 'We can't give you a ride because you're not a government employee.' "
Lawson, who says he once worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was stunned by the response.
"In the end, I'm basically collapsed on the side of the road watching these guys zoom right by me and leaving me out there on my own," Lawson said. "People need to know that the Forest Service isn't going to help you and that's unacceptable frankly. If somebody's in trouble, they need to help them."
Louis Haynes, spokesman for the Ashley National Forest, said the road crew told him Lawson never informed them of his need for medical aid. Had he done so, Haynes said, the crew would have summoned the appropriate help.
"From their perspective, the gentleman didn't ask for assistance beyond a ride," Haynes said. "That's our take on it. He didn't say he was in medical need. The only thing that he stated was that he wanted a ride."
Haynes confirmed that U.S. Department of Agriculture policy prohibits employees from giving members of the public a ride in a government vehicle. But Haynes said the policy doesn't prohibit individuals from helping someone during an emergency.
"If he had said he needed medical assistance, we would have called for medical assistance," he said, "which would have probably been a LifeFlight helicopter in that location."
"As far as refusing a ride in a government rig, I think the road crew was on it," Haynes added, characterizing the incident as a "he said, she said" situation.
"Obviously we could have done a little bit better job of facilitating that ride to town," he said. "Maybe we could work a little bit on our customer service. I think there's room to grow there."
Lawson believes he made it "pretty clear" he needed help. And Ken Evans, who encountered Lawson on the road and gave him a ride into Roosevelt, said it was obvious to him the backpacker was in trouble.
"He was hiking up a small incline and it looked like he was hobbling and struggling with his pack on the main road," the Vernal man said. "He stuck his thumb out and had that look on his face like he was haggard."
Evans added that it sounded like Lawson had pneumonia.
"When he got in the truck and started coughing, he had a gurgling sound," Evans said.
Lawson said he was "absolutely elated" when Evans agreed to give him a ride.
"I knew I had been pulled from the jaws of a really bad, bad situation," Lawson said. "As each mile passed I was more and more grateful."
An experienced mountaineer who once scaled Mount Kenya in Africa, Lawson openly admits he misjudged his ability to tackle the Highline Trail. Still, he's disturbed at the response he says he got from the Forest Service employees he encountered and is concerned that strict adherence to policy might someday cost someone their life.
"I'm not the first one and I'm not going to be the last one to get into trouble in the wilderness," he said.