Colin Skinner and the boots that nearly killed him. (Photo: Kirkner)
Englishman nearly loses limbs in awareness campaign
Dr. Colin Skinner looks and sounds like your typical English gentleman (minus the bad teeth), and when I met up with him at the Shilo Inn this week I half expected him to offer me a cup of tea. I soon came to find out, however, that the tale he had on the menu instead was better than any hot infusion.
If it hadn’t been for a strange snow year, Skinner may have passed through Mammoth without any fanfare. As circumstances had it, however, he limped his way into the limelight.
Skinner had been on a journey of epic proportions. It began in 2009 when he walked, yes walked, from New York to North Dakota. In the fall of 2011, Skinner traveled back to the United States from his home in Walmer, England to finish walking from North Dakota to San Francisco.
It was the second time he had taken this stroll. In 1989 he attempted, and fully completed a walk across the United States. The purpose: to raise awareness and a little bit of money for hospices.
The 1989 venture proved so rewarding that 20 years later Skinner set off to do it again, still with the mindset of raising hospice awareness. This time, however, he had time limits set upon him by his wife, Monica, which is why he broke the walk into two trips. He was only allowed to be away from Monica and their son, James, now 15, for four or five months at a time.
The 2009 leg of the journey went off without a hitch, which leads to Skinner’s recent appearance in Mammoth. On Sept. 10, 2011 he set off to walk from Devil’s Lake, North Dakota to San Francisco, Calif. It was during his final stretch over the Sierra that hardship struck.
“I had made my way up the 395 to Lee Vining by Tuesday, Jan. 24,” Skinner explained. “I set off on Wednesday morning to go over Tioga Pass.”
In 1989 the trek from Lee Vining up and over the pass took Skinner one very long day. This time, it would take him more than three and leave him with mental and physical scars.
When Skinner had crossed over the pass in 1989 the snow had been hard, wind blown, firm. Not taking into consideration that the snowpack might be different this year, Skinner headed out in leather boots that were not waterproof, and snowshoes only to quickly discover “Sierra Cement.”
“The snow got deeper and deeper,” he said. “”It was thick, wet heavy snow and it slowed me down.”
As night fell Skinner had yet to reach the pass so he pitched his tent along the side of the road.
“My boots were wet but I was able to dry my feet,” he said. During the night two skiers came up the road and shouted a hello to Skinner inside his tent. They were two off duty rangers heading into the park to meet the Yosemite rangers. Skinner told them to let the Yosemite rangers know he was headed in their direction. Then he went back to sleep.
After another extremely slow-going and long day on Thursday, Skinner still found himself miles from the winter cabins and the rangers he was headed for. That night, inside his tent, Skinner’s boots froze.
Video footage that Skinner shared showed him holding up a stiff frozen sock on Friday morning, his third day out since leaving Lee Vining. Still, it wasn’t until video footage he shot toward the end of that third day that he appeared visibly shaken.
“I am losing sensation in my right foot,” he told the camera.
During that third night, once again in his tent, Skinner began to worry. He had no sensation in either of his feet. He put his frozen boots into his sleeping bag and breathed into them, trying to defrost them.
Not only that, but he was almost out of food. He had brought enough for four days, expecting his trip over the pass not to take much longer than that. However, the snow and ever-increasing issues with his feet had only allowed him to walk about one-third to one-half a mile per hour.
“I had made mistakes,” Skinner said. “I had done it before and it wasn’t a problem, but this time it was too much with the snow conditions. Being unable to walk is the worst-case scenario for a walker.”
On Saturday morning, Jan. 28, after having summited the Pass the day before, Skinner was able to get himself the last half-mile to the rangers’ winter cabins. When he arrived he didn’t find anyone there right away and began to worry more.
“If the rangers weren’t there, that would have been it,” he said.
But Skinner was in luck. Rangers Rob and Laura Pilewski soon found him and had him resting, eating and relaxing in no time.
Skinner’s right foot was swollen and he didn’t have feeling in any of his toes, so the Pilewskis started working on a plan to get him out of there. They made contact with Mono County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue. On Sunday morning the rangers took Skinner to the top of Tioga Pass by snowmobile where SAR was waiting to pick him up and take him to Mammoth Hospital.
He left his snowshoes with the rangers.
“I told them I never wanted to see them again.”
But he brought his 14-year-old boots back with him, even though he described their failure as “an old friend who has betrayed you.”
By Wednesday, Feb. 1 Skinner had regained some feeling in his toes and doctors had diagnosed him with mild frostbite.
“They said the feeling may come back in about four months or it may not come back at all,” Skinner said.
When asked if he was frustrated by having been unable to complete the walk, Skinner said, “Not as much as you would think. In total [between the 1989 and present trip] I’ve walked 11,500 miles and visited 160 hospices. Missing the last 250 or so miles isn’t a huge thing. It’s not about the miles, it’s about the people.”
And Skinner has spoken about hospice care with thousands. Some of them hand over a donation at the close of the conversation, which Skinner passes on to the next hospice that he visits. Others just drink in knowledge of a type of care that is often categorized as being for patients on their way out.
“People think hospice is the last stop and often don’t want to go into hospice care,” Skinner said.
But in reality it’s about making the most of life in a facility that focus on quality of life. Some patients go in and out of hospice care, while others are there for six months to a year before passing away.
“People should turn to hospices sooner rather than later,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s over. People with serious illnesses are still alive.”
Skinner funds his walks personally and has also walked across Britain twice to raise awareness.
On this recent trip, he visited the hospices in Lone Pine and Bishop.
Skinner has been performing physical feats for charity since 1983 when he ran a marathon to raise money for handicap children. In 1984 he pushed a wheelchair with a blue stuffed lion in it across Britain, again for handicap children.
Learn more about Skinner at www.nationalhospicefoundation.org/colin.