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Water at hand, he died of thirst

Documents reveal N.J. man's ordeal during a survival-training hike.

Dave Buschow went for 10 hours without water even though the guides carried it.
Dave Buschow went for 10 hours without water even though the guides carried it.Read more

BOULDER, Utah - By Day 2 in the blazing Utah desert, Dave Buschow was in bad shape.

Pale, racked by cramps, his speech slurred, the 29-year-old New Jersey man was desperate for water and hallucinating so badly he mistook a tree for a person.

After going roughly 10 hours without a drink in the 100-degree heat, he finally dropped dead of thirst, face down in the dirt, less than 100 yards from the goal: a cave with a pool of water.

But Buschow was no solitary soul, lost and alone in the desert. He and 11 other hikers from various walks of life were being led by expert guides on a wilderness-survival adventure designed to test their physical and mental toughness.

The guides, it turned out, were carrying emergency water.

Buschow wasn't told that, and he wasn't offered any. The guides did not want him to fail the $3,175 course. They wanted him to dig deep, push himself beyond his limits, and make it to the cave on his own.

Nearly a year later, documents obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act reveal those and other previously undisclosed details of what turned out to be a death march for Buschow. They also raise questions about the judgments and priorities of the guides at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School.

"They had emergency water right there. I would have given him a drink," said Ray Gardner, the Garfield County sheriff's deputy who hiked six miles to recover Buschow's body.

His brother, Rob Buschow of Glen Spey, N.Y., said, "I don't have my brother anymore because no one would give him water."

The school, known as BOSS, denies negligence and blames Buschow, saying the security officer and former Air Force airman did not read course materials, may have withheld health information, and may have eaten too heavily before leaving River Vale, N.J., for the grueling course.

"Mr. Buschow expressly assumed the risk of serious injury or death prior to participating," the school said.

Garfield County authorities declined to file charges, saying there was insufficient evidence the school acted with criminal negligence.

The U.S. Forest Service, however, has stopped BOSS from using Dixie National Forest for a portion of the 28-day course this summer until it gets outside advice on providing food and water. The agency said it was the first death of a participant in a BOSS survival exercise.

The Colorado-based school dates to the late 1960s. In 1994, BOSS alumnus Josh Bernstein, a New Yorker with an Ivy League education, took over. He also hosts the History Channel's Digging for the Truth, which takes viewers on archaeological adventures around the world.

BOSS emphasizes personal growth through adversity. During the 28-day survival course, held 250 miles from Salt Lake City, campers are required to hike for miles and drink what they can find from natural sources.

Campers are equipped with only a knife, water cup, blanket and poncho, and are told they could lose 20 pounds or more. They learn to catch fish with their hands and kill a sheep with a knife.

The course is intended to push people "past those false limits your mind has set for your body."

Buschow had marched the Arctic tundra in Greenland. After leaving the Air Force, he worked security at U.S. bases outside the country. He recalled his days as a Boy Scout in his May 2006 application to BOSS.

"Although in the yrs since, I have continued to appreciate Mother Nature," he wrote by hand, "I still haven't ever truly immersed myself in her embrace. I fear that I'm becoming a 'comfort camper,' having never come close to looking her in the eyes."

Buschow described himself as 5-foot-7 and about 180 pounds, with a resting pulse of 66.

The documents obtained by the AP disclose the brief but bitter wilderness adventure of Buschow:

On July 16, he gathered with the 11 others, including some from England and a college student who had bicycled from Maine. Most were in their 20s and 30s. They ran 11/2 miles so the staff could assess their conditioning.

On the second day, the group set out around sunrise and stopped about 8:30 a.m. to dip their cups into Deer Creek in what turned out to be the only water until evening. Buschow pulled a bottle from his pack - but was warned by the staff not to fill it.

The group, led by three guides, formed a loose chain, with stronger hikers ahead of people struggling at the mile-high elevation.

They rested periodically, looking for signs of water. At least two attempts to dig for water failed.

From written comments of other campers, Buschow was cheerful, encouraging and coherent at times, but a man in deep trouble hours before he collapsed.

"Every time [Buschow] would fall or lie down, it took a huge amount of effort to pick him back up," a camper wrote. "His speech was thick and his mouth swollen.

"Every time he continued, he'd rush ahead, often in the wrong direction and so exhausting himself even more," the camper wrote.

The sun was described as blazing, inescapable.

Some people vomited. Buschow was suffering from leg cramps about 2:30 p.m. and said he was feeling "bad."

During a break, he mistook a tree for a person and said, "There she is."

By 7 p.m., as the sun descended and temperatures cooled, the group approached a cave in Cottonwood Canyon, which BOSS guides knew held water.

Within earshot of people exhilarated about the pool of water, Buschow collapsed for the last time.

"He said he could not go on," staff member Shawn O'Neal wrote two days later in a statement ordered by the Garfield County Sheriff's Office. "I felt that he could make it this short distance and told him he could do it as I have seen many students sore, dehydrated and saying 'can't' do something only to find that they have strength beyond their conceived limits."

O'Neal didn't inform Buschow about his emergency water.

"I wanted him to accomplish getting to the water and the cave for rest," he wrote.