The day after these events, I unloaded my racing thoughts onto paper while the visions and aches were still vivid. Yet, it has taken me a year to muster up some confidence to share the story. As another winter snow begins to fall, I’m reminded of all the outdoor adventures I’ve had since this experience, while holding the memories and lessons in the forefront of my mind. I hope you can learn from my experience as I have.
January 25th, 2014
Driving before dawn, I left Colorado Springs to pick up Matt, my long time hiking buddy, his friend Hannah from Denver, my college friend Andrew, and his new friend Jake from Boulder. We crept along I-70 in typical Rocky Mountain rush hour traffic all the way to Hwy 6 where we finally made it up Loveland Pass to our trailhead at its crest. Hitting the trail later than I would have liked just shy of 10am, but spirits were as high as the shinning sun so we strapped on our gaiters and began our trek.
This hiking crew was a new mix of people. Matt and I are treeline trekking veterans from many summers of hiking and backpacking at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp in the Rockies. This 10-mile hike over two mountains with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain was a typical alpine challenge for us. Hannah and Andrew were athletes with a couple fourteen thousand foot mountains (fourteers) hikes under their belts, but we soon found out that this was Jake’s first time above timberline. His inexperience explained why he was wearing jeans, far too much cotton, and didn’t bring sunglasses. This is enough to make any experienced alpine hiker cringe. I was concerned, but a clear forecast seduced me into thinking we had nothing but time for the trek along the ridge to Grizzly Peak (13,428’) and over to Torrey’s Peak (14,275’).
Only a light breeze reminded us of the winter chill as the Colorado sun shone warmly in the icy blue sky over our trail of wind-blown snow crusted alpine tundra. As we made our way along the undulating ridge, Hannah and Matt took up a quick lead, while Jake maintained a painfully slow trudge at the back. Andrew and I took turns yo-yoing back and forth between our friends, and I pulled out my camp counselor card from back in the day of relentlessly encouraging the slowest of hiking campers. The ascent of Grizzly Peak was a slick challenge with packed snow among the steep rocks, but Jake made his way to the summit struggling with foot placement and the increasingly thin air. Eventually, we all made it up the peak for a break with spectacular views and shelter from 10-15 mph wind for a much needed snack.
Here’s where it started and should have ended. I was concerned about Jake’s abilities and condition—physical and mental exhaustion, altitude sickness, hypothermia and dehydration were all very relevant concerns. We discussed our next move, and I said I would be willing head back to the car with anyone who didn’t want to hike on. But after our snack break spirits were high, the skies were clear, so no one took me up on my turnaround offer. Our unanimous desire to tackle Torrey’s summit drew us to our feet and on down the next snowy ridge. Looking at the vast saddle and rocky ridge between us and Torrey’s Peak was exciting until a glance at my watch turned excitement to apprehension.
Even with the clear skies of a Colorado January, hiking on towards a fourteener at 1:45pm is a rookie mistake. I knew better than to continue hiking that late in the day. I knew my concerns about Jake were legitimate. I knew I should have used my experience to more clearly assert the need to turn back with Jake to the car, even if it meant everyone else hiking on.
Peak fever is a quirky name for a serious yearning to reach the summit that hikers of all levels are familiar with. Douse a mismatched group of peers with no designated hike leader with a healthy dose of peak fever and poor decisions are sure to go unscrutinized. I discouraged myself from being a thorn in the side of my friends instead of acting on my better judgment. It is tough making the call to end someone else’s trip, new acquaintance or old friend; I will never again question my sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of others.
We continued on under the crystal blue sky, scrambling down Grizzly’s exposed ridge of rock and ice to the saddle at the base of the 1,700-foot climb up Torrey’s Peak. Matt and Hannah cruised to the summit as Andrew and I made slow progress up the steep scree slope with Jake trailing behind. I would have liked to speed ahead for the summit, but with Jake stopping for breath every dozen feet, I tempered my pace to that of Andrew and Jake’s. The alpine views were stunning but the clock on my wrist continued to draw my attention away from the panorama.
Eventually, Andrew and I made it to the ridge a half-mile below the summit. Matt and Hannah reconnected with us there on the way down from their successful ascent. Now the decision to turn back was easy. Jake was sitting not far below the ridge clearly exhausted and ready to be done. I gave him my bottle of tea and an extra granola bar as he was out of water and could have probably eaten an entire animal. Thankfully, we were able to glissade, or slide, down a thin track of snow making the trek back down to the saddle much easier and faster. Yet Jake could hardly pick up the pace on the descent without having to stop to catch his breath.
On to the saddle once more, Grizzly Peak stood more than 800 feet above us, casting a growing shadow on the ridge ahead. One glance at my wrist, and I was officially worried. My watched glared back at me 3:30pm. I hurried to catch up to Hannah and I gave her my car keys instructing her to go ahead with Matt and make it back to the car.
I said we would stay in contact via cell, and I would make sure the three of us made it back. Sunset would come soon and I insisted that struggling with three people in the dark would be better than five. Plus, I said with a doubtful grin, I had a flashlight.
Matt and Hannah took off at a brisk pace to summit Grizzly a second time and head down the trail that ungulates back to Loveland Pass and the car. I turned back to Jake and Andrew and flipped my mental switch to mama bear survival mode. The clock had finally started in my head though I know now it had been ticking all day.
I kept an eye and ear on Jake and Andrew as we slowly made our way up the crusty snow in the growing shadow of Grizzly Peak. Between words of encouragement and shouting instructions, I assessed for red flags. Jake was out of water, his jeans were snow crusted, and his balance was off. Andrew’s speech was not as sharp as usual and I took his declaration of “feeling ok” with a grain of salt. Jake had to be motivated to keep moving but he did not give much protest to continuing and stayed quite.
I saw no other option except getting them up and over Grizzly Peak and back to the car. I knew we needed to get down, get water, and get warm, but the summit followed by a long undulating ridge walk stood between Loveland Pass and us. The clock kept ticking, bring the sun closer to the horizon, as we picked our way up the icy ridge.
I was surprised by the exposure of the last half-mile to the summit. This was not a trail I would normally be concerned about, but with a stumbling partner and a setting sun, I had to instruct Jake’s every move, turning to watch him match the footprints already iced into the ridge. A slip here would have been devastating.
Finally we crested the summit and were greeted by the last warm rays of the sun before it ducked below the far off mountains. A brief sense of accomplishment kept hope alive as apprehension tied a thick knot in my stomach. The knot tightened as my watched glared 5:00pm.
Time to get down.
The descent was slick, so I insisted Jake sit and crab walk so we could pick up the pace without risking a nasty fall or a twisted ankle. It was a desperate but successful attempt to get to the saddle before we lost all light. With the final rays turning far-off clouds red, I took a pondering look at the valley bellow and Hwy 6 snaking its way from Loveland Pass to Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort. The road was nestled in the valley just below us at the foot of the mountain, with what looked like a straight shot down a gully to a small patch of trees just before the pavement. Alternatively, several miles of trail splayed out ahead of us along the now windy ridge. Lots of work and lots of uncertainty stood between our ride home and us.
I held my breath as I wrestled with the decision of what to do next. Andrew mentioned heading straight for the road, and I mulled it over. I weighed the required time and energy against the darkness and wind chill of the undulating miles along the ridge back to the car. The road below looked so close and getting Jake down in elevation was a huge priority. My eyes scrutinized the snowy gulley and little fuzzy patch of trees and snow that bordered the road. I had no more detailed knowledge of the terrain than what I could see from the mountaintop. But with no recent snowfall I believed avalanche danger was minimal and the fading light pushed me to make the decision to get down at all costs.
At 5:20pm, I sent Matt a text instructing them to meet us on the 4th bend of the road in about one hour.
Leaving the ridge, we started down steep scree before making it to perfect snow for a controlled and efficient glissade. We instructed Jake every step of the way and were thankful for the snow to speed things up. By the icy glow of twilight we plotted our tentative route around the gully that lead into the trees and toward the road. I knew entering the narrow gully was not wise: unknown snow depths, icy creeks, and a natural funnel for avalanches. So, we crossed to the north side of the valley, struggling through frustratingly sugary powder. Andrew led, wading through the powder, and I kept Jake moving with a barrage of encouragement. We labored on, waist deep in a sea of white, wet and cold, drawing imperceptibly closer to the woods and eventually the road. Andrew and I were wet and cold yet energized by the speedy decent off the ridge and motivated by Jake’s clearly deteriorating condition.
I struck out ahead giving Andrew a break from trail blazing, and made it to the north side of the gully—only to discover nothing but unreasonably deep powder. Struggling up to my chest, I told them to head back and try continuing on the south side of the gully. Exhaustion convinced me it was too much work to struggle back the way I came to the guys, so I decided to continue on my path with hopes of meeting them farther down the gully.
Our surroundings faded into shadows as the stars came out and fear set in. The juxtaposition of staggering beauty and startling danger was apparent to both Andrew and I as anxiety gripped us and snowy darkness enveloped us.
I stood alone, listening to Andrew verbally drag Jake from tree to tree across the snowy ridge parallel to me, maybe only a stones throw away. I took a moment to consider the situation, battling against the waves of emotion trying to crash over my cold body. For the first time it occurred to me that we might not make it. We might not make it to the road, and we might not make it through the night. I was cold and wet and swimming through a sea of infuriating sugar, not knowing how far the road was and listening to my friends struggle out of my reach. I knew we were in serious trouble. Andrew and I exchanged fear soaked yells across the gully and agreed we had made the wrong decision leaving the ridge, and we needed help. So with shaking hands I sent Hannah a text:
Me: get help at a basin
Hannah: Just get to the road. We can find you.
Me: No you need to get help. we might not make it to the road. In deep powder and are cold.
Looking back I realize how my thoughts slowed as the cold and exhaustion took its toll. While simultaneously my body’s stress and fear response doused my system in catecholamines allowing for a heightened understanding of the severity of the situation keeping me focused, positive, and goal oriented. I also knew how lucky we were to have a lifeline with spotty cell service clenched between my numbing fingers. I told myself repeatedly with slow intentional speech: don’t you dare drop this phone.
Tiny evergreens protruded from the snow around me, trees that probably stood tall and proud in the snowless summer. I grappled with their small branches for traction in the deep snow, thanking god for something to hang onto as I made my way across the small ridge. Every move required full body exertion as I reached, pulled, and kicked my way between trees, eventually making it to a clearing where the snow had enough of a crust that I was able to lay flat and roll down the slope like a child on grassy park hill.
The cold shadowy world spun around me as I traveled with the headlights of passing cars passing through the trees around me, tantalizing and surreal. We were so close the curves of the road were in view above to tips of evergreens. Yet there I was shivering in the dark snow, questioning our ability to make it out. I felt overwhelmed by fear for my friends who were in worse shape than I, and struggled a gully away from my cell phone, my flashlight, my survival blanket, and my encouragement. I struggled against my cold mind and numb fingers to make sure I had complete control over my zippered pocket where my phone and flashlight–out lifelines–resided.
Minutes crept by as exhaustion and cold weighted down my limbs. I don’t know how long I was separated from Andrew and Jake, but those solitary moments were some of the most sobering and terrifying. As I paused to catch an icy breath, it occurred to me that I knew I would get to the road. I knew I had the confidence, strength, determination, and wherewithal to not wait for a slow freezing death on this glittering mountain. What little relief I experienced from that realization passed as quickly as the headlights did through the trees, as it dawned on me that Jake would not make it to the road unless Andrew and I made sure of it. I could not depend on outside help and I knew without a doubt that their survival was my responsibility and Jake was my ticket out of the woods. My internal dialogue in that moment was a turning point, and I am thankful that even in a hypothermic state, I not once considered leaving for safety without my companions.
I was done with being alone. I strained my eyes at the trees across the grey gully until I could finally make out the shadows of my friends slowly moving through the dark. I yelled to them to stay high on the ridge and wait for me to come to them because the sea of sugar I was paddling through was leading me nowhere with any promise. So, my attention shifted to the obstacle between us, a grey abyss. Every bit of me said to be afraid of the gully; I was terrified of drowning in the unknown powdery depths, but I stubbornly saw no other way to get to my friends who needed me.
I had yet to pulled out my flashlight; hoping to get as much use out of our night vision as possible. But the ambiguity of the space in front of me called for illumination. With a shaky hand and stiff fingers I gripped the small flashlight pulling it from my coat pocket. The glorious LEDs momentarily blinded my straining eyes but in time illuminated an acceptable route into the gully. One final yell to inform Andrew and Jake of my plan and I set off.
With a steadying breath, I slid down the sugary bank several stories to the gully floor, sinking only to my waist. I sigh of relief nudged me forward. In the belly of the gully, I stood faced with a wall of snow and rock; heights unknown didn’t seem so impossible in the dim light softened by the blanket of deep powder. I attempted to dig out the space in front of me to take my first vertical step, but like digging in sand, empty space just fills once more with powder. Shifting my focus to the only features of the wall of white, I strangled a tiny evergreen protruding from the snow. The tree gave me enough traction to fully extend my reach; allowing for my fingertips to curl over the sharp edge of rock jutting from the wall far above my head. I hung there in suspension for a moment with the ever-present fear muted by the innocuous fluff enveloping my tiny bubble of light. With strength summoned from an unknown source I managed a smooth mantle onto the tiny ledge.
Silence and darkness, cold and fluff was my world. My stomach clamped down on the fear gnawing at my insides, and my mind slowly raced to think of what next. My yells received no response from my companions. A surprising pang of loneliness threatened to ignite fear into panic, so I knew there was nothing to do but keep calm and keep moving. So up through the snow I scrambled toward where I hoped my friends would be waiting.
Finally, I heard Andrew’s voice in the trees. I responded with my own, but they could not hear my yells tucked below the ridge, so I flashed my little LEDs on the surrounding trees and kept struggling up through the snow. Moments stretched thin until, like a bolt of lightening from the darkness, Andrew’s hand shot from the snowy shaddows into my glowing bubble. My heart leaped, and I unsuccessfully fought back the first tears of the night as I frantically clawed my way towards Andrew’s voice. The words “I’m so scared” shaking through my lips.
Beyond thankful to be reunited, we huddled under a tree in a tiny bowl of icy sugar on the edge of the gully. Our minds racing despite our cold and exhaustion, and intoxicating combinations of relief, fear, and uncertainty filled our minds. At that moment our hypothermic thoughts believed hunkering down was the best plan rather than continuing to struggle on for what felt like little gain.
A frantic assessment of our situation made it clear Jake was in bad shape; he was wet, cold, dehydrated, and exhausted, but thankfully still shivering. Andrew and I brushed snow off his frozen jeans, attempted to line his Carhartt with my foil emergency blanket, and had him sit on our packs to get him off the snow. Our own chattering teeth were hardly on our minds while we focused on Jake.
This whole time the world outside of our little bowl of snow was at work. And thanks to the wonder of modern technology, my zippered pocket still cradled my working phone. I deliberately and with great care shifted my focus to that tiny rectangle for the following disjointed yet encouraging texts and calls:
Hannah: Are you above treeline? We’re flashing out lights from the road..
Me: No we are in a gully level w the road. Lights do shine on us when cars turn the s bend
Astonishingly a call made it through from Search and Rescue via Hannah’s phone that resulted in 45 seconds of quickly trying to communicate where we were, Jake’s condition and our decision to hunker down to wait for help. The call dropped.
Another call finally connected at 6:57pm: They could see my trusty LEDs and knew we were not far from the road. With a few seconds of insisting, they convinced us to keep moving. Walking out was our best chance and our only real option.
Being told what to do, relinquishing the responsibility of having to decide, our cold brains could now just work on acting. It made all the difference. Andrew and I kicked it into high gear. My cold, exhaustion, and fear were instantly shoved aside as we gathered our gear. I hooked Jake under my left arm like a prom date and white knuckled the LEDs in my right hand extending them high over our heads as we set out. Together, the three of us slid down the snowy bank of the gully praying for walkable ground for our journey out.
For the next hour, Andrew and I never stopped talking, instructing Jake’s every move with persistent enthusiasm like two high-strung cheerleaders. Compared to the terror of our previous struggle through powder and darkness, this next section seemed like another journey all together. More maneuverable snow was a godsend, though we were still often up to our waists in wet powder. Again we were thankful for relief from decision-making thanks to the rescuer’s instructions to trust the gully to lead us to the road.
Andrew broke trail several paces ahead guided by my wavering LEDs, and I followed step for step with Jake. We side kicked across steep walls, slid down sugary slopes and post holed along the gully floor. With each passing minuet our hope and exhaustion focused on only keeping Jake moving towards the road. He was in an awful state; I don’t know if he was still shivering, but his speech was slurred and he fell with cramping legs every couple paces.
Every time a leg would sink to the waist through the snow it took all the energy we could muster to twist and roll and crawl to get moving again. Jake begged to stop and sit, but we egged him on, instructing him to crawl like a gorilla or scoot on his butt to keep him from staying in one place for more than 5 seconds. The energy I exerted to pull his increasingly deadweight 200 pound frame up with each stumble and the slew of words we kept rambling had me mentally and physical sore for days afterwards.
Finally, a quarter of a mile and a full hour later, we could see the glow of the road through the trees. Then we could see the orange blinking of emergency lights on the snow. And breaking through the trees like stepping out of a snow globe, the road appeared with our friends and the help they brought with them in full view.
Even the last 30 feet to the vehicles was a struggle as I stumbled with Jake over the chunky blocks of snow on the roadside. A responder named Brad met us in our struggle, and I gladly relinquished Jake to his care. He asked Jake his age and name repeatedly as the rescuers swept him into a flurry of helping hands and a warm truck where Jake later described being “deflower” by the rescuers as they stripped him of soaked clothing.
Relief and a slew of emotions washed over me and Andrew as Matt and Hannah embraced us. Time raced by as we shivered out of wet cloths and began the long journey back to warmth.
Andrew and I were certainly freezing and exhausted but our coherent answers to the crew’s concerned questions kept their focus on Jake. They later told us his body temperature had crept down to a dangerous 86°F classified as moderate hypothermia. If we had stopped moving towards the road, Jake’s muscle cramps, confusion, and slurred speech would have progressed quickly with deadly consequences. Andrew and I were surely in the stages of mild hypothermia, and I wish I knew what my body temperature was when we finally made it to the road at about 8:00pm after spending ten hours in the winter cold.
The responders buzzed around Jake like a hive around its queen as the scene moved to the Arapahoe Basin maintenance garage down the road. There, Andrew and I donned full body suits of fluffy down and sipped hot cider provided by ski patrol while we rehashed the day’s events to Phil, the head of the Summit County Rescue Group. Jake was in good hands as the warming procedures began in the back of a near by ambulance: warm IV fluids, warming blankets, and vital sign monitoring.
We spent the better part of an hour standing around discussing all that had happened since we set foot on the trail that morning. Phil and the rest of the response team (ski patrol, a police officer, Summit County Rescue Group, the maintenance guy) were very comforting as they kindly and sternly walked us through our decisions and mistakes. They asked us every thinkable question regarding the situation and encouraged us to ask our own. They wanted to know our thought processes along the way and comforted us with outrageous survival stories and outdoor blunders of their own. Andrew and I felt we were being served a heaping serving of humble pie, while also being thankful for every lessen learned.
I finally stopped shivering from cold, but continued shaking with adrenaline that seemed to be fueled by shame, humiliation, guilt, and relief. I could not help feeling responsible for all of the day’s happenings, and I continue to rehash each turning point in the story, analyzing my actions and decisions.
Everyone was kind, helpful, and thankful we made it out without a backcountry rescue and in time to get Jake the help he needed, which included an ambulance ride to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, CO. Despite his quick rewarming and rehydration, a three-night stay was still necessary to monitor his kidney function, muscle damage, and CPK levels.
After refueling with fast food and visiting Jake in the emergency room, Matt drove us back to Denver as midnight came and went. Exhaustion settled in as we talked through our analysis of the day and slowly downshifted from survival mode to recovery mod. As a group we debriefed, discussing the decisions, the experiences, the emotions and the lessons hopefully well learned. I cannot begin to express how thankful I am for Andrew’s positive attitude and strength throughout the journey. I could not have asked for a better partner in an unfortunate and scary situation.
This experience solidified for us the harsh realities of the natural world and our presence in it. My respect only grows for high altitude environments, snow, cold, and all of the skills, knowledge, and gear that we take with us. You never know when you will be faced with a survival situation; rarely do we set foot on a trail expecting to test our will for survival. But taking time to plan for the worst and build your survival knowledge and skills is essential to being as prepared as possible for the unknown while adventuring in risky and threatening environments.
Here are some of my lessons and resolutions for the future:
- I will always know with whom I’m hiking: their experience, limits, capabilities, and that they are prepared in knowledge and gear.
- I will always have knowledge of near by terrain or a topographical map with alternate routes.
- I will always set a mandatory turn back time and communicate a panic time to emergency contacts.
- I will always have emergency contacts available to my friends and/or in my car.
- I will commit to planned and established routes/trails while avoiding last minuet “short cuts.”
- I will continue to always be as prepared as possible. With knowledge and gear:
- Map/topographic understanding of the area
- Charged phone or other backcountry communication devise
- Extra water and food
- Fire starter
- Survival blanket
- Extra layers
- I will trust my intuition, experience, and knowledge as a hiker, outdoorswoman and leader. I will never again be sheepish about convincing someone (or some group) to turn back because of a legitimate reason (weather, time, water, health, etc). After all, now I can threaten with: “Last time we didn’t turn back when I thought we should someone spent three days in the hospital…”
- I will learn from every outing, every experience, and every person I encounter in the great outdoors.
- I will always stand in humble awe of nature’s beauty and power.