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This is a true story of a hike gone wrong on Long’s Peak, in Rocky Mountain National Park. However the names are fictional so as not to reveal the true identity’s of the people involved.
Rex and his two friends Tom and David swung their packs onto their backs and set off up the Longs Peak trail. It was October 1990 around 8:00 a.m. Most people start their hike up Longs Peak at 2 a.m. as it’s a tough 15-mile round-trip hike, with an elevation gain of 5,000 ft. The weather is unpredictable, and often threatening storms can roll in during the afternoon.
On this day the weather was fine and the brisk coolness of the morning air had passed, the warm sun cast shadows in the trees as the small group started up the trail. They took a break when they reached timberline, then pushed on across the tundra to The Boulderfield. On the far side of this field of rocks they visited the hut that had been erected in memory of Agnes Vaille. Agnes had accomplished the first winter ascent of the east face of Longs Peak in January 1925, but was caught in a storm and died of exposure.
Next they scrambled through The Keyhole and were slammed by a blast of icy wind that took their breath away. Below was a gathering of 13-ers (thirteen thousand foot high mountains); McHenry’s Peak, Pagoda, Chiefs Head, and more and the group were in awe of their beauty, with the snow fields and glaciers of that year still clinging to the rocks. As each of them passed through the Keyhole, the marmots whistled farewell behind them.
There was still a thousand feet to go and one and a half miles to the 14,255 ft. summit of Longs Peak, a tough scramble. All four in the group were beginning to feel the effects of altitude now. None of them had drunk much water, and now began to sip more often on their water supply. At around 3:00 p.m. they took a break before tackling The Trough, and nibbled on some hiking bars. They found it difficult to eat at this altitude and the food was unappealing, but their energy was lagging and they needed the boost. Whilst resting they admired the view and the clear sky. Little did they know that on the other side of the mountain gray, threatening clouds were steadily gathering.
Up the Trough they pushed, climbing at a 35 degree angle and trying hard not to disturb the loose rocks and send them tumbling on their friends below. Here they met one lone hiker coming down. He informed them that he was the last person on the trail, and that there were some pretty nasty looking clouds moving in on the other side of the mountain, but the foursome figured that they only had a mile or so to go. Surely they could make it. Had they listened to the stranger and turned back, they would not have suffered the way they did.
Once up the Trough they approached The Narrows. These rocky ledges were fully exposed, and the wind whipped around them furiously, its icy fingers trying to push them towards the sheer drop off below. They all zippered up their jackets and pulled down their caps. Even with their gloves on the tips of their fingers turned numb. The Narrows passed behind them quickly, and they were soon pumping blood on their way up the Homestretch.
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With only four hundred and fifty feet to go, they knew they would make it, and scrambled the forty-five degree angle with enthusiasm, primordial fashion, as the rocks were steep and smooth with little to hold onto. The last few feet of these slick rocks proved to be very challenging, as it appeared to be covered in a layer ice.
Minutes later the threesome triumphantly stepped onto the summit, but their elation and high five’s turned cold as they noticed the thick clouds approaching fast. Within seconds they were swallowed by the murk and found it difficult to see each other through the stinging grapple it threw at them.
Rex felt fear rise in his gut as he noticed that behind them the blue sky was gone and thick gray clouds full of snow loomed around them.
“Let’s get off here” he shouted to the others, and they started to scramble down.
The grapple had now turned to thick snow flakes, and in just five minutes The Homestretch had become a sled run. Rex and his friends found themselves slipping over the rocks far to fast for comfort. Their feet seemed to have a mind of their own, flying out from under them, leaving them clinging and dangling by their fingertips.
Slowly and very carefully they made their way down, yelling to each other to keep track of the way, as now their vision had become impaired by the whirling snow blowing in spirals all around them. Finally they made it to the bottom of The Homestretch, and all gathered in a group to discuss the situation.
It was obvious they had to push on, but they could see very little.
“Let’s just stay very close, so we can hold onto each other, and stay as close to the rocks as possible” said Rex. He was scared, and feeling a little guilty about exposing his two friends to this situation. He was more experienced, and was the leader and should never have let this happen.
Gradually, inch by inch they eased along the narrows, feeling their way on shuffling feet, and talking to each other constantly to try and calm their nerves. It was impossible to get lost, there was only one way to go, but the sheer drop to their left was only a couple of steps away, and each of them feared slipping and plummeting to their death on the craggy rocks below. This fear was reflected in their quavering voices. Never had they been this scared before. The snow was slick, making it hard to get a grip on the rocks. At one point Rex cracked his head on a low overhanging rock he had not seen. They were in a total white out.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, Rex bumped into an obstruction before him. He recalled climbing over this rock on the way, and felt around it to find his way. Each man slowly made it over the rock, and they all crouched down behind it.
“How far from The Trough are we?” Asked David.
“Not far at all”, replied Rex “Only a few minutes away”.
“I don’t think we should try it”, remarked Tom “It will be very slippery, and besides we can’t see a thing in this damn snow, if only the wind would let up”.
Rex looked out from the huddle at the total white out around them and he knew they were stuck.
“I agree, I think we had best just sit here and wait it out”.
So the three of them took off their packs, and sat on them with their backs to the whirling snow, cuddled up close to wait out the storm.
Time passed, hands grew numb, toes began to stiffen up in the cold. They realized they would probably freeze to death if they did not stay active. All minds turned to poor Agnes, dying up here from exposure. The realization that this could happen to them was forefront in all their minds.
So they took turns doing jumping jacks in the little space they had. They nibbled on the power bars they had brought, and rationed out their water. Rex had made sure that each person had plenty of food, water and clothes, but none of them were prepared for an overnight stay.
Fear? Rex had not known what the word meant till then. He was terrified of dying up there, freezing to death. It was this fear that kept them going. They dozed on and off, then would wake with a start, and get up again to do more jumping jacks. They put their water inside their coats, and their food under their armpits along with their hands. At some point in the interminable night the snow stopped and the wind died down. They peered out into total darkness, but with no flash light, were forced to stay where they were until daylight came. To ease the boredom and the fear at one point they shared stories. As they expanded their imaginations they started to get silly, and made up stories of monstrous sized killer marmots that were coming to get them.
Finally, through red swollen eyes, they noticed a change in the light. Each slowly got up, stiff and cold. Their feet refused to connect with their brains and they stumbled clumsily. With trembling hands they helped each other get on their packs, and peered at the mountains below them.
A blanket of snow covered the valley, it was beautiful, but to these three this snow was a sentence to death.
They had made it through the night, but they still had to get off the mountain. Tired and blurry eyed, stiff and hungry, they painstakingly made their way down the Trough. Each step was agony, their toes were stiff, their hands would not work properly, the rocks were slick and they fell often, cursing loudly. They had been surprised to find there was only about four inches of snow, but it didn’t make their progress any easier, a foot of snow would have given them better footing.
When finally they reached the tundra, and the sun cast its feeble rays on them, the men found that life was returning to their outer extremities. Their hands and toes stung as though a swarm of bees had attacked them, and the men gave in to the pain willingly knowing their toes and fingers had been saved from death.
It was 3:00 p.m. that day when this weary and bedraggled threesome finally collapsed next to their car, safe, alive, and whole.
Rex has now climbed Longs Peak a total of 11 times. He learned his lesson that day. He had made sure his friends had plenty of food, clothes and water, but had failed to pack flashlights, and other emergency gear, such as an emergency blanket. He now carries all this gear all the time, even on short day hikes. I the mountains one cannot be too cautious, weather, accidents or getting lost can leave a person in a very serious situation in a very short time. As the saying goes ‘ The Mountains Don’t Care.’
~ Roxy ~ A Nomad for Nature
Written for my column, Tales From The Trail, published in the Estes Park News, in 2005.
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