This is a true account of a hike that went very wrong for a young lady who was not prepared for the trail less travelled ~ Published in the Estes Park News in 2005 for a monthly column I wrote called Tales from the Trail ~ All rights reserved – Roxy Whalley
Lumpy Ridge, near McGregor Ranch, in Estes Park, CO, is one of my favorite places to hike. There are numerous fascinating rock formations that expand the imagination, abundant wildlife, breathtaking views, and a eight-mile loop hike around the back side of Twin Owls and The Needles. The hike can be expanded to eleven miles by including a side trip to beautiful Bridal Veil Falls.
Gem Lake can usually be hiked year round, as the trail leading up to the lake is on a south facing slope and receives a lot of warmth from the sun, keeping most of the trail accessible. However, the other side of Lumpy Ridge can be deceiving during the winter months and early spring. The deep valley on the other side of The Needles can hold snow long after the first spring flowers open elsewhere on the ridgeline.
In May 2002, my then husband John and I, decided to hike to Bridal Veil Falls via Gem Lake. The sun blazed down and we soon found ourselves stripping to T-shirts and shorts. The squirrels, birds, deer and elk, were all frisky with the prospect of sweet grass and summer bugs on their way.
At Gem Lake we met a young lady hiking alone. Jenny was from Boulder, CO., and had found the trail by asking around. From us she learned about the loop, and the extra side trail up to Bridal Veil Falls. However, I cautioned her against doing the loop, warning her that there may still be a lot of snow on the other side of the ridge.
We continued our hike on over the ridge, and down the other side, which still had patches of snow here and there. While sitting at Bridal Veil Falls having a snack and enjoying the gushing waterfall, Jenny joined us. She asked a little more about the loop, and I showed her on my map, but again advised her not to go that way. She said she didn’t think she would, and waved good bye, a big smile on her face.
It was now about two hours from dusk, and John and I decided we’d best get moving as we didn’t want to be hiking in the dark. When we were back at the Bridal Veil Falls and Cow Creek trail junction, I stopped, noticing the single set of foot prints leading west, in the direction of Black Canyon, and around the back side of The Needles.
“John, I think she decided to do the loop, there was no-one else up here today hiking alone. I’ve done the loop at this time of year on my own, and it’s easy to lose the trail in the snow”.
“Yes,” replied John. “And I noticed she only had on shorts, trainers and a little wind-jacket, I don’t think she had gloves or anything like that with her.”
So we decided to do the loop ourselves, just to be sure all was well with Jenny, because my gut was telling me it wasn’t.
The valley on the backside of Twin Owls and Lumpy Ridge is beautiful. Cow creek runs through it, and all along the creek are stands of Aspen Trees. At this time of the year however, there were no leaves adorning the white branches. As we hiked up the valley I felt the temperature drop as the sun began its slow descent behind McGregor Mountain, and we started to layer up again. By the time the valley had narrowed nearer the top, the shadows were deep, the glow of snow on the trail eerie against the charcoal gray of the rocks. We were now hiking in deep snow, and had adorned our pants, gloves, hat and snow gaiters. A little further on I heard something.
“Help…… help”. It was very faint, distant, and full of fear. A tremoring echo rang on the air after each plea. “Heeeeelllppp”.
I withdrew my whistle and blew it hard, to let her know that we had heard her, and were on our way.
We followed Jenny’s tracks, which was easy to do, as they were the only human tracks there. She’d lost the trail at the first Switchback that led to the top of the valley, and was now stuck in waist deep snow by the creek, flailing helplessly to free herself, sinking deeper and getting more snow packed with each move. Tears had frozen on her face, her eyes wide with fear, her cheeks blue. She was blowing on her fingers, trying to ward off the numbness that was beginning to grasp at them.
We dug Jenny out, and quickly helped her onto more solid ground. In our packs we had spare gloves, and clothing, which we helped her put on. John wore the highest boots, so he loaned her his gaiters. Before long we were back on the trail, which did not appear to have been traveled by anything other than coyotes and mountain lions for many weeks, or possibly months.
Once Jenny began to warm, she tried to thank us, but what we wanted was a promise from her never to repeat this mistake. By now we’d learned that she’d told no-one where she was going to hike that day. She had not left a note on her vehicle and was certainly not prepared for a hike in the mountains. Jenny was dressed for a summer’s day shopping in Estes. She carried one small bottle of water, and had no warm clothes, no flashlight, food, whistle, map nor anything that is standard gear for hiking in the mountains. Had we gone back the way we came, Jenny could have been stuck in that snow all night, and possibly longer. Even if she’d managed to free herself, and retrace her steps, she would have been hiking long after dark; cold, hungry, alone and lost.
We could only guess what the outcome may have been.
By Roxy Whalley ~ 2005