The Search

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The Tarryall Mountains

It was a Fall Sunday during what was normally the slow part of the year. Autumn in Colorado’s Tarryall Mountains is spectacular with Aspen trees turning gold and warm sunny days interrupted only by the occasional and temporary arrival of winter. Most years, late September is an ideal time to be there, with long pleasant days that are almost perfect for mountain biking, hiking, and climbing area peaks. But this particular year, my days were occupied with the aftermath of the burning down of the OWA base camp lodge rather than recreation. Instead of the comforts of my private lodge bedroom and bath, I was sharing an old one-room log cabin with an 18-year-old intern, and not doing much besides clean-up and prep for the new construction. On the day in question, I was piddling around the job site doing various chores. Since it was something of an off day, Lee (the intern) asked if he could go on a leisurely and straightforward hike toward Bison Peak. I considered the fact that he’d been on several backcountry trips with my outdoor program in the past. And since there was no work planned for him that afternoon, it seemed reasonable. And so, I gave him my blessing.

An hour or so before dark, I headed back to the cabin to get ready for a big night of football on TV and pizza at the neighbors. I anticipated that Lee would either be there or soon would be once I got there to clean up. I wasn’t all that surprised when I walked inside, and he wasn’t. But when I got ready to walk across the road to the neighbor’s, and he still wasn’t back, I began to wonder and speculate about where he was. It was starting to get dark, and by then had simply become the time when he should’ve been back. Just as I arrived at that conclusion, the vision of a very small looking lone hiker, breathing hard, and bushwhacking down through a mess of Aspens and Gooseberry bushes coupled with the weather report I’d heard about an approaching winter storm to create an unsettled feeling in my gut.

We were in the middle of the Pike National Forest some 20 miles from the nearest town. After considering our location, the approaching storm, and the encroaching nighttime, I decided to go up the trail and look for him. And so, that’s what I did- suddenly in a race with the darkness. The Ute Creek Trail follows the creek of the same name for about a mile before climbing steeply up toward Bison Peak. It begins or ends as the case might be, at around 9000 feet close to where it flows into Tarryall Creek and ultimately gains some 3000 feet in only 3 miles up to its high point at Bison Pass. Before leaving the creek drainage, it enters the Lost Creek Wilderness, which encompasses much of the Tarryall backcountry. To be so close to the crowds of people living along the Front Range, it’s an island of wildness. Its various peaks and valleys rise out from the glacial plains of South Park, almost smack dab in the middle between the Continental Divide and Pikes Peak. The place is remote, and at times can seem lonely.

When I started hiking, it was still Colorado mountains Fall balmy, which was good for each of us, because it made it more comfortable to be outside. But there was a downside to that situation as well. That same pleasant weather also made it easier for him to go further.

Initially, I expected to run into him on the trail, delayed for some reason, but on his way back. But it didn’t happen. After a couple of miles, or about halfway up to Bison Pass, I came to the snow line. Neither the cold nor wet of the snow was inviting, but I realized that the snowpack would allow me to see footprints. And then, right off the bat, there they were— fresh and moderately sized tracks heading up, but not down. Since I’d noted that there were no vehicles parked at the trailhead, I assumed that the prints belonged to Lee. It was at least some affirmation that I was on the right track.

It was well past dark by the time I got up to that point. Thankfully, there was a functioning headlamp inside the small guide’s daypack that I’d thrown on as I walked out of the cabin, and I put it to use. I’ve wondered time and again what I would’ve done up there in the dark without it. As I dug the headlamp out of the pack, I noted various other items in there as well, including extra clothing, partially eaten energy bar, and a full water bottle. And at the last minute, I’d also stuck a mostly uncharged cell phone in, which ultimately ended up playing a critical role in the whole event. In my haste to get going, I hadn’t thoroughly thought through potential gear needs and had just grabbed the little pack that I was used to carrying whenever I was out and about. I simply hadn’t prepared or begun the search with the expectation of going far or being out for very long. To that end, I was wearing the same fleece pants and jacket that I’d had on all day, had leather work gloves stuffed in my pocket, and was wearing lightweight hiking boots, which weren’t much good for the snow. As mentioned, the phone ultimately turned out to be a key factor. But there was no cell service down low, and initially, it was of no use. One positive preparation thing that I had done was to let the neighbors, Jim and Deb, know what was going on before I left. And so, they weren’t confused about my non-arrival. And they were poised to be of assistance as the situation developed.

Up to that point, I’d been optimistic and mostly just pissed off that I was spending my Sunday evening out on the trail. It was something of a landmark moment when I reached the snow. Before stepping out onto it, I stopped and yelled out the young man’s name. I was hopeful that he’d just answer back and that we’d then get on to the business of spending our Sunday night hiking back to square one.

“Lee,” I shouted.

Only the wind answered, and I yelled again, “Lee.”

The breeze stirred the leaves of an Aspen, breaking the silence. It was downright eerie. The reality of my alone-ness hit me like a brick. The scope of it all, the approaching storm, and the darkness suddenly seemed overwhelming. And then, the sound of the brisk south wind whistling through the rocks and the periodic dance of moonlight combined to create a moment that was intriguing, profound, and sad all at the same time.

I let it all soak in for a moment and realized that more needed to happen. So, I called for reinforcements and then returned to the cabin to re-equip for a winter night spent searching in the mountains. While up high, I realized that I had decent phone service. I also had a small amount of charge left on my phone. And so I made a call to Deb to check-in. First, I apprised her of the current situation. And then I asked her to call both the local Search and Rescue team and Quentin, one of the guides who worked with me during the summers and lived in nearby Breckenridge. She was to ask him to be the point person for putting our network of Beckenridge backcountry people on standby. He didn’t hesitate to do so and called around, informing them about what was going on. And at the same time, he geared himself up for a cold night out in the mountains. By 9:00 pm, he’d done all of the preparing to assist that he could stand, and was in his car and headed my way. And, at the same time, Deb had assumed the role of the event coordinator.

Within 30 minutes or so of my phone call, I was back down at the cabin, sitting on a bench, and putting on my insulated double mountaineering boots. By 11:00 pm, I was back up in the snow at my high point on the trail and felt a change in the air. The storm front was arriving. The southerly breeze stopped, and the calm before the storm almost inundated me. I hurried my pace, knowing that it would arrive at any moment. I was aware that a strong north wind, and the predicted 4 inches of new snow, would undoubtedly obliterate any footprints besides for making the conditions miserable. And, above all else, I needed to see what the tracks did. I struggled to move faster than I probably should’ve and soon became physically worn-out as I struggled to stay ahead of the bad weather. As I continued working hard to move quickly, the thought that the mind often says one thing and the body another kept floating through my head.

The last few hundred yards up to the Pass were steep, and the going was tough, but eventually, the grade lessened. I knew that I’d finally reached the summit of the ridge when I began to see familiar rock and tree landmarks. A short distance beyond the actual top, the trail forked. I was especially eager to get up to that point so that I could see which way the tracks went. With the flatter terrain, I began to pick up the pace and was soon at the junction. Thankfully, I got there before the storm arrived in full force. The tracks took the right fork, which headed on up and toward Bison. My initial thoughts about his obvious choice included visions of barren alpine tundra, big rock towers, and stacks of boulders. I knew that it was hard and sometimes steep, going the way that he’d chosen, but wasn’t all that surprised that he’d done so since it was the direction of the actual summit. At least, I reasoned, it was probably better that he went up, where the going was slower, rather than further out into the backcountry.

I turned and headed up, still following the tracks. I knew that the trail climbed up onto a high alpine meadow, that we called the Football Field. It crossed over it and then dropped back down a bit as it continued traversing the Tarryall high country. Up on the Football Field is where hikers and climbers headed for the Bison Peak summit leave the trail and head cross country. I remembered that Lee had been up there before and recognized that he might very well have known the route.

If the tracks did indeed get up that far, I figured the Football Field would be another critical transition point. Up there, they would either continue along the trail headed north toward McCurdy Mountain or leave the trail and head west toward the Bison Peak summit. Even as I walked, I kept speculating. I couldn’t help but think that if for no other reason, he might not have gone for the summit because time would’ve been an issue.

As mentioned, the footprints headed north from the Pass. Not far from the intersection, the actual trail made a sharp left turn just before making its final ascent up to tree line, but that wasn’t what the footprints did. A hundred or so yards below the Football Field, they abruptly turned off the trail to its uphill side. At that spot, I looked ahead to see if there was any sort of disturbance or blockage which would cause a detour but saw nothing. So, I turned my focus to the right, following the footprints and shining my light on the tracks. They headed into a maze of boulders, slabs of rock, and talus, that I knew from past trips, led up to a small peak that overlooked the Football Field. I scanned the immediate horizon for some sort of hump or unnatural glob speculating what a body down on the snow would look like. A bright color would be helpful, I thought, but couldn’t remember ever seeing Lee, like most Americans, wear anything that wasn’t black or blue. And so, I just strained to see anything other than rocks, small trees, and snow. But nothing stood out.

Just then, the storm arrived. The wind began to howl out of the north, stirring up the snow on the ground and sandblasting me in the face. I pulled my fleece cap down tighter onto my head, as if that made any difference, and just went back to following the footprints. The walking was slower and became more complicated as the tracks moved into the rocks. I was less confident in the surface and wary of potential holes, tangles, and drop-offs that might be hidden by the snow. I kept carefully picking my way up, following the tracks, looking for any sort of sign, and with an ever-burgeoning sense of urgency.

After a few minutes, I decided to call Deb again and update her on the current happenings. And so, I did. Out in the open with the wind whistling through the rocks, it was simply too loud to hear, so I found a small alcove in the rocks where I could hunker down and talk. I took the phone out of my pack, dialed her number, and she answered.

“I’m up high above the Pass, and he seems to have headed off the trail up into some rocks. There’s no sign of him, but I’m still following his tracks,” I said, “And what’s going on down there?”

She responded that both the local Search and Rescue Team and Quentin had arrived, which meant that help was on the way. I just let her know that I’d keep searching my way up and would call when I knew more.

It was comforting to touch base. But once I turned off the phone and stood back up into the wind, the situation once again hit me in the face, and I felt even more alone and isolated than I had before the call. It was just supposed to have been a simple hike, and now I was out in the Lost Creek Wilderness at nearly 12,000 feet, in the middle of a storm, and at midnight. It just wasn’t how I’d envisioned my evening to unfold.

Eventually, I reached a small and flat pass (or more of a transition point). At that point, the little summit overlooking the Football Field rose to my left, and the west-facing slopes of the Tarryalls dropped down toward Sand Creek to my right. The tracks had led me there, and I eagerly struggled to see what happened just as the last vestiges of the footprint trail were wiped-out by the blowing snow.

What had he done? I shone the light toward the peak and couldn’t see any sort of reasonable route through the rocks. Then, I turned my head the other way and looked into the darkness of the slopes heading down. Going that way made no logical sense, and visions of how rough and convoluted it was down there gave me pause. Was this his high point, I wondered? I looked at the boulders and slabs leading back down. He must’ve just decided to go back down the way he’d come up, climbing his way down on top of the rocks, which I speculated was why I never saw his tracks. It would be a sketchy thing to do, I reasoned, but he did like to climb. And maybe he never even made it back to the trail. Yes, I reasoned, he’d started back down, had fallen, and was either unconscious or dead.

Time was suddenly even more of the essence. I had to find him if he was down, but not out before he froze to death. I began working my way back down more quickly and stayed on top of the boulders wherever I could. I shone my light into every nook and cranny as I moved along and after a short while, saw some humongous rock slabs just ahead, that I wasn’t about to try and climb. I reasoned that if he’d tried to do that, it almost certainly was the last thing he’d ever attempted to climb.

After searching my way down a bit, I found myself on the top of a big boulder with no way onto the next one that didn’t require several steps out onto the snow. And at that point, there were only three options for where he could’ve gone. I studied each closely, searching for any sort of disturbance that his footprints would’ve caused below the fresh coating of snow. There was nothing like that. To be thorough, I repeated the process, and there was still no sign. I then looked down into the various holes where a body might be, and there was nothing like that either. I’d just been thinking I was on the right track, but suddenly I had my doubts. I shone my light around. And I could just barely make out the rocky face of the little peak looming to my right, the rock slab, and a variety of boulders filling up the immediate surroundings. By this time, fresh snow was falling sideways, being blown by a frigid wind, and I was overwhelmed, once again, by just how alone I was.

I pulled out my phone and dialed Quentin’s number. He answered and told me that he was on his way up the trail and was just below Bison Pass. I told him that I was headed back down to the Pass and that we should meet at the trail junction. At that point, I had become convinced that Lee was simply dead and partially buried in the rocks somewhere. I’d been up there looking for any sign or clue for several hours and had found nothing conclusive. It wasn’t the outcome I’d been searching for, but it was almost a relief when I finally came to the death conclusion. And so, I quit shining my light around at the rocks and began just focusing on my next steps as I worked my way back to the actual trail. At that point, I was no longer looking for a living Lee.

After a bit, I reached the trail and began heading on down toward the Pass. The footing was a little sketchy with the fresh snow, but within thirty minutes or so, I approached the trail junction sign and saw Quentin standing next to it. He was all decked out for winter conditions, was carrying a big backpack, and lit up the last few yards of my way with his headlamp. I was ecstatic just to see another living human. There wasn’t a whole lot of small talk as we met up, although we each did have a profound statement to share. He mentioned how spooky it was to yell for Lee and get no response. And I just emphatically stated that Lee was dead and we probably should just hunker down up there for the night and deal with the recovery in the morning.

By this time, it was around 2:00 am. There was something of a sickly feel hovering in the air around us as we tried to process Lee’s apparent death. And we also had to deal with the realities of spending 5 or 6 hours trying to sleep out in the cold and snow. We couldn’t think of anywhere warm and dry nearby where we could go to get out of the weather and bed down for the rest of the night. There was no cabin, we didn’t have a tent, and there wasn’t even a decent windbreak. But I did have a 20-degree sleeping bag that I’d stuck in my pack. And Quentin had a bivy sack and a sleeping bag. Both of us had parkas, fleece clothing of all sorts, and good boots, along with a variety of other items that could prove useful. But we didn’t have a stove or any kind of external heat source. Spending the rest of the night out in the open and exposed to the elements was not what we preferred. But we resigned ourselves to the inevitable fact that we were going to do so.

We looked around and settled on a small thicket of trees for our camp. Low hanging limbs had limited the snowpack below them to only a foot or two, and the area was somewhat out of the wind. We sat down on the snow, pulled out our bags, and began stuffing ourselves into them. Just as I finally got my torso along with a good bit of snow wedged most of the way in a gust of wind whipped me in the face, sending some particularly strong shivers down my back. And just then, Quentin asked, “how about some coffee?”

My first thought as I was burrowing myself deeper into the mound of wet snow was that it was a cruel joke. I didn’t respond immediately, but he already knew what my answer would be. Then I saw him drag a thermos out of his pack, set it down on the snow, and begin pouring me a cup. I began to drool, mentally. Wow, I thought. He handed me a steaming cupful. I breathed in the steam for a brief moment and finally took a sip. It hit the spot.

We organized our campsite, as I continued relishing the hot drink. Our talk was mostly related to how we would deal with the remaining nighttime hours. We realized it was something that we stood a real chance of affecting. The Lee situation, on the other hand, was kind of done for the moment, at least in our minds.

Eventually, we finished organizing and nestling, and it was almost to the point where there was nothing more for us to do, except wait for the morning. I had some battery left on my phone and decided to check in with Deb one last time for that night. I dialed her, and unsurprisingly she answered. Immediately, I began filling her in on the details of how Quentin and I had met up and our plan moving forward.

She quickly interrupted, “they found him.”

I was bewildered beyond words for a moment, and then answered, “where?”

“He walked up to the road a few miles down from the cabin, and some deputies picked him up,” she explained.

I was overwhelmed with thankfulness, and at the same time, questions poured in. Why, how, and where, I wondered?

“Thank God. We’ll be down in a couple of hours,” I answered.

Quentin had heard my end of the phone conversation, knew the gist of what was said, and was already getting himself up and packed as I ended the call. At that moment, the tension of the situation was lifted. It was almost like someone had popped a balloon. Lee was alive and well.

I climbed out of my bag and began stuffing it, snow and all, into my backpack. Before settling in for the long night, the campsite had seemed relatively snug and comfortable, but not so any longer. After the reprieve, it became a cold, windswept, and foreboding spot. And I couldn’t imagine anybody wanting to stay there without a tent on a snowy night, and was thrilled that we wouldn’t be.

Within minutes, we were packed up and on our way back down the trail toward the cabin. As we walked, Quentin told me the story of how he got up there that night by telling the search and rescue team (who wouldn’t let him go up alone to meet me) that he’d show them the way up. They had accepted his offer, but once they all started up, he left them in the dust and went on up to the Pass alone where he met me.

About halfway back down, we walked up onto the same search and rescue group, standing around a roaring campfire and waiting for the morning. They’d heard the news and said they’d head down later. I was amazed by how big and warm their fire was. And once I laid eyes on them, I began to ponder the fact of who they were. It dawned on me that they were all just regular people. Undoubtedly, most of them had to go to work the next day. And yet, here they were. They were out in the wilds, on a cold wintry middle of the night, and looking for someone they didn’t even know. We thanked them and kept moving, eager to get down to a warm and dry bed.

Around 5:00 am, we arrived back where the trail intersects the Tarryall Road. Two deputies were waiting for us in their Blazer to give us a ride back to the cabin. We pulled off our packs and stuck them in the back. Lee was already in the rear seat and scooted over to make room for us as we climbed in. There was a lot of eye contact between the three of us, but only small talk. The deputies drove us to the cabin, we got out, and walked up the little hill that it sits on. We opened the door and went inside, ready for sleep. We just told Lee that we’d talk in the morning, Quentin had a beer, and we all laid down. Within minutes, we were all dreaming.

We awoke a few hours later, and Lee filled us in on what had happened. He began his hike intending to walk up the Ute Creek Trail for a few miles as it headed up toward Bison Peak. As mentioned earlier, he was anticipating that the whole thing would just be a leisurely, Sunday afternoon, fall hike. He planned to walk up the trail and then turn around and head back to the cabin well before getting to Bison Pass and with plenty of daylight left. After about an hour of hiking and since it was only early afternoon, when he came to the snowline, he decided to continue a little further. After about another 30 minutes or so and nearly to tree line, he noted a small and intriguing sub-peak up above him and decided to explore it briefly. He intended only to climb up to its base, look around, and then backtrack to the cabin.

All went as planned as he reached the small saddle near the base of the peak. And that’s where he made a crucial boo-boo. Instead of heading back down to the trail the way he’d come up, he mistakenly went down on the wrong side of the transition point near the little peak. After just a few minutes of going the wrong way, he realized what he’d done. But he decided that he’d be able to correct the error by heading on down the way he was already going, which was toward a distant road at the bottom of the valley. He was following a dry water drainage and was confident that it would ultimately become a small creek which would then flow into the bigger Tarryall Creek down close to the road. When he got to the road, he planned just to follow it for the short distance back to the cabin. It seemed at the time, like a reasonable plan.

Darkness arrived sooner than he’d expected. And since his new route had no actual trail and there was only moonlight to light his way, his progress became excruciatingly slow. He did periodically see headlights down on the Tarryall Road, which at least kept him oriented regarding distance and direction. Thankfully, he had his daypack with him, which included some basics such as water and snacks, but only a limited amount of additional cold-weather clothing. Other positives were that he was in good physical condition and had significant outdoor backcountry experience.

He recounted that after about an hour of darkness and with the temperature beginning to drop, his bare hands started to get cold. So, he removed the socks from his feet and put them onto his hands like gloves to provide a bit of insulation. Doing that did provide cold relief to his hands, and since he was always on the go, he relied on the movement of his feet to keep them from getting cold.

He bumbled around in the dark for several hours. Eventually, the storm moved in and completely blocked what little light there was, and he had little choice other than just to continue following the drainage.

By 3:00 am, he reached Tarryall Creek (or “the River” as we called it) and found a way across. And then within another few minutes, he was climbing through the fence that separated the Tarryall Road from the thousands of acres of wildlands on the other side. Two deputies were patrolling the road and picked him up and radioed the good news to all involved. His story about what happened answered many of our questions. But as always, with the answers came even more new ones.

Those were 12 profound hours. A lot of people experienced a wide variety of emotions that night. As for me, I felt happy, sad, lonely, relieved, scared, smart, stupid, and a whole lot more almost all at the same time. The scope of it continues to boggle my mind.

I experienced a lot that night, which included the recognition of a new and invisible sort of presence. When I first yelled for Lee, I thought there was no answer. I ultimately realized it was because I was listening for his voice, and the response was in the wind. Initially, what I heard made me feel insignificant and alone. Then, almost instantly, a sense of confidence swept in and overwhelmed my emotions, convincing me that I was not alone in my search.  I don’t fully understand what it was. But it has returned from time to time through the years when the going gets especially tough. And I’ve learned to both expect and relish its comforting touch.

Bison Plateau
Boulders near the Football Field on Bison Peak

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.