It was a Fall Sunday during my slow part of the year. Autumn in Colorado’s Tarryall Mountains is spectacular. The Aspen trees turn gold, and warm sunny days are interrupted only by winter’s occasional and temporary arrival. Most years, late September is an ideal time to be there, with long pleasant days almost perfect for mountain biking, hiking, and climbing area peaks. But this particular year, my days were occupied with the aftermath of the OWA base camp lodge’s burning down rather than recreating. 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 new construction. On the day in question, I was piddling around the job site doing various chores. Since it was an off day, Lee (the intern) asked if he could go on a straightforward, leisurely hike toward Bison Peak. I considered that he’d been on several backcountry trips with my outdoor program in the past. And since no work was 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 be once I got there to clean up. So I wasn’t 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. At that point, it suddenly became a lost person situation. I began envisioning a lone hiker, breathing hard, and bushwhacking down through a mess of Aspens and Gooseberry bushes. That, when combined with the weather report I’d heard about an approaching winter storm, created 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 near where it crosses Tarryall Creek. The dirt trail gains some 3000 feet in only 3 miles up to its high point at Bison Pass. Not far from the creek and the bottom of the valley, 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 wetness 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 no vehicles parked at the trailhead, I assumed 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 to that point. Thankfully, there was a functioning headlamp inside the small outdoor guide’s daypack that I’d thrown on as I walked out of the cabin, and I put it to use. I’ve repeatedly wondered 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, a 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 played 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 I was used to carrying whenever I was out and about. I simply hadn’t prepared or begun the search, expecting to go far or be out for very long. To that end, I was wearing the same fleece pants and jacket I’d been wearing all day. And I had only leather work gloves for my hands and lightweight hiking boots, which weren’t good for the cold and snow or for my feet. 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 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 on the trail. It was something of a landmark moment when I reached the snow. Before stepping onto it, I stopped and yelled 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 evening hiking back to square one.
“Lee,” I shouted.
Only the wind answered, and I yelled again, “Lee.”
The breeze stirred the leaves of a nearby Aspen, breaking the silence. It was downright eerie. The reality of my aloneness 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 simultaneously create a moment that was intriguing, profound, and sad.
I let it all soak in for a moment and, at that point, concluded that more needed to happen. So, I called for reinforcements and returned to the cabin to re-equip for a more involved winter night spent searching in the mountains. While still up high, I realized I had decent phone service and a small amount of charge 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 nearby in Breckenridge. She was to ask him to be the point person for alerting our network of Beckenridge backcountry people as to the possibility of needing their help. He didn’t hesitate to call around, placed several people on standby, and geared himself up for a cold night in the mountains. By 9:00 pm, he’d done all of the preparing to assist that he could stand, was in his car, and headed my way to help. And at the same time, Deb assumed the role of “event coordinator.”
I was back at the cabin within 30 minutes of my phone call, sitting on a bench and putting on my insulated mountaineering boots. By 11:00 pm, I was back 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 it would be there at any moment and aware it would bring a strong north wind and snow. The predicted 4 inches of new snow would undoubtedly obliterate any footprints besides 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 ridge’s summit when I began to see familiar rock and tree landmarks. Then, a short distance beyond the actual top, the trail forked. I was especially eager to get to that point to see where the tracks went. I began to pick up the pace and, with the flatter terrain, was soon at the junction. Thankfully, I got there before the storm arrived in full force. The tracks took the right fork and headed on up and toward Bison. My initial thoughts about his choice included visions of the barren alpine tundra, massive rock towers, and stacks of boulders near the summit. I knew it was rugged and sometimes steep, going the way he’d chosen, but I wasn’t surprised that he’d done so since mountain summits often seem to be travel targets. At least, I reasoned, it was probably better for me that he went up. While going that way was potentially more rugged, the going was slower than the alternative that would take him further out into the backcountry.
I headed up the Brookside-McCurdy/Bison Peak Trail, still following the tracks. I knew that ultimately the trail climbed onto a high alpine meadow we called the Football Field. It crossed the top and then dropped as it traversed the Tarryall high country toward McCurdy Mountain. The Football Field is where hikers and climbers going for the Bison Peak summit leave the trail and head cross country. I remembered that Lee had been up there before and realized he likely knew that 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 or leave the trail and head west toward the Bison Peak summit.
As mentioned, the footprints followed the trail north from Bison Pass. Before reaching the Football Field, the Brookside-McCurdy made a sharp left turn before its final ascent up to tree line, but that wasn’t what the footprints did. Instead, a hundred yards below the Football Field, they abruptly turned off the trail on its uphill side. I looked ahead to see any disturbance or blockage that might cause a detour to occur at that spot but saw nothing. So, I focused on the tracks and followed them with my light as they headed into a maze of boulders and rock slabs leading up to a small peak overlooking the Football Field. I scanned the immediate horizon for a hump or unnatural glob as I speculated what a body down on the snow would look like. I thought about how a bright color would be helpful, 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.
And then, the storm arrived. The wind began to howl out of the north, which stirred up the snow on the ground, sandblasting me in the face. As if it made a difference, I pulled my fleece cap down tighter onto my head before returning to following the footprints. The walking was slower and more complicated as the tracks moved into the rocks. I was suddenly less confident in the surface and wary of potential holes, tangles, and drop-offs that might be hidden under the snow. Nevertheless, I kept carefully picking my way up, following the tracks, looking for any 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 and out of the wind 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 into some rocks. There’s no sign of him, but I’m still following his footprints,” I said. And then I continued, “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 again hit me in the face, and I felt even more alone and isolated than before the call. I thought again about how Lee was just supposed to be on a simple hike, and 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 the way I’d envisioned my evening to unfold.
Eventually, I reached a small, flat pass (or more of a transition point). From there, the minor 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 next just as the last vestiges of the footprint trail were wiped out by the blowing snow.
“What had he done?” I thought. I shone the light toward the peak and couldn’t see any reasonable route through the rocks. Then, I turned 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 gave me pause. “Was this his high point?” I wondered. I looked at the boulders and slabs that led back down. He must’ve just decided to go back the way he came up, climbing his way down on top of the rocks, which I speculated was why I never saw his tracks. I reasoned that it would be a sketchy thing to do but knew that he did like to rock climb. Yes, I reasoned, he’d started back down, 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. So I quickly worked my way back down, staying on top of the boulders wherever I could. I shone my light into every nook and cranny as I moved along and soon came upon some huge rock slabs that I wasn’t about to try and climb down. I reasoned that it was likely the last thing he ever did if he tried to go that way.
After searching my way down a bit, I found myself on the top of a boulder with no way onto the next one that didn’t require several steps out onto the snow. At that point, there were only three options for where he could’ve stepped. I studied each closely, searching for any disturbance his footprints would’ve caused below the fresh coating of snow. There was nothing like that. I repeated the process to be thorough, and there was still no sign. I’d thought I was on the right track, but suddenly I had my doubts. I shone my light around. And I could barely make out the rocky face of the little peak that loomed to my right, the rock slab, or the various boulders filling up the immediate surroundings. By this time, fresh snow was falling sideways, blown by a frigid wind, and I was once again overwhelmed by just how alone I was.
I pulled out my phone and dialed Quentin’s number. He answered and told me he was on his way up the trail and was just below Bison Pass. I told him I was headed back down to the Pass, and we should meet at the trail junction. At that point, I had become convinced that Lee was dead and buried in the snow somewhere in the rocks. 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 looking for Lee and began focusing on getting myself back to the actual trail. I was suddenly no longer looking for a living Lee.
After a bit, I reached the trail and continued heading 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 much 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 emphatically stated that Lee was dead, and we probably should just hunker down where we were for the night and deal with the recovery the following morning.
By this time, it was around 2:00 am. A sickly feeling permeated the air around us as we tried to process Lee’s apparent death. And at the same time, we also had to deal with the realities of spending 5 or 6 hours sleeping outdoors in the cold and snow. There was nowhere warm and dry nearby where we could 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. 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 that’s what we would do.
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 and 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?”
As I was burrowing myself into the mound of wet snow, my first thought 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 as he handed me a steaming cupful. I breathed in the steam and took a sip. To say it hit the spot is an understatement.
We organized our campsite, and I continued relishing the hot drink. Our talk was primarily related to dealing with the remaining nighttime hours. We realized our camping night was something we had a real chance of affecting. But, on the other hand, the Lee situation was settled for the moment, and we figured there was nothing we could do about that until morning.
Eventually, we finished organizing and nestling, and it became the time when there was nothing more for us to do except wait for daylight. I had some battery left on my phone and decided to check in with Deb one last time. I dialed her, and unsurprisingly she answered. Immediately, I began filling her in on how Quentin and I had met up and our plan moving forward.
She quickly interrupted, “they found him.”
I was bewildered beyond words 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 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 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 to the Pass alone, where he met me.
While walking down, we walked up onto the same search and rescue group about halfway back down, 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 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. As we climbed in, Lee was already in the rear seat and scooted over to make room for us. 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 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 explained what had happened. He had begun his hike, intending to only walk up the Ute Creek Trail for a few miles as it headed toward Bison Peak. As mentioned earlier, he anticipated that the whole thing would just be a leisurely, autumn Sunday afternoon hike. He planned to walk up the trail, turn around, and head back to the cabin well before getting to Bison Pass and while there was plenty of daylight left. After about an hour of hiking, and since it was only early afternoon, he decided to continue toward Bison when he came to the snowline. After walking for another 30 minutes, he noted a small and intriguing sub-peak above him and decided to explore it briefly. He intended to climb only up to its base, look around, and backtrack back to the cabin.
All went as planned as he reached the small saddle (where I last saw his footprints) 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 he’d be able to correct the error by continuing down the way he was already going. He followed a dry water drainage and was confident it would eventually become a small creek. He figured that creek would flow into the bigger Tarryall Creek, which was close to the road. And when he got to the road, he would 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. However, periodically he saw 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 how his bare hands started to get especially cold after about an hour of darkness and with the temperature beginning to drop. So, he removed his socks and put them onto his hands like gloves to provide some insulation. Doing that did provide cold relief to his hands, and since he was always on the go, the movement of his feet kept 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, but he had little choice other than 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 patrolling the road 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 lot more, almost all simultaneously. 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 has gotten especially tough. And I’ve learned to both expect and relish its comforting touch.