An Unexpected Storm



Storm Clouds Lurking

Lightning was striking everywhere, and each time it did, there was a bright flash that was immediately followed by a deafening crash of thunder. When it first started, I figured it would be wise to do something about it, although I didn’t act. But once the bolts started lighting up individual trees, I sprang into action.

Within the scope of the Outpost Wilderness Adventure camp programming, the Solo was supposed to be a peaceful time of self-reflection. Through the years, I learned to keep everyone relatively close to each other but to give them their own space. The time alone was designed to include a night spent isolated in the woods. The event had a romantic sound to it while making preparations in the relative comfort and security of our Base Camp facility. But time and again, I witnessed how terrifying and complicated the experience became, once the participants were out in the wilds alone and the sun began setting. Ultimately, I realized that, among other things, a lot of people are simply scared of the dark.

There were parameters and methods for the activity that developed through the years to mitigate potential problems. They included placing each person within eyesight or shouting distance of at least one other person, locating the individuals in locations close to a road or trail, and always keeping at least one leader in the general area. It was difficult enough, I eventually determined, for most people to just be out there in the first place. The fact that most of our clientele were teenagers made it even more so.

The plan for this Solo was for the group to be spread out along a faint two-track road and trail that parallels Second Creek as it leads up the valley. Each of the soloists was assigned a Solo spot and instructed to stay within 100′ of it until the formal Solo ended, which would be announced and verified by a staff member the following day. The entire supervisory staff accompanied the group as they walked and were assigned to their spots and noted where each person was placed. That meant that once the twelve team members were in place, the leaders knew where the participants were, or at least where they were supposed to be

So, late in the afternoon, we scattered 12 teenage team members up and along the creek, which cut through our Colorado Base Camp property before entering the National Forest and climbing into the bowels of the surrounding Puma Hills. Base Camp was located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, some 25 miles from the nearest town, and was surrounded by several hundred thousand acres of mountainous, heavily forested, and mostly uninhabited land. And so, there was already a feeling of remoteness, even before any kind of Solo elements were added in.

The first team member was assigned a spot about 200 yards up beyond the main Base Camp lodge. And by the time the last one was placed, teenagers were strewn for more than a mile up the ever-narrowing valley. Ultimately, the teens were alone, surrounded by big trees and strangely shaped rocks, and each of them was well aware that bears, mountain lions, and packs of coyotes would likely be wandering around in the nighttime dark. As mentioned, as a part of the Solo methodology, at least one of the leaders (or guides as they were known) was always up amid the group and operating a field camp, so the soloists were confident that at least there was an adult nearby and a big campfire and reliable safe haven that could be counted on in an emergency. If nothing else, the field camp was a confidence boost for the soloists and provided a direct connection between team members and the staff. The result was that the participants were able to experience a night out alone in the woods, but with a significant degree of supervision.

After getting the soloists placed, four of the five staff and I returned to the lodge for a late afternoon teenager-less supper. The other staff member stayed back to man the field camp. Because it was the July monsoon season, we were cognizant of the reality that thunderstorms were a distinct possibility. But since the forecast pointed to a one-day break in the pattern and we’d already made it cloudlessly through the afternoon, we sat down to supper, satisfied that the right decision had been made regarding the weather. As we feasted on smoked sausage and chicken fajitas, we were confident that all the bases were well covered and the Solo was being conducted in a well-planned and responsible way.

We finished eating our meal just before dusk and walked outside to look up the valley and listen for any panic sounds that might be heard as the night started to become real. We expected to see at least a few plumes of campfire smoke filling the valley. Instead, we saw a distant thunderhead in the sky that wasn’t supposed to be there, looming above the Puma Hills and lurking just beyond the Second Creek valley.

“That’ll give ’em a reason to set up a shelter, good thing they each have a tarp,” I said.

I assumed it was a best-case scenario- a rain cloud appearing in the sky, which would cause the soloists to think through the realities of how to deal with it. But one that would never actually come their way or do its thing. Actual rain was not something I wanted to see in the valley for the next twelve hours. As I stood there, gazing up into the valley and thinking through the various details related to the night ahead, I remained confident that all was going according to plan, and that the storm was not going to come any closer toward us.

After supper, before dark, and with the storm clouds still hanging in the sky to the west, the four guides walked up the valley to check on each of the participants. Once they determined that all was well, two of the leaders returned to the lodge and the other two walked into the field camp. The other leader had built a small campfire, but as night became reality, the two new guides stoked and turned it into a huge bonfire. The thought was that a fire would both light up that part of the valley and provide some measure of comfort to the teenagers. I returned to the lodge and went inside and became absorbed in reading a two-day-old edition of the Denver Post.

After reading a couple of front-page stories in the newspaper, I got up and walked back outside to check on the progress of the Solo, expecting the storm to be long gone. All seemed calm and under control on the ground, but a flash in the sky grabbed my attention. I looked up in disbelief, just as a faint rumble of thunder reinforced what I was seeing. The thunderhead was very much alive and on the move toward us.

The setting sun backlit parts of the ominous clouds and I noted that they appeared full of rain. While I was frightened by the lightning, I was mesmerized by the folds, creases, and various other intricacies of the humongous cloud. At that moment, our Solo world was still peaceful and calm and the only loud noise I heard was the persistent rhythmic banging of a stick against something hard, up in the Solo direction.

My own moment of personal reflection was soon shattered by another flash, which knifed its way across the cloud. The flash was quickly followed by an unsettling rumble of thunder, which seemed to go on longer than it should’ve. “Surely the staff is seeing what I am,” I both assumed and wondered at the same time. Assuming they were, I was confident they were working to assure that each soloist was ready for rain. All the while, I continued to reamin confident it wasn’t actually going to storm. I’d seen dark clouds build and come my way before only to disappear before they got to me, and I was hopeful this would be one of those times.

My confidence had a small “crack” in it and I was tempted to walk up the valley, call the whole thing off, round everyone up, and get them down to the lodge before the rain had a chance to start. But then, I thought about the opportunity the participants would have to emotionally experience a storm without it actually materializing. And how that would be missed if they retreated from the experience. I speculated that if we were to bail, the lesson learned would be that when danger appears, the solution is to retreat to safety. And so, I turned and walked back inside to read another story in the newspaper, still confident that it wasn’t going to rain.

The rumbling continued as I sat on the couch, but I busied my mind with the story details related to a pending drinking water regulation. After a while, I looked out of the window and saw that it’d become unnaturally dark outside. Just as I decided to go outside and get a better look at how the storm was progressing, a huge bolt of lightning lit up the inside of the lodge, and thunder cracked loudly. I sprang to the door in one motion, opened it, and looked out toward the west. Just at that moment, more lightning hit somewhere high up on the ridge and lit up a single distant Ponderosa Pine as if it’d been electrocuted.

For a moment, our nearby vicinity continued to be calm and dry. I looked up at the ridge and saw stormy chaos happening up there. And then, that same chaos rolled into world. And it did so with the subtlety of a screeching freight train. Heavy rain and strong winds began inundating the entire Base Camp area. The storm roared as it pounded and tugged on the metal roof that was keeping me dry. And then, the last straw broke as lightning began striking at multiple locations in the valley where the soloists were staged, and the explosions of less distant thunder became almost continuous.

I pictured the 12 soloists and the staff out there in the electric and wet chaos, and while I wished it wasn’t so, I knew it was. Hopefully, I rationalized, the kids had all been rounded up and were inside the relatively safe, but definitely dry big tent located at the field camp. And then, my walkie-talkie came to life and the guide on the other end, partially verified my hope.

“This is a big storm. I’ve got 8 of ’em in here in the tent with me. The other 4 guides are out getting the others.” he said.

In a matter of moments, I had my rain parka on and was headed out the door toward the parking lot where one of our 15-passenger vans was parked. I cranked it up, drove up the two-track road to the field camp. Once there, I stopped, left it idling with the headlights on, and almost jumped into the tent to get the current update. Dry and not-so-dry people were everywhere. I was glad to see three staff faces, which meant that something, more than likely positive, had happened since the radio report.

“We got two more. Sherry and Abe ought to be here any minute with the others,” was the word. “They have a radio, but we haven’t been able to reach ’em.”

The radios were a good idea but weren’t functioning the way we needed them to. “Good thing we aren’t counting on them,” I thought. I breathed, what turned out to be a momentary sigh of relief that most of the group was there and accounted for. Thirteen excited and mostly smiling faces filled the tent with energy. The mud, wetness, disheveled hair, and universally soggy boots and shoes were only a temporary consequence. For the moment, age, position, and background were of lesser importance than the fact that each of the soloists and staff was an active part of the same storm. And then, my moment of reflection was put to rest when another horrendously bright and loud flash and crash lit up and shook the tent, reminding me that all was not yet well. The reminder was simultaneously embellished by the roar of the pounding rain. The realization that only a thin sheet of waterproof fabric separated us from the storm raging outside and only a few feet away gave me instant stomach pains. But there simply wasn’t time for a stomach ache and I re-focused on the task of getting everyone accounted for and into a safe place.

I got the group’s attention and laid out a plan. We’d all go outside, two at a time, get into the van, and go back to the lodge. They should leave everything behind and could get it the next day after the storm passed. Once everyone was inside, I would return with one of the staff to help Sherry and Abe round up the other two soloists. We would then return to the lodge, and everyone would be accounted for. Simple enough.

Within moments, the plan was put in motion. In a miraculously orderly process, people organized themselves, ran out into the rain, and got into the van. The cramped space was humid, chaotic, and odiferous, but none of that mattered, and within a few minutes, we were unloading in the lodge parking lot.

I wasted no time heading back up and half expected to find the other four in the tent when Reggie and I got there. I pulled up near the door and stayed in the driver’s seat while Reggie jumped out to look inside. I could see from his reaction as he first entered the door that they weren’t there.

He didn’t spend any unnecessary time dealing with what wasn’t there. Almost immediately, he turned, ran back, and climbed into the passenger seat, and shook his head, saying, “No one.”

We deduced which two soloists were still out, and knew where they were supposed to be. I tried to call back to the staff at the lodge with my walkie-talkie, but all I could hear was a strange whirring sound and static. So, I realized, we’d just have to do things the old-fashioned way—which meant without radios.

We knew that one of the two soloists was located a few hundred yards further up the valley. And we also knew that the other had been placed lower down, between the lodge and the field camp. Where the latter one had gone was a complete mystery, since there’d been a lot of headlights and yelling that we assumed had been within that person’s realm. The idea that the two were located in different directions had me at a bit of a logic stalemate, as I tried to figure out which way our two guides went. Just as we turned the van around, but before I had to choose which way to go, I saw 3 flashlights heading down the road. Sherry, Abe, and Justin (the soloist from up the valley) appeared at the edge of the field camp clearing. Just as they came into view, another strike hit the hillside just above where they were walking and lit the whole world up. The thunder and lightning made them lunge forward and break into a run toward the awaiting van. They soon opened the van door and scrambled to make room for each other inside as the storm continued howling. “Thank goodness,” I thought. “That’s 3 more.”

“Justin was way up there and sitting under some brush and he was hard to find,” Sherry said as water dripped from her hood.

“I didn’t hear anything. When I saw the cloud getting closer I found a tree that had fallen and climbed under it. I was pretty dry under there, but the lightning was kind of scary,” were the first words out of the soloist’s mouth.

“Everyone else is fine and back at the lodge,” I said. “Except for Joe. Let’s get you all back and then Reggie and I’ll go find him.”

We drove back down to the lodge slowly and as we drove past where the last soloist was supposed to be, we honked in an attempt to alert him. “Maybe he’ll hear the horn during a lull in the noise or see the headlights and head our way,” I hoped.

Once back at the parking lot, the three wet adventurers climbed out and ran up the hill to the lodge. It occurred to me as I watched them head that way that there wasn’t really all that much reason to run since they were already wet. After we saw them open and walk through the doorway, we turned the van around and headed back up.

Joe had been placed only a few hundred feet above the road and maybe 300 yards from the lodge. We drove up to the spot where he should’ve been and turned to the right, pointing the headlights uphill in the logical direction where he’d be. I began honking, and the two of us got out and yelled his name over and over.

“Joe. We’re going back to the lodge. Joe, come on down. Joe, the van is waiting.” We yelled things as if he would need to be convinced to come in, even though we had no idea if that was the case. We looked hard for movement of any kind, and there was none. “Where is he?” I kept wondering.

The only thing we hadn’t done up to that point was to walk and search up the hill in the direction he might have gone, and so that’s what we did. We turned off the engine but left the headlights on. In a worst-case scenario, I decided, if the battery went dead, we could just jump it the next day. With the storm continuing and water filling every rivulet and soaking our feet as it ran downhill, we split up and began working our way upward. We shined our headlamps at every tree and rock, looking for any sort of clue. We kept yelling Joe’s name and listened intently to every non-response. After traveling only 50 yards from the van, I looked back and noted that the headlights had disappeared from view and realized that the sound of the pounding rain and gusting wind was swallowing up our yells so that Reggie and I even had trouble communicating with each other.

“He could be 25 yards from us and might not even know we were there.” I realized. Even though there was a lodge full of teenagers only 300 yards away and Reggie was less than 25, I suddenly felt very lonely. Then, just as I reached the height of my despondence, the kid stepped out from behind a big Spruce at the far end of my light beam and walked toward us.

“Joe. Thank Goodness. We’re calling the Solo off, and everyone else is back at the lodge. Where did you go? We drove, walked by, and yelled, but couldn’t find you,” I said. I had plenty to say and ask.

“I heard all of that and thought it was a trick, so I went up there and hid behind a big rock. It was a good spot because a big tree had fallen on top of it, and I got underneath,” he responded.

I had more questions and a few comments, but it was too loud, we were standing out in the storm, and still had to get back to the lodge, so I saved them for later. We walked back down to the van. We started it up and within minutes were inside the lodge, drinking hot chocolate with the rest of the group as the storm finally began to wind down. I soon forgot about any comments I’d made and answered the questions myself. Eventually, the voices became louder than the thunder, and the solo storm was a thing of the past.

McCurdy Mountain and other high peaks of the Tarryall Mountains.

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.

%d bloggers like this: