One Day On La Plata Peak

Nearly A Disaster

 

 One Day On A Mountain

A True Story

By

Denney Renner

 

Daylight was still a good hour and a half away when I walked from my cabin. It was below freezing, the heavy frost on the grass crunched beneath my feet as I walked to the car. It was a cold start to an August day. The air was still and crisp and thousands of stars blanketed the summer night sky. Opening the rear hatch of my SUV offered plenty of room for my heavily loaded backpack. I was on my way to attempt one of Colorado's Fourteener's.

My cabin

     

Fourteener is the name given to mountains that reach over fourteen thousand feet above sea level and Colorado has 53 of them. Last year I had climbed two of the Colorado tall peaks, Mt. Sneffels at 14,150 feet and Handies Peak at 14,048 feet. After climbing Mt. Sneffels I said I would never do it again, a Fourteener was just too hard. Two days later I climbed Handies Peak........I was hooked.

So here I was, a bit over 14 months later ready to attempt my third Fourteener, La Plata Peak, 14,336 above sea level, the fifth highest mountain in Colorado and the sixth highest in the continental United States. La Plata is in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado just west of the small town of Twin Lakes.

La Plata Peak and my intended

route lined in blue

 

At sixty years of age and being a "flatlander" from the Midwest, La Plata would certainly test my endurance and mental determination. The air starts getting pretty thin above 10,000 feet and oxygen is even more scarce at 14,000 feet. But I had been training by running nearly every day and had dropped to my lowest body weight in almost twenty years. I felt I was ready. It only took a few more hours to realize I underestimated La Plata Peak and its challenge.

The trailhead elevation was at about 10,000 feet and it was a five mile hike to the summit. That meant a ten mile round trip with an elevation gain of 4,336 feet of vertical gain and a tedious return trip back to the trailhead.

The trailhead

  

 

Now when I talk of "climbing" a mountain, most people picture ropes and cliffs with the climbers dangling in the air. This was much more tame than that. But don't think this is a stroll in your local county park. This would be hiking continually uphill with a thirty five pound backpack, in oxygen deprived air, on sometimes narrow trails where a misstep could result in a dangerous or perhaps deadly fall.

The particular trail I was hiking was classified as a "Class II" trail. A "Class I" trail would be easy hiking - usually on a good trail. A "Class II" trail would mean more difficult hiking that may be off-trail, occasionally having to put your hands down to keep your balance.  It may also include traversing snow fields or hiking on talus/scree (extremely loose rock that would slide under your feet). "Class III" is un-roped climbing.  Most of the time your hands are needed to hold to the terrain or find your route.  This may be caused by a combination of steepness and extreme terrain (large rocks or steep snow). A "Class IV" route would entail using ropes because falls can be fatal.  The terrain is often steep and dangerous. "Class V" is considered technical climbing such as vertical rock climbing.

I have always preferred Class II hiking although the locals had advised me that on La Plata there may be some mild Class III. La Plata is ranked 18th in difficulty of the 53 Colorado Fourteeners.

It was a short drive of less than thirty minutes to the trailhead. For some reason, even though this long awaited day had come, I felt uncertain and nervous. I almost felt I had to push myself to begin this climb. I chalked it up to the uncertainty of me being physically prepared well enough for this arduous climb. So I shrugged off the hesitancy and moved on.

It was cold, about thirty degrees, but the sky was clear and the forecast called for nice, clear weather. I knew it would be colder and the wind would increase as I gained elevation but I had plenty of extra clothing in my pack.

The evergreen forest section of the trail

          

The trail began winding its way through a beautiful evergreen and Aspen forest. It was relatively flat but I knew that would change before long. Soon I heard the unmistakable sound of water rushing over boulders and after a short distance I saw a wood bridge through the trees. I had reached South Fork Lake Gorge, a beautiful rushing stream that had carved a deep channel though the rocks. I continued on, up a slight incline and then back down into the valley. I could still hear South Fork Lake Creek as it tumbled through the valley further yet below me.

The bridge over South Fork Lake Gorge

 

Looking back toward the bridge

 

Soon, after winding my way through another beautiful Aspen grove, I came to another, much smaller water crossing. This was La Plata Gulch Creek. However there was no nice sturdy bridge to cross. This crossing was constructed of many logs laid haphazardly across the stream to help provide dry access to the far bank. Carefully I stepped on the makeshift log bridge; I certainly did not want wet feet or worse on this cold day, particularly at the beginning of my hike. The crossing was not as delicate as I thought it would be and soon I was safely across.

Almost immediately the trail began to rise through a series of switchbacks. I could feel the altitude begin to affect me and I knew it would get tougher. The trail became steeper with some parts so steep the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative had constructed steps to assist with the ascent.

The Steep Steps

  

The climb was really beginning to tax me. The trail was steep and narrow with an abrupt drop-off to the right where the La Plata Gulch Creek tumbled down the mountain. It was just now beginning to get light which made traversing the treacherous ridge trail a bit easier. I had to take regular breaks to catch my breath. Surprisingly, even in the thirty degree temperature I was sweating profusely. After about an hour, the trail finally leveled out, a thankful reprise from the constant uphill trek I had been enduring and wound its way through a maze of conifers. I welcomed the reprieve and the tentative thoughts I had this morning had dissipated. Mistakenly, I thought the hardest part of my climb was over.

A flat section and beautiful field

after the steep steps

 

After about fifteen minutes of easy hiking the trail turned to the left and before me was the toughest part of the climb thus far. The trail lead up a steep valley, laced with boulders and further up, switchbacks crisscrossed the valley. I resigned myself to the task ahead and headed up the trail. Taking switchback after switchback I slowly gained altitude.

Two pictures showing the

steep switchbacks heading to treeline

  

I was now approaching treeline at approximately 12,000 feet. Upon reaching treeline, the trail turned and snaked across the North ridge, Once again the hiking became easier. I was still gaining altitude but at a much more gradual rate. The trail was easy. On the uphill side was a steep slope of boulders and rocks, too treacherous to climb. The other side was a near vertical slope of 1000 feet. A slip and tumble here would be life threatening at best.

Two photos of the trail crossing the

south slope above treeline

      

La Plata Valley, hundreds of feet below on my right was beautiful. The morning sun was beginning to peak over the saddle leading to the summit. La Plata Valley lay still shrouded in the early shadows and morning mist. Before me lay mountains dotted with snow fields still lingering from the previous winter.

I felt good. The apprehension I had just a short time ago had vanished. Once again I felt that the hardest part of my day was over.

Soon the trail turned west and headed upward into an alpine field of greenery and flowers. I marveled at the beauty and admired the persistence of plants that lived their life well above 12,000 feet. The trailed wound its way across the ridge, first West then South then west again. The sun was beginning to cast it’s warmth on me although the temperature was still only about thirty degrees. Soon I came upon a boulder. It was about ten feet tall, maybe fourteen feet across, basically square, sitting alone surrounded by the tundra and alpine flowers. It was bold in its size and contrast to the landscape around it. Where did come from, I wondered. Did an ancient glacier push the boulder to its present resting place? Did the power of water freezing break it away from a much higher place on the mountain allowing it to make its way down the slope, either quickly or gradually to the spot where it lay?

  

It was time for a break. Despite the cool air I felt warm but the alpine breeze chilled me. I took shelter next to the boulder protected from the wind and warmed by the sun. In the thin air, as I gained altitude my breathing labored but now as I rested, my heart rate began to approach normal. I scrounged through my pack and found a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bottle of Gatorade.

 A beautiful day this was; tranquil, peaceful, serene. I reveled in the solitude, isolated from all, alone with my thoughts and mountainous beauty. Wildness has always brought me joy and calmness, recharging me with the essence of spirit and contentment. In this place, removed from worldly chaos, my heart and mind could find serenity.

However, my day was just beginning. I was only a bit more than halfway to the summit, another two miles and about 1500 feet of altitude yet to gain. In addition, there was the descent back to the trailhead after reaching the peak, a total journey of approximately ten miles.

It was time to get moving again. I needed to reach the summit by Noon and leave the summit no later than one. Afternoon thunderstorms can gather quickly and the lightning that so often accompanies these storms would make my exposure on treeless mountain landscape dangerous.

The blue line shows the

intended route to the summit

  

The trail steepened, eventually giving way to a series of switchbacks leading to the saddle below the long trail leading to my destination. The trail was well defined but boulders, gravel and rocks of all sizes made the hiking difficult.

Soon I reached the saddle. Before me was a beautiful view. Looking west was La Plata Basin Gulch, dotted with beautiful shades of red, gray and yellow soil. The next ridge that lay on the other side of La Plata Basin Gulch was Ellingwood Ridge, a difficult access to La Plata’s summit. The nearly five mile climb over class 3 terrain gained an incredible 5900 feet of elevation gain with an exposure rating of four out of a possible six.

Ellingwood Ridge and

La Plata Basin Gulch

from the saddle at nearly

13,000 feet of elevation

As expected the wind was increasing and as I gained altitude the temperature was dropped. I knew I had to keep moving, ahead of me lay well over a mile and 1300 vertical feet. My hike was soon going to become a climb. After crossing the ridge heading north, the trail once again turned west and proceeded up a steep rock filled trail. Snow fields still remained at this altitude and there was one I would have to navigate. Slowly, step by step, my lungs aching for more oxygen, I made my way to the snow field. Areas of the snow field were soft and in some places I nearly sunk to my knees, in other places the thawing and refreezing had turned the snow to hard ice. It was a tricky section but I completed it without incident. I continued as the trail began to once again switchback its way up the mountain.

Two views of the remaining route

  

I was really beginning to feel the effects of the altitude and the relentless wind, blowing even harder now, helped zap what little strength I had. I was determined to gain the summit, I pushed on. Soon the trail disappeared and ahead of me lay a steep field of boulders, some as large as a small car. I carefully weaved my way around the unclimbable boulders and crawled over the smaller ones. I could feel my strength waning. Step by step I moved upward, totally focused on the immediate task of navigating the boulder field while watching each and every step. I misstep could quickly turn into an injury.

The boulder field and snow fields

After about thirty minutes of hard climbing, winding my way over and around the rocky obstacles, the trail became apparent again. It was steep and my exposure to a dangerous fall increased. To my left the remainder of the mountain rose as a nearly unclimbable slope. To my left, mere feet from the trail was a nearly vertical drop of hundreds of feet. The wind became stronger buffeting my body and fighting me at each step.

The steep drop offs along the trail

  

At over 13,500 feet I found I could take no more than eight or ten steps then had to stop to fill my burning lungs with the oxygen that my body desperately needed. My strength was quickly escaping me. At each stop I found I had to bend over at the least or sit to regain my strength. The lack of oxygen was beginning to bring on a bit of dizziness, causing a lack of stability and the threat of a stumble, slip or worse. I desperately wanted to make the summit. It was so close. By now it was probably only another 500 vertical feet to the summit but the time and energy required started to place doubt as to whether I could continue safely.

This photo show the area I had just climbed

Feeling a bit disoriented, barely able to catch my breath and feeling as if my energy was nearly depleted, I sat on a nearby boulder and contemplated my situation. Was it worth taking the chance of an accident? One misstep could quickly become a serious mistake. But I so much wanted to gain the summit. Also, there was the trip back down the mountain, retracing the nearly 5 miles over the treacherous terrain I had just traveled.

There is a quote by the famous mountain climber Ed Viesturs relating to mountain climbing that drifted into my mind. “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory”.

My decision quickly became obvious; to abandon the climb for another day and not to senselessly put myself in unnecessary jeopardy. Another quote from another famous mountain climber, Hervey Voge solidified my decision. “The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too” I turned to head back down the trail.

Frustrated that I had not reached my goal but happy at my decision to not place myself in needless danger by making a foolish decision, I reflected on my day. It was a beautiful day, the sky was deep blue sprinkled with large fluffy clouds and the sun was bright and strong although the temperature was cool and crisp. The wind had been strong but it added to the atmosphere of being high in the wilderness as the wind battered the mountain and everything on it asserting its presence.

Two images from my turn around point

  

Although I had seen a few other hikers on the trail and exchanged pleasantries with them, the remoteness and isolation was part of the allure of the mountains to me. La Plata had tested me beyond what I had expected although the challenge to both my mind and body was also part of what I seek in the high country. The beauty was immeasurable. Subtle pastels of blues and grays mingled with the stark white snow fields that dotted an endless panorama of peaks and valleys. The various shades of green in the basins were enhanced by shadows and sunlight reflecting the forests. Large cumulus clouds added character to the azure sky and as their shadows drifted across the landscape, the mountains came alive with the illusion of movement. My words cannot begin to communicate the explosion of color and the magnificent landscape that surrounded me as far as I could see. Although exhausted and frustrated at not reaching the summit, I felt the peace and tranquility in the challenge that I sought.

Looking back at the starting point of my climb

Near the center of the picture is a light line....

that is the trailhead

As I sat on that rock at over 13,500 feet of elevation, I removed a bottle of water from my pack and twisted the cap. The water was refreshing as it streamed down my throat, easing my thirst and rejuvenating my body. For a moment I reconsidered my decision to abandon my quest for La Plata’s summit but common sense and practicality took over. I stood and started my return trip back to the trailhead.

On my way down I took this picture

of the saddle at 13,000 feet that over

looked Ellingwood Ridge

It seemed colder now. The wind whistled as it snaked its way around the steep slopes and deep ravines. In some ways I felt defeated, that the mountain defeated me. But we can never win over the mountains, they have endured much more for much longer; they allow us to share the beauty and solitude they create. Beside La Plata will be here long after I’m gone and there will certainly be another day I can attempt to summit and be blessed with the beauty of the high country.

I wound my way down the switchback laden trail to the boulder field where I gingerly picked my way over and around the stone obstacles. I carefully watched each foot placement not wanting to topple a rock and myself in the process. Soon I was back on the winding trail leading to the saddle that over looked La Plata Basin Gulch to my right and La Plata Valley to my left. The trail was laden with “marbles”, small rocks that accumulated in the depression of the trail that could be a slippery as ball bearings. These could easily and quite often lead to a fall. Slowly, carefully I made my way back to the saddle.

Once again on the saddle over looking at

Ellingwood Ridge and La Plata Basin Gulf

 

I stood on the saddle overlooking Ellington Ridge marveling at the ruggedness of the far ridge and after the comparingly easy traverse that had just turned my back from my summit bid to the obstacles and skill it would take to climb La Plata via that route.

The wind was increasingly strong and I was anxious to head off of this part of the mountain and gain some shelter below the ridge. Suddenly I heard a voice which seemed to come from nowhere. “Hi, how are you doing?” It was a young man that I had talked with briefly on my ascent, he had been hiking with a girl about his age but she was not with him.

We talked for a few minutes and gazed over the beautiful views that surrounded us. Then he asked if I would mind if he hiked down the mountain with me, he wanted some company. Even though I preferred to hike alone, he was very nice and easy to talk with, so I said that would be fine with me.

Dave Schuemaker

We were both anxious to get off of the ridge and out of the chilling wind so we started down the next set of switchbacks. We talked and walked and soon we were at the meadow that would give us a reprieve from the steep descent we had just finished and a place to rest before the next set of switchbacks. We sat in the grass, drank some water and had a snack. We really hit it off. He was a very nice young man, easy to talk to and interesting to listen to. Soon we threw on our packs and headed down the trail once again. This part of the trail was well defined and not very steep, it was easy walking. We turned right on a switchback and began the trail that would lead us across the north ridge above La Plata Valley. The trail cut across the ridge with a steep rise to our right and a very sharp falloff of hundreds of feet to our right.

We were still talking, having a great time and I was not really paying attention to my footing. Suddenly I felt my feet fly out from under me as if someone tied a rope to my ankles and gave a mighty pull. The fall literally took a second but in that time I felt my foot turn back and actually touch my calf, immediately realizing before I even hit the ground that I had done major damage to my ankle. I landed flat on my back, my pack absorbing the impact and certainly saving me from further injury to my back or my head. I lay there dazed and disoriented trying to process what had just happened.

The sky was deep blue and a voice said, “Denney, are you ok?”

It took a minute for me to answer and by that time Dave was kneeling by my side. “I broke my ankle.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said with certainty.

Dave had a shocked look on his face. “Do you hurt anywhere else? Your back? Your head?”

I was trying to collect my thoughts and digest what had just happened. Many mountain trails are shallow troughs that collect small rocks and pebbles that make traction uncertain. Hikers call them “marbles.” It was a combination of not watching my footing, probably walking a bit faster than I should have and a gathering of marbles that brought about my unexpected fall.

Luck goes two ways. I was lucky that I fell directly backwards and not to my left where the terrain dropped off to the valley below. While it was not a ledge, it was certainly steep enough that there was no way to guess how far I would have slid or rolled and what injuries would result from a fall like that. I was unlucky in that when my feet slid from under me, there was a large boulder that succeeded in catching my left foot and turning it sideways resulting in the injury to my ankle. Had it not been for the rock, my fall would most likely have been only an embarrassment and a reminder to not take any mountain traverse lightly. It was one of the few boulders along the trail and was most likely why the slippery gravel collected at that particular spot. Bottom line, gravity won and I lay on my back uncertain of the extent of my injury.

“What can I do?” Dave asked.

“I need to lay here just a minute,” I replied still disorientated by the unexpected event. My ankle didn’t hurt at the moment but I was confident that my ankle was injured to some degree because, even in that fleeting moment of falling, I felt like my ankle had actually doubled sideways. “Help me sit up and get my pack off,” I said in between uneven breaths.

Once I was sitting I looked down at my left ankle. It looked a bit crooked but there was still only a little pain. Thanks adrenalin.

I leaned forward and raised my pants leg. No blood, good. I peeled my sock down, no bone visible, good. There was a large bump on the left side of my ankle and a pretty good scrape on the area where my foot and ankle meet, proof that my foot had turned in a direction it shouldn’t have. My ankle was beginning to swell and I was afraid to move my foot. I was even afraid to remove my boot.

“Do you think you can walk on it?” Dave asked hoping for a positive response from me.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“You really think it’s broken?”

“I don’t know, but I felt it turn too far back to my calf…….” I really wasn’t sure what I had done to my ankle but now the realization of what happened began to sink in.

Here we were well above treeline, at 2:30 in the afternoon, on an exposed slope, a mile from the nearest shelter of the forest. I couldn’t walk, Dave couldn’t carry me and we were still nearly three miles from the trailhead.

Dave took his cell phone from his pack. While he looked at the screen he held the device at arm’s length searching for a signal…….. “Damn, nothing…..let’s try your cell.” Nothing.

“Ok, what do we do?” Dave asked.

“I don’t know…..we need to get help, I really don’t think I can walk.”

“Ok,” Dave said trying to figure out how to handle this, “I’ll hike down and get help.”

I felt so damn helpless…..I was helpless. My only hope was the young man I had only met a short time ago.

Dave took charge. “Let’s get you comfortable. Are you thirsty? Cold? What can I do for you before I start down?”

“I don’t think I want to move……I’ll be ok. Yeah I’ll have some water.”

Dave reached into his pack, pulled out a bottle of water and handed it to me. As I drank, he continued rifling through his pack. He brought out a survival blanket and a wind breaker. “Here, keep these. I don’t know how long it will take to get help, but you’re going to get cold.”

I always carry enough gear in my pack to spend the night out; never really thinking I would need to, but the realization was neither one of us knew how long it would take to get help.

“Thanks.” Was all I could say.

This a picture of me --

looking much happier than I really was --

after Dave helped me get comfortable

Dave made sure I was comfortable and had enough water, food and clothing in my pack. Then he stood to head for help. “Sit tight, don’t worry, I’ll get help.” Then he turned and started down the trail towards treeline.

I watched him walk, his silhouette getting smaller and smaller until he melted away into the rocky terrain. I felt so alone. A nervousness ran through me and just as quickly I told myself I would be fine. My help was solely reliant upon this young man; I hoped my impression of him was correct. I hoped he would follow through and get help, how could he not? I knew I would never see him again.

Dave heading down to find help

The pain was not nearly as bad as I would have expected it to be, just a dull throbbing that radiated if I tried to move my ankle. I slowly worked at getting my boot off, just awaiting for a flash of pain. Once my boot was off I tried wiggling my toes. They moved, not much, just a bit, but they moved. I took that as a good sign. I slowly pulled my sock off not sure what I would see. My ankle was swollen but not my foot. A beautiful shade of purple was beginning to appear across my ankle and the top of my foot. I reached to touch my toes still trying to move them. I had feeling and could move them with my hand with no additional pain. I took that as a good sign.

Satisfied that I had no other damage other than my ankle, I laid back against my pack and let out a long, comforting sigh.

So here I was, alone, in the wilderness, incapacitated, miles from the closest road and nightfall not very far away. I looked at my watch, by now it was after 3:30. It had already been better than an hour since I had fallen yet only minutes since Dave set off to find help. I had no idea how long it would be before assistance arrived. 

It was a beautiful place to be. The deep blue sky almost looked close enough to touch while the large cumulus clouds added sharp contrast drifting slowly on currents of air. The jagged peaks surrounding me stood starkly and roughly against the brilliant, smooth sky. To my left, hundreds of feet below me was La Plata Valley, a lush green valley of conifers, aspens and wild grasses bisected by La Plata Gulch Creek sparkling silver in the late afternoon sun.

My view while I waited for help

       

It was beautifully quiet. The wind had diminished to almost nothing and in the distance I could hear the breeze caressing the mountains, the occasional bird and my slow breathing. I could see for miles, the snow dappled mountains like sentinels seemed to go on forever. In the distance was a large bird circling on turbulent updrafts created by the mountains. It was probably a large hawk or vulture; I wanted to think it was an eagle.  

I sat alone with my thoughts. Irritated with myself for the position I put myself in with a moment of carelessness, at the same time thankful that the outcome had not been worse. Sorry to have put Dave in the position of being responsible for me when all he probably expected was I nice peaceful day in the Rockies. I wasn’t really too concerned about my immediate future, I fully expected that help would come and in a couple hours I would be in my car on the way to the hospital to evaluate the damage down to my ankle. I did not contemplate the way I would be helped from the mountain; I was thinking that by helicopter would be the only way, so I listened for the sound of blades chopping the air.

The day that began so cold had developed into a very nice day, the temperature was probably in the sixties and the relatively clear sky allowed the sun to warm me.

I waited. Time moved slowly but smoothly as I admired the view. I reached for my camera. How could I not take this perfect opportunity of not being able to move to take photos of the amazing scenery? I looked at my watch, it was nearly 5:30, about three hours since my mishap and about two hours since Dave headed to the trailhead to find help. There was nothing else to do but wait.

Suddenly, far down the trail, a little way above treeline, I saw some movement. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, then it disappeared. Almost as quickly, the movement reappeared. It looked like a person hiking the trail, but only a single person. Could this be someone from Search and Rescue? Why would only one person respond? Maybe it was the lead responder. I squinted my eyes hoping to see better but the person was still much too far away to discern who it was. Maybe it was just another hiker, but that was unlikely because usually no one would be heading toward the summit this late in the day. Then an arm went up…..a wave! Whoever it was saw me and knew I was there; it must be one of the first responders. I watched intently as the figure moved closer. I could see now it was a man……with a backpack. Then to my astonishment I saw it was Dave! What was he doing? Coming back up the mountain? My first thought was he wasn’t able to get help. Now what?

As he got closer I heard his voice. “Denney!” He called. I raised my hand to acknowledge that I heard him. In a few minutes he was within talking distance.

“What are you doing back here?” I asked, still perplexed.

Dave had a big smile and said, “There was no way I could leave you up here by yourself. Help is on its way and I wanted to come back and make sure you were doing ok.

Dave, after he returned from summoning help.....

The boulder by the backpack

is the one that broke my ankle

You can see the marbles - the small gravel -

that caused my fall

Amazing! I could not believe he had come back…..just to check on me. Would I have done the same? I would like to think so but seeing him again was totally unexpected……..and comforting.

He proceeded to tell me he had made it down the steep switchbacks below tree line and bumped into some other hikers that were heading down the mountain. No one had cell phone reception but they had a walkie-talkie with them and friends at the trailhead who they radioed and explained the situation. The guys at the trailhead had cell phone reception and put a call into Search and Rescue. It would only be a matter of time before help arrived.

Dave sat down on a boulder near me. I still had my camera in my hand. “Smile,” I said. As he looked my way I clicked a picture of this amazing young man.

He laughed and held out his hand for my camera. “Now it’s your turn.” He pointed my camera at my pathetic self. I smiled just as if I were having a great time, picnicking at over 12,000 feet on the side of a 14,000 foot mountain with the sun going down like it was a natural thing to do.

“I can’t believe you came all the way back up here.”

Dave brushed off my comment as if saying ‘what else would somebody do?’

“How’s your ankle?” Dave asked.

“Doesn’t hurt bad,” I answered, “pretty stiff and it’s swelling up a bit.” I had put my sock and boot back on. “Thanks for coming back up.”

I asked him how they were getting me off the mountain. He said he didn’t know. I asked how long before they would get here. Dave didn’t know. So we just sat there and waited.

We talked about trivial things like what we like to do for fun; we talked about families and our love of the mountains. Each time we would hear a noise in the sky we would scan the horizon for a helicopter. Nothing.

It was getting late now, about 6:30 and darkness was fast approaching. I was getting concerned and our conversation turned to whether or not we would be spending the night on the mountain. We were both prepared but neither one of us relished the idea. I was concerned about staying above treeline, with no protection or shelter from the elements. I also figured it would get cold, like it was when the morning began and we would need warmth. I started commenting that we had to find a way down to treeline.

Dark was creeping in.....

“How would we get you to treeline?” Dave asked.

“I’ll crawl if I have to.” I said matter-of-factly.

“Let’s wait a while. I’m sure someone will show up soon.” Dave said trying to sound as confident as possible.

We waited. Quarter ‘til seven came and went, then seven o’clock. I was getting restless. Dave kept urging me to sit tight, help was coming.

A little after seven, I saw movement down the trail near where I first saw Dave when he was heading back up to me. Then I saw nothing.

“Dave, I think I saw someone, down the trail, just above treeline.”

Dave looked but whatever I saw was no longer visible. “I don’t see anything.” He said probably wondering if I was getting delirious. Then suddenly, “Yeah, there, by that small cliff. I see something. Yeah, two people.”

We watched in silence as two figures appeared from among the rocky terrain. As they approached, one of them waved. Dave and I smiled at each other with relief.

Two incredibly fit young men walked up to us. “You must be the one we’re looking for.” One said with a smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of you. I’m Bobby, this is Pete. We’re with Search and Rescue, we have more help on the way I understand you hurt your ankle.”

Emotion began to well up inside of me. The first strong emotion I felt since I fell. It was just the tremendous relief after waiting on the mountain, incapacitated for nearly six hours. They were both comforting, in control, they knew what they were doing.

They took my boot off, along with my sock and checked out my ankle. They said they would have to splint it before they would try to move me. I asked how long it would be before the helicopter arrived. Bobby said they could possibly get a helicopter up here but it could not land because the terrain was so steep and……it would be about a $20,000 ride. Their plan was for them and their team, who were on their way up, to get me down safely by foot.

I was okay with them helping me down the mountain and I didn’t contemplate how they would accomplish it. I just accepted their decision and put my trust into their judgment.

They told me that more of their team was enroute but we needed to begin our descent and make as much headway as we could before dark. With their help I struggled to my feet, still protecting the injured ankle. With support from Pete on my left and Bobby on my right, I took my first step. I soon found that even with their support, I had to put some weight on my left leg. The pain of my injury was immediate. I could put very little weight on the ankle without almost unbearable pain. This was going to be much more difficult than I realized.

Slowly and with much difficulty they helped me limp along the narrow trail. I was concerned for Pete on the down side of the slope. Periodically he would slip on the loose rock. If he were to fall down the steep grade, there would certainly be another rescue in addition to me. I felt bad for both of these men, struggling to hold my weight and maintain their footing.

After about thirty minutes we arrived at a spot near treeline that was wide enough they we could all sit and take a break. It was nearly dark. 

Bobby was listening to his walkie-talkie, communicating with the rescue team.

“We’ll wait here,” he told me, “they are almost here with the litter.”

I didn’t know what a “litter” was and I was much too tired and in too much pain to ask. All this time, Dave had been silently following us burdened with his pack and mine. He was doing whatever he could to help but was pretty much keeping his distance and allowing the rescue team do what they were trained to do.

Within about ten minutes I could see two headlamps bobbing among the trees as two more men made their way to our location. It was dark now and impossible to see without illumination from a light.

Two men emerged from the darkness with equipment strapped to their backs. They were carry parts to a “big wheel litter.” Basically, this was a man sized basket with a large wheel attached to its’ center.

Two of the rescue team

arriving with the "litter"

As I watched them assemble the litter, Bobby explained their plan.

This a "big wheel litter"

“We’ll strap you into the litter and lower you down this next set of switchbacks. Just lay still and trust us. It could get a bit sketchy at times; this section is pretty steep but we will have additional people on belay to help control your descent. Once we get you down this section, we will be at a spot that the horses can get to. Do you have any experience riding?”

Horses? It was a much larger undertaking getting my incapacitated self down this mountain than I had realized.

“Uh, yeah, I can ride,” was about all I could say as I tried to process everything that was happening. “How long do you think before we reach the trailhead?” I asked. It was about 8:30pm.

There are no more pictures of the actual rescue.....

Everyone was quite busy getting me safely off of the mountain

“Oh, probably midnight or so,” Bobby said matter-of-factly.

Three and a half more hours, I thought?  “Midnight?”  I said.

“Yeah, we have a long, slow way to go,” replied Bobby, detecting my apprehension. “Just try to relax; we’ll get you down safely and as quickly as possible.”

I actually welcomed my opportunity to lie in the big wheel litter and just relax. It had been mentally and physically exhausting since my fall. The fall itself, the realization that I was injured and needed help, the long wait, the long walk to treeline were all a strain that did not register until now. I was helped into the litter, covered with a blanket and strapped in. I did my best to relax and put my trust into the rescue team.

I looked at the dark sky, teeming with stars that could not be seen from the city. It was beautiful.  I could hear the voices of the rescue team, the scrape of boots on gravel, the occasional ‘be careful’ or ‘are you ok?’.

Soon we were below treeline and my view of the starlit sky was hindered be the conifers along the trail. I tried to relax. At times I almost felt as if I could close my eyes and sleep as the long day began to take its toll on me. But the sounds of the commotion around me and the sensation of the litter tilting and dumping me on the ground kept me alert.

Time passed slowly. I didn’t remember these switchbacks being this much distance. Trees passed overhead as I was transported slowly down the steep pitch, with the occasional branch skimming close to my head.

After what seemed like much too long, the motion stopped. I heard a horse exhale and knew I had arrived at the next segment of my journey.

“Let’s get him out.” Someone said and I felt hands loosening the straps that had secured me in place. Bobby was by my side once again. “Are you doing ok?” he asked. “Yeah,” I replied, a bit disoriented.

As I stood, I could see the silhouettes of two horses patiently waiting nearby. Slowly I got to my feet, favoring my injured ankle and wondering how in the world I was going to hoist myself on top of the horse.

“Here, put this on Bobby said, handing me a helmet. “If you should fall we don’t want a head injury to add to your problems. Once you’re up there,” he continued, if the horse should stumble or fall, do your best to fall uphill from him. We don’t want him to fall on you or for you to take a tumble down the slope.” I didn’t have much to say, other than ‘OK’ as I tried to process my next task. Bobby must have seen me surveying the horse and wondering how I would get into the saddle. “I’ll support you,” he said, “try to put your good leg into the stirrup and swing yourself up.”

As Bobby steadied me, I inserted my foot into the stirrup and lifted myself onto the horses’ back with much more ease than I had expected. My first thought was’ damn, I’m high off the ground. The steepness of the slope and the darkness of the night added to my disorientation.

Another man approached me as I sat atop my mount. “Hi, I’m Frank. These are my horses. You’ll be fine. My horses have done this more than a few times. Your horse will follow the lead horse and I’ll be holding the reins to your horse. We’ll take it slow but if you feel uneasy or unstable at any time, let me know.”

Once again, ‘OK’ was all I could mutter.

We started forward. My senses filled with the sights, sounds and movement as the horse carefully found its footing along the rocky path. I could feel it hesitate as it felt for its next step and more than once the horse stumbled a bit, one time nearly pitching me over its head.

As we entered the dense forest the trail became much more narrow. There were times when the space between trees was barely enough for the width of the horse and I found it necessary to swing one or both of my legs up on the neck of the horse to prevent them from snagging a tree trunk and causing another injury or, worse yet, dislodging me from my perch.

Slowly we made our way through the forest. At times the horse would hesitate, then move forward with coaxing from its handler. I had to lean forward as the horse ascended a slope and backward as it headed down hill.

I remembered this part of the trail. It was the only part that was relatively flat; however the forest was extremely dense and dark and I could barely see anything at all. Winding its way along the woodland path, following its leader, the horse and I made our way through the obstacles. Once, an unseen branch snagged my insulated shirt and tried to pull me from my seat, tearing a large hole in my sleeve as I fought to maintain my seat.  The horse never knew and kept its pace.

We vacated the level forest and entered the narrow, hillside pass. A steep hill to my right and a steep slope to my left gave little margin for error. The horse, sure-footed and calm, slowly made its way along the dark thin trail. It was step-by-step progress. I could see nothing other than the horses’ handler in front of me and the occasional flash of a headlamp as it passed between the trees.

Then we stopped.

A headlamp bobbed toward me. Bobby said, “You’ll have to dismount. This part of the trail is to too steep for the horse to carry a rider.”

I swung my bad lover the horses’ back supporting myself with my good foot firmly in the stirrup. From that point I didn’t know what to do. There was no way that I could safely reach the ground without putting my full weight on my injured ankle. Bobby and and Pete were ready and able to help me ease myself to the ground.

With their assistance, I carefully made my way down the steep slope of the trail until we reached a spot where I would be able to get back on the horse. This procedure reoccurred a few times and I was reminded each time of the steep incline I climbed on my way up the trail early this morning.

The next landmark I recognized was the crossing at La Plata Gulch Creek. This time I was able to stay high and dry as the horse waded across the rushing stream. I knew we were getting close to the trailhead; probably less than a mile now and mostly flat.

One more time I had to leave the comfort of the saddle as we came to trees too dense for me to squeeze between while on the horse. As I dismounted I saw lights further down the trail. The trailhead! Finally!

I was exhausted. I turned to Bobby, “Can I just walk the rest of the way? I’m not sure I have the energy to climb back up on the horse again.” In actuality, it was probably a bit of pride that coaxed me to walk out of the woods rather than ride.

So with Bobby and Pete’s help, I made it to a waiting pickup truck that would take me to the ambulance.

As I sat in the front seat of the pickup, the strain and stress of the long day began to hit me as the adrenalin drained from my body. I put my head back and closed my eyes happy to once again sit somewhere that was not hard and rough. We drove the last quarter mile of the road to where the ambulance was parked. Once again, with assistance, I was able to make my way into the ambulance. The paramedic examined my ankle and took my vital signs. ‘Everything was good’ he said, ‘except for that darned ankle.

He couldn’t confirm that it was broken but that had certainly torn ligaments. I decided to drive myself to the hospital in Leadville about forty-five minutes away rather than tie up the ambulance as well as add another expense.

St. Vincent Hospital, Leadville Colorado

At the hospital it was confirmed that I did indeed break my ankle, the fibula, and tore most of the ligaments. The Leadville hospital said they could not perform the surgery and suggested I go to the hospital in Vail. They made the arrangements and when daylight came I drove the hour long trip to Vail.

The surgery was performed and I stayed in the hospital an additional day, and then headed home.

Vail Valley Hospital, Vail, Colorado

My ankle repair after surgery

  

This incident was not only unexpected, it hadn’t even entered my mind that I would get hurt hiking Colorado’s easier Fourteeners. It educated me to the fact that unforeseen circumstances could occur at the most inopportune times and that preparation is of utmost importance.

I was lucky in that Dave had asked to hike with me and was there when I had my mishap. I was also fortunate that he was the kind of person to honestly care about my well being. Had I been alone, someone would have eventually found me but not after most likely spending a cold, long night on the mountain.

Dave and I at his hotel the next day

  

I joke that at least it made for a better story than if I had just hiked back down the mountain.

Will I ever go back after enduring this incident? I hope so! I will have to see how my ankle heals and if I feel confident enough to not put myself in jeopardy.

I love the mountains, the wildness, the solitude and the challenge. I hope to experience it all again.

Addendum:

Since this incident in 2009, I have returned to Colorado

in 2011 and each year after to climb the 14er's

and hike the many high mountain trails

 

 

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