Saturday, August 16, 2003

A Night on the Mountain

Survival shelter made from pine branches Holy Cross Mountain

An Adventure Story
A Night on the Mountain

After a nice steak dinner washed down with a few Colorado microbrews last night I collapsed into bed at 6 pm and slept for a straight fourteen hours! Now I am rested and ready to tell my story about 'The Night on the Mountain'.

The adventure started Monday morning when I arose early and drove over by Vail to run/hike the Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005 ft) -one of the more rugged and tougher of Colorado's fifty-four Fourteeners. After driving 8 miles into the Sawatch Range on a 4X4 road I reached the Halfmoon Trailhead (10,320 ft) at 8am. The Halfmoon Trail is a 6-mile hike and a 5,625 vertical feet climb to the summit of Holy Cross. I figured it would take me about 7hours to make the return trip.

The trail climbs 1320 vertical feet over the first 1.7 miles to the top of Halfmoon Pass and then drops 1,000 feet to East Cross Creek. I was able to run most of that section of the trail. After crossing the creek the trail climbs up the east side of the mountain and emerges from the tree line about 11,600ft. At that point the trail ends and it is necessary to hike/climb on talus or large rocks along the north ridge of the mountain until that ridge merges with the upper part of the peak at 13,400 ft. A few sections of the route are scary as you have to peer down into many of the rugged and steep couloirs that the mountain is noted for. It was difficult climbing and thank goodness that some volunteers had built rock pillars or posts to indicate the correct route/path to follow up to the top of Angelica Couloir at 13,700 ft. From there it was a steep, tough climb to the summit. I reached the peak at 12 pm - 4 hours of tough climbing!
I figured it was going to take another 4 hours for the return trip because the climb back down through the talus would be just as difficult or more than the climb up? So after a quick snack and a few pictures at the summit I started back down. I had met two young men at the top but they had come up the south side of the mountain so I had the whole mountain to myself again as I started the descent down the north ridge to the east side of the mountain back to Halfmoon trail. And I made my first mistake of theday/trip. I had my GPS with me but failed to 'mark' my trail and tell the GPS to 'track back' on the trail.

I was sure that I knew the way back down and would not need the GPS. I had no problem climbing back down to the top of Angelica Couloir and on to the top of the north ridge. But at that point I made my second mistake. Instead of staying on the top of the ridge where I had to look down into the couloirs and dizzying heights I decided to veer off the west side of the ridge and follow it down. However by the time I reached the tree line I realized that I had strayed about 1/4 mile west of the ridge. That meant that I now had to traverse 1/4 mile of talus to reach the ridge. Although the GPS could not steer me back to the actual trail I had ascended I decided to use the compass feature to verify that I was heading back to the east side because I had become disoriented. However the batteries had died and the GPS was useless! So I set off in what I considered the east direction. But now I had a bigger problem. A violent thunderstorm and rain quickly moved over the mountain and I wanted off that mountain fast. As I neared what I figured was the ridge on the east side of the mountain I found a trail. It was not the Halfmoon trail but it did go down the mountain so I decided to follow it and hope that I could traverse across to the proper trail. Only after I had descended about 500 vertical feet did I realize that I was on a false trail and was actually descending a couloir.Too late to turn back. I could see East Cross Creek at the bottom of the mountain so I made the decision to continue the descent to the Creek and then hope that I could follow the Creek around to the east side of the mountain and find the Halfmoon trail where it crossed the Creek?
It turned out to be a real bad decision. The descent down the couloir was a nightmare. Very steep and a few sections of solid rock cliffs that I had to scale down. It took me over 2 hours to make that descent but finally I was down and unhurt!
Now reality and bad news started to confront me.

There were no trails on this side of the mountain and the terrain along East Cross Creek was impassable. Steep cliffs on the north side of Holy Cross jutted down into the creek on both sides of this small section of the creek blocking all routes out. I was trapped on this section of the mountain! After a brief moment of panic/anxiety training took over -thankfully. It was raining, there was lightning and it was now 6 pm and I knew that I was spending the night on the mountain! There was not enough daylight left to hike off the mountain safely even if I had known the way. Once I accepted that fact/reality it was time to act!

Thankfully I had two weeks of survival training in the Canadian Rockies forty years ago when I was in the military - and it all came back to me clearly! First action - take stock of what supplies I had. I had worn only a T-shirt and shorts on the hike but thankfully I had carried in a rain jacket and gloves. However everything was thoroughly soaked. The rest of my emergency kit consisted of one power bar for food and a Swiss army knife.That was it! The first survival priority is warmth and shelter. So I hiked for a short time to locate a high rocky outcrop on the edge of the forest and creek. The forest would provide protection from the rain and wind and the rock was high and dry. Unfortunately I didn't have any matches/lighter so a much needed and desired fire was out of the question. Thus a shelter was critical! I had less than two hours of daylight left to build my new home so I set to work immediately. Since I had no axe I gathered dead trees and limbs from the forest to build the frame of a lean-to which I placed against a huge rock and a tree. Then I used my trusty knife to cut large branches from pine trees and place them on the roof and sides of the frame. This would provide protection from the rain and wind. Then I gathered moss from the forest floor and rotten wood from old fallen logs to build a bed in my shelter. This would keep me off the cold, hard and wet rock. I made it even more comfy by cutting several small, soft branches from pine trees and stacking two or three layers on top of the moss/bark. Then I cut several more large branches so that I could cover myself with pine branches to provide another layer of protection and insulation. My final preparation was to cut down a small aspen and make a spear. I knew there was wildlife along the creek from animal trails and droppings and I wanted some kind of protection if needed. It was 8 pm, dark and raining when I finally crawled into the Wallace-Holy Cross Hilton and pulled an old tree stump and pine tree across the entrance. I was in bed for the night and had no intention of emerging until sunrise!

I allowed myself to eat half of the power bar because I knew I would need nutrition/energy to stay warm. Within a few minutes of being sedentary I started to shiver and realized that my wet clothes were stealing my body heat so I stripped and wrung out as much water as possible and then had to put the old, wet clothes back on. Everything except my hiking socks, which were so heavy and wet that I figured my feet, would stay warmer without the socks.Finally I pulled two or three layers of pine branches over me and settled down for the night. I figured I had 10 hours until sunrise to rest, analyze my predicament and come up with a solution.

I knew that it was going to be a very uncomfortable and miserable night -but I wasn't in danger of dieing! The temps, even at 10,500 feet are not cold enough at this time of the year to freeze. But I was concerned about the amount of body heat and energy that I would lose to the cold temps and what toll that would take on my body. I knew that my wife now realized that something had happened on the mountain and I wasn't coming home that night. She would be worried and would contact the police and mountain rescue. Of course they couldn't do anything until daylight. Now that I was settled in and more relaxed I pictured the mountain and map over and over again in my mind to understandwhat had happened and where I was on the mountain. I decided that I had only two options:
1) I could stay where I was until a search & rescue team came to my rescue. The problem with this solution was that I figured that I had descended down the north side of Holy Cross where there are no trails in or out because the terrain is so steep and treacherous. A rescue team would never think of looking there until they had exhausted all the obvious sections of the mountain. I could be stuck in my location for another two or three days! That would extract a terrible toll on my body without food and adequate clothing. I doubted that I would even have the strength/energy by then to hike out and they would have to bring in a helicopter to lift me out. This was not a desirable option.
2) I had to find a safe and not-too-difficult route to climb back up the north side of Holy Cross to the summit. From there I could find the proper trail down the mountain or wait for other hikers or a rescue team to arrive and show me the way down. This was the only viable option!

Now I only had to wait another nine hours to put my plan into action. It was a very long and miserable nine hours. But without my shelter and preparations it would have been pure Hell! I didn't sleep much and by 1 am the temps had dropped into the mid 30s and I had to start doing isometric exercises and massaging my bare legs to keep my body warm. I even attempted meditation to lower my pulse rate in an effort to use less energy.Thank goodness for the Times Indigo watch that I was wearing. It allowed me to track the time in the dark so I knew how much longer I had to hold on and wait for sunrise.

Finally at 6 am the first rays of sunrise started to peak over the mountain and I gathered my things and left the shelter. I ate another 1/4 of my power bar and reluctantly filled my camelback with water from the East Cross Creek. All the guidebooks warn you not to drink water from the mountain streams (unless you treat it) but I had no choice. I had run out of water coming down the north side and I needed water. My legs were starting to cramp from the cold and dehydration. My muscles needed water and I figured that I would just have to deal with the ramifications/consequences later.

I then hiked along the creek in both directions while I surveyed the north face of Holy Cross and looked for the best possible route back up that mountain. It was not good! There were steep cliffs everywhere and I could hardly believe that I had made it down that couloir without a fall or injury? Finally I decided that the East Ridge offered the best route. The tree lines eemed to rise more gradually than any other route and there didn't seem to be as many rock/cliff sections.

My mind was set. I headed across and up the north face towards that East Ridge. There were no trails and the terrain was treacherous but I had made a good choice. By criss-crossing over the ridge I was able to avoid all but two sections of cliffs which I had to scale. And the trees actually helped me by using the branches as ropes to pull myself up the steep terrain. After two grueling and exhausting hours I finally reached the treeline on the East Ridge around 12,000 feet and luckily (or was it miraculously) I stumbled across a well-maintained trail. Was it the Halfmoon Trail? No matter– it was obviously a well-traveled trail and I decided immediately that I was following that trail down the mountain. It would eventually lead to a trailhead and to people, cars and safety! Within 30 minutes I met the first hiker coming up the mountain and he confirmed, “Yes, this is the Halfmoon Trail”! Hallelujah! I now was 100% confident that I was getting off this damn mountain safely and ALIVE!

But the ordeal was not over yet. Another 30 minutes later I reached East Cross Creek at 10,600 feet. A quick look north and west confirmed what I had already determined - it was impossible to hike to this crossing along the creek. But now I had another difficult challenge. I had to climb the 1000 vertical feet of Halfmoon Trail back up the other side to the top of Halfmoon Pass. My legs were mush! They were totally exhausted and cramped from the cold and demanding climb up the north face of Holy Cross. But like many of my marathons in the past I just told myself to do it –one slow, excruciating step at a time! I met a lot of hikers coming down the pass (where were all those hikers the day before when I needed them) but no rescue team? And finally one long, painful hour later I crested the top of Halfmoon Pass (11,640 ft). I was almost out! Only 1.7 miles and 1300 vertical feet of descent and I would back at my car! That was the only thought that kept me going – my legs were finished - so cramped that each step was painful. I met several more hikers on the descent but still no rescue team?

At 10am – four grueling and painful hours after I had left the lovely, palacial Wallace-Holy Cross Hilton, I was really off the mountain. Fortunately I had left a quart of high-energy drink in the car and I immediately downed the whole quart to replenish both my liquids and much-needed nutrients. I discovered a note on the car from a sheriff so I knew that Nicole had called in the crisis/problem. Just as I was leaving the trailhead the sheriff drove back in to check if I was still on the mountain. If I had not returned there they were preparing to launch a search and rescue team to start the search. Fortunately he was able to call it off and even agred to call Nicole to inform her that I was off the mountain safely and on my way home.

All I could think of on the long drive home was my hot tub! After apologizing to Nicole for putting her through Hell I intended to sink into the tub and stay there until every molecule of my body was warm again and my sore, cramped muscles were soothed and relaxed. And that is exactly what Idid!

While I was submerged in that glorious hot water I relived the past 24 hours and reflected on what I had learned from this adventure:
1) I will never go into the mountains again (even for a supposedly short day trip) without a complete emergency kit. Warm clothes and rain gear for my whole body, an emergency foil/solar blanket, waterproof matches, more food and tablets for disinfecting water and of course my trusty Swiss knife.
2) I am certain that I would still be on that mountain right now if I was not in such good physical condition. I would never have had the endurance and mental toughness required to hike back up the north face of HolyCross to find my own way out.
So all those marathons, hikes and maniacal training that I do saved me a lot of pain and discomfort and maybe even saved my life! I will never stop running marathons or even hiking 14ers and most certainly I will NEVER, NEVER stop keeping myself in peak physical condition all the time!

I hope that some of you may learn something useful from this adventure. I know that certainly have!

No comments: