One cool fall evening 8 or 9 years ago, our mountain rescue team was called to help look for a lost hiker up near mount Evans. As you travel up highway 103 to the Mount Evans turn off, there’s a pull out on the north side of the road for parking and a trail on the left side that goes up to the summit of Chief Mountain. It’s not a very tall mountain as it rises just above tree line, and it’s not a difficult hike, as it starts pretty high to begin with. But, like many peaks that are above tree line, the trail up at the top is difficult to find at times.
There’s one spot in the rocks on the way down where the trail turns left, but if you aren’t watching, then you miss the turn and head straight down another drainage. This is called Metz Creek, or as we also call it, a horrible place to get lost and a PIA place to hike. There aren’t really trails down there and it’s steep, rocky and full of lots of downed trees. Not quite as many as in a spot in the La Salles outside of Moab where another instructor and I hiked for more than an hour exclusively on downed trees and never touched the ground. This was almost worse because it’s lots of ups and downs and climbing over and it’s very slow going.
We started out in several teams covering different parts of the wide, yet deep drainage, calling her name and searching behind every rock and tree and under bushes looking for any sign of her. We spent several hours combing through everything, yet knowing that the POD, or Probability of Detection, was dropping as it got later, darker and colder. Oh, and it started raining.
Eventually, everyone who goes down this drainage ends up at the same place, so it’s also a fairly predictable place to search, and when we search there we all almost always end up down there as well and then get driven back up to our cars. And, as all the teams head down the drainage, we often catch up to each other to walk out together.
After 3 or 4 teams all joined up, we became a big group and as big groups do, we started chatting about the search area and speculating what might have happened and what the search the next day would be like. And I think this loud chatter is what eventually alerted our subject to our presence. Fortunately, someone in the group heard her yelling and told the rest of us to be quiet so we could hear better. Although she was screaming loud enough that I’m sure we all would have heard momentarily.
This was well into my first year on the team and because of that, one of the senior members in our group encouraged everyone to let me and another member take the lead and find her, which I’m glad they did. This remains one of my more meaningful searches and rescues to date.
We followed her screams and yells into the blackness of this rainy, moonless night and eventually my headlamp found her; huddled on a small rock, next to a stream. Having shed her cotton sweatshirt after it got soaked through, she was wearing only running shorts, running shoes and a jogging bra. All were soaked. When I was finally within reach, she practically jumped into my arms and held on tight enough to make sure I wasn’t going anywhere without her.
After reassuring her that we would never leave without her and were there to help her, we all dropped our packs and pulled out our warm stuff to put on her. We loaded her with fleece and a down coat and dry socks and some food and water and helped her warm up for about 20 minutes before giving her a headlamp and starting the walk out. Obviously, we needed to get her moving so she could warm herself up and happily this happened fairly quickly.
By the time we made it down and out to our vehicles, she was plenty warm. She was able to get out of the rest of her wet clothes and then we all piled in the trucks for the ride back around to where we started. After a quick chat with a police officer about her experience and a quick once-over by the ambulance crew, she was ready to head home with her family and friends and a new experience to talk about for a long time.
We’re all very grateful that this ended happily and would love all of them to end this way. Unfortunately, some of them don’t. But in hindsight, it’s easy to see how she got lost and what she could have done differently to protect herself better. Probably, had we not found her she would have been ok, just REALLY cold, as I don’t think it got below freezing that night. But, you never know.
Here’s my take on her experience and what could have been done differently. Remember this when you head out.
1. When this group was heading down from the summit, she separated from them. Presumably, to run down on her own. She missed the trail while the rest of her group found it. Keep your eyes on the trail so you don’t miss it when it’s not obvious.
2. She wore only cotton. It would’ve been easy to exchange her cotton sweatshirt for a fleece one or add a light shell.
3. She didn’t bring anything with her like water, snacks, fleece, flashlight, whistle, fire starter, etc. Of course starting a fire in these conditions would’ve been extremely challenging at best, but it’s certainly possible. Check your 10 essentials.
4. She was stuck at the bottom of the creek, one of the coldest places she could’ve chosen. And even though the creek was small, it still made noise which made it harder for her to hear rescuers calling. The better place to be in this type of situation would have been higher up the hillside. This way, she’s not where the cold air settles. And not at the very top where it’s more windy and cold. Somewhere in the middle where she could settle in and find some shelter of downed trees and branches might have made her a lot more comfortable.
To be fair, though, this is the sort of trail where you think you’ll just go up quickly, have a snack and a look around and then come back down. It’s short and easily doable in a few hours and its not one you think you’d get lost on. But, it’s these types of hikes that people do get lost on or have a hard time on. So, the next time you go out, think about what you don’t think you’ll need so you aren’t left out in the cold in your underwear…