Mount Bierstadt is a 14,065 foot mountain in the front range of Colorado. It’s easily accessible when Guanella pass is open and fairly easy to summit if the weather is good. One evening last summer, we were paged to look for an overdue hiker who had left earlier in the day to summit Mount Bierstadt. He’d been up for a while and hadn’t returned by about dinner time and we were paged out to head up and start looking.
Trail to Mount Bierstadt
We spend a fair amount of time in this area training and searching for folks around Mount Evans, the Sawtooth ridge line between the two summits and the valleys below. There’s a lot of area above tree line here and in many ways it’s not a very forgiving environment. But, the hike up to the Bierstadt summit is fairly doable – especially in the dark.
I was paired up with another member and after tightening my favorite Montrail boots and gaiters and making sure I had enough water, food and the rest of the 10 essentials, we headed out. We started down the trail first (it goes down into the willows and the creek first) in the dark, finding our footing up and over the man made wooden bridges spanning the marshy areas. Then we started up. We spent the next couple hours slogging up in the dark with the stars over head; a clear, cool evening, perfect for hiking.
Mount Bierstadt Survey Marker
I’ve never done a 14er at night and despite the reason, I really enjoyed it. It was incredibly peaceful and while Bierstadt can have a LOT of people on a summer day, it was just the 2 of us tonight, hiking quietly, stopping only occasionally for a drink or a snack and occasionally chatting and the rare interruption of the radio guiding the different teams. Oh, and a short period with a helicopter flying around overhead also looking. Helicopters, at night, when they can’t see anything, near a summit is a strange site. Those Flight for Life helicopter pilots are amazing.
Eventually, we made it to the top. It was right about 1:00 AM and even though it was the middle of the night, the views were amazing. Denver way off in the distance, millions of stars overhead, no moon and knowing that we were out there trying to make a difference left quite an impression.
The Summit at 1:00 AM
After searching the logs in vain and looking around the summit for a while, it was time to turn back and head down. As always, going down is faster than going up and we made good time. Remember when we started the hike, we started out going downhill for a while? You sort of forget this until you get to the creek and realize that the hike is back uphill to the parking lot. By this time, you’re a little tired and you’re slowing down and it seems to take forever to get back. But, eventually, you get there and are welcomed by some other team members. We didn’t find our subject that night and were sent home. Unfortunately, another team found him during a search the next day after he had passed away.
Please remember to be careful in the mountains, especially areas that are steep and rocky and MOST especially, when you’re hiking alone. Better yet, find a partner, watch the weather (it had rained hard earlier), be prepared, tell people where you’re going and when you’ll be back and don’t take any unnecessary chances. Your friends and family want you to get home!
I’d love to know if you’ve had similar experiences of night hiking or with Search and Rescue.
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.
Echo Lake near Metz Creek and Mount Evans
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…