Saturday, May 26, 2012

Lost in the Sawatch - Mount Columbia

Mt. Yale and Molly

James, Cami and I had met a few friends to climb some peaks around Kite Lake the day before hiking the south east ridge route on Mt. Columbia, one of the few remaining Sawatch 14ers on my list.  Most of the Sawatch 14er hikes are long and arduous.  This one was no exception.  As we hiked through the forest along the ridge we noticed how relentlessly steep it was.  Treeline just would never come.  The trail was also very faint and broken at times making it pretty hard to follow.  After 500 hours of hiking we knew we'd have to be close, but Cami had had enough.  She decided to sit and read a book and wait for James and I to summit and return.  Finally, James and I reached the treeline.  At this point, James had also had enough.  He knew that from here, there was still a large percentage of the hike to do yet above the trees.  Two consecutive days of mountain climbing will make you tired like that. He and Molly (my dog) decided to wait for me here while I hiked to the summit alone.

This is what fatigue looks like.

It was a long ridge to the summit.  The hiking itself was pleasant and enjoyable, but just long.  It reminded me of a previous hike up Hoosier Ridge with all the ups and downs.  The views of Mt. Yale and the Arkansas River Valley were stunning.

Mt. Yale

Buffalo Peaks in the distance - Prints Available

Summit ridge

Mt. Harvard from the summit

The return trip is a two part story.  All of us got lost in the trees on the way down, but we were separated into two parties:

Hours later, when I returned to treeline James was gone.  I figured he got tired of waiting for me and hiked back into the trees to meet up with Cami.  I continued hiking along the ridge toward a little open meadow where Cami had stopped.  She had said she would wait for us, so I assumed she would be there.  I remembered the location we left her was a bit tricky to find.  I had made some mental notes and tried to follow them on the descent.  Fortunately I was able to spot her sitting in the same spot reading her book.  I asked if she'd seen James.  Nope.  We didn't know what to do.   We sat there for a while deciding on a plan.  We came to the conclusion that James must have gone off route somewhere or missed Cami as he returned down the mountain.  We decided the best thing for us to do was to head back ourselves.  If he was at the truck, great.  If not, we could go get help or figure out what to do from there.

We started hiking down.  Columbia's south east ridge isn't always very ridge-like.  At times in is very broad and it's hard to tell where the top of it is.  After we hiked for a while, not really paying attention, we realized we weren't following the trail.  I actually couldn't remember the last point that I saw the trail.  Once we realized we were off route, we tried to backtrack through the forest.  After looking around all over the place, we realized we were lost.  Actually, I realized we were lost.  I don't think it had hit Cami yet.  I got a little panicked feeling in my gut, but Cami seemed fine.  She looked like she was surprised that I seemed stressed out.  As we looked around a little more, it suddenly hit her too.  Then she started to act panicked.  Once I saw her this way, I was able to snap out of my own anxiety and start making logical choices.  It's funny how, when two people are faced with emotional/stressful situations, one of them is always able to be strong for the other.  Cami has been my rock, my voice of reason through many situations.  In this instance, I had no choice but to be that person.

We sat down and thought for a while.  I began listing the facts:

1. We were lost
2. Though we had no compass, we would not lose our sense of direction because we had distant mountains to keep us heading the direction we wanted.
3. We would most likely be able to find SOMETHING before dark that night.
4. Even if we couldn't find our way, we had all the emergency equipment we needed to overnight on the mountain
5. At the bottom of every mountain is a river.

That last point was the most assuring.  We finally decided to head downhill toward the east.  Eventually we knew we would at least come to a road or a river or both.  If we found a river, we could follow it to something.  We bushwhacked pretty much straight east down the side of the mountain.  At times the terrain was quite steep.  At one point Cami knocked a large boulder loose and yelled "ROCK!"  I looked up and was able to dodge the basketball sized projectile.

"If you kill me I won't be able to help you find the way out of here!" I yelled

Not funny.  Note to self... jokes don't work in these kind of situations.

Bushwhacking down the mountain

After a long period of this, we finally reached a long flat forested area.  From here, we just kept walking forward.  Then, bam!  There was the road!  We weren't sure which way to go along the road, but we found a guy who was parked and asked him which direction the trailhead was.  Turns out, we were only about 1/2 mile down the road from where our truck was parked.  We walked the quick distance in joy.  When we arrived, we found James and Molly!

Here's what happened with James:

James waited for me at tree line for a long time.  He had no watch and his phone was dead so he had no way to tell how long it was.  When you don't have any sense of time, it can make it seem like you've been there longer than you actually have.  He decided to go find Cami and wait there with her. However, he must have passed her along the way.  He wasn't sure where he was at this point so he started down the mountain.  He was off and on following the faint trail.  At times he wasn't sure which way to go and would start down the way he thought he should.  But, when he started down, our little canine companion would not follow him.  She would just look at him and sit there.  When he came back up to her, she would then proceed to walk in a different direction.  James must have realized that Molly knew where she was and he decided to follow the dog!  He had Molly go first.  At times, he would say, "Molly, it's over here."  But Molly wouldn't come.  She just kept waiting for him to follow her.  It's a gutsy thing trusting a dog to navigate for miles through a forest, but it panned out nicely for him.  They proceeded down the entire route this way.  He was able to stay on the trail most of the way back.  It's amazing what animals can do.  The two of them waited at the truck for Cami and I to arrive.  To thank Molly, James opened a brand new bag of beef jerky and gave it to her.

Mt. Princeton on the drive out