The formative wilderness experience, Part III
For those of you who haven’t been following along, my two college buddies, Al Hendricks and Dennis Alf, and I left the University of Wyoming to hike the 30-mile Moffit Road over the Continental Divide to Winter Park, Colorado on March 15, 1968.
We spent one night in a tiny pup tent in a tunnel at 11,300 feet, followed by a day of trudging 7 miles through armpit-deep snow, where we spent the next two nights in an outhouse. After that, it was clear neither the Canadian Royal Mounted Police — nor anyone else — was going to rescue us, so we had to rescue ourselves.
Tuesday morning Dennis and I left Al behind with extra clothing and what little food we had left (Slim Jims), while the two of us headed towards civilization.
It was cold and clear when we left our outhouse domicile and started plodding through the forested terrain and deep snow. After about a mile of strenuous travel, the snow was firm enough to walk on, having been packed down by a snowcat. No more trudging through armpit deep snow. We quickly scrambled down the road, once taking a steep waist-deep short cut between switchbacks. (It turned out that we saved over a mile of walking this way.)
We took a short break when Dennis said, “My big toe has worn a hole through my sock. It’s driving me crazy. I’ve got to stop and take care of it.”
If we’d had extra socks (which I doubt) we’d left them with Al. He took off his boot.
“What the heck?” he said, “There’s no hole in my sock?” Then, confused but eager to keep moving, he put his sock and boot back on and we took off.
We made good time and arrived in the sleepy village of Winter Park by 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. Uncertain as to where we should go, we went to the first public building we saw, the post office. We walked in and I asked the lady at the counter, “Have you heard of any boys being lost in the mountains?”
She said, “no, but I can call the forest ranger and check with him.” A few minutes later she returned and said, “yup, the ranger said they were just starting to look for you fellas. He’ll be here momentarily to pick you up.”
While waiting for the ranger, we asked, “Do you have any water?”
She said, “Sorry no, but I have a couple of candy bars.” We politely accepted.
Have you ever tried to eat a Butterfinger candy bar without having had much water for 48 hours? We hadn’t thought how dehydrated we were, though our cottonmouths should have made it clear. The Butterfinger came close to giving me a lifelong case of arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.
Overall, though, we felt fine except for Dennis’s sock that didn’t have a hole in it.
The ranger pulled up in his U.S. Forest Service truck and got out to greet us. In typical Rocky Mountain understatement, he said, “spring must be coming ’cause the fools are gettin out into the mountains.”
Well, that perked up our self-esteem, and we hopped into the truck to travel the short distance to the Forest Service headquarters. Thanks to our friends in our dorm finally calling the dean of students and reporting us, missing search parties were just getting organized. The little building was humming with folks preparing to head out and look for us. The rescue team leaders told us they were planning a variety of search strategies. They had folks approaching the pass from the north and the south, and folks with ice axes, crampons and ropes were ready to scale cliffs. Like so many bureaucratic efforts, they seemed to have every route covered except the most obvious one. The one we were hiking.
One of the rescue coordinators asked, “How are you?”
I said, “fine, except for Dennis’s sock that doesn’t have a hole in it.”
“I thought my big toe was sticking through a hole in my sock but when I took my boot off there was no hole,” Dennis said.
The chief first-aid person said, “Let me take a look.”
Dennis removed his boot and sock, and his big toe was whitish gray and cold and stiff to the touch. The rescuers had just recently completed a seminar on frostbite, and they thought that might be Dennis’ problem, and sure enough, it was. It was comical to watch four adults surrounding Dennis’ toe, pointing, poking and prodding with one exclaiming, “yup, just like the pictures in the seminar. This here is frostbite.”
They whisked Dennis off to the hospital, where he spent the night and was released, no worse for wear, after being treated for superficial frostbite of his big toe. Meanwhile, a small team of rescuers took a snowcat up the road to rescue Al, who was tired and a bit dehydrated but otherwise in good shape. Our college buddies from Laramie came down and picked up Al and me, and we headed back to campus.
Much to our chagrin, our misadventure made big headlines across the country, “Three Missing UW Students Found — One Hospitalized,” “2 Walk In, 1 Rescued of 3 UW Students in Colorado.” My favorite appeared in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, the nearest paper to my hometown of Phelps: “Phelps Youth, Friends Safe After Hike Jaunt.”
We weren’t surprised when a week later we received a bill from the Forest Service for $68.23 ($580 in today’s dollars) to repair the damage done to the outhouse.
In a letter to us after the incident, the ranger hit the nail on the head when he said:
“It is rather foolish to attempt crossing Rollins Pass during the winter, being poorly prepared … This high country is very hostile during the winter and should not be treated lightly … All too many times weekend mountain trips have turned into disasters for college students. Most of these past cases … can be related back to poor preparation, lack of equipment, inexperience, and poor judgment in leadership of the party.”
It described us to a capital T.
In hindsight, we were extremely lucky. We did a bunch of things wrong but survived because we did a few things right. We didn’t panic, we strategized, and we problem solved. Zipping our sleeping bags together, and finally deciding to hike out on our own were smart. And of course, letting people know where we were going and when we expected to return was critical.
After my experience on Rollins Pass, I got the outdoor bug and decided I wanted to do it right, which I did. I gained a lot of outdoor leadership experience between 1968 and 1974. I took a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) wilderness course in 1970, climbed Denali with NOLS in 1971 and became a NOLS instructor in 1974. NOLS provided me with a tremendous foundation for being an outdoor leader.
My career path had been mapped.
I had taken the lemon of the Moffit Road experience and turned it into lemonade.