Six miles into our 7.5 mile snowshoe trek and we were beat. Not because of the length of the trip, but because the vertical elevation of the last two miles.
Prior to the final ascent everything was going great. We went up and down rolling hills, over frozen streams all through one of Colorado’s most beautiful forests. The final ascent, though, taught us that no matter how much you train, carrying 50-pounds on your back while climbing a 3 to 5 percent grade mountain in snowshoes isn’t a walk in the park.
By the time we reached a plateau of the climb we were at a pace of about five steps per minute resting. We were all huffing and puffing and had stopped all jovial banter that accompanied the march thus far.
So when we saw the first signs of human life other than our pack of 10, we were happy that this gave us an opportunity to stop, talk and catch our collective breath. And when the three gentlemen on snowmobiles found out where we were going, another 1.5 miles up the hill to a pair of yurts located at more than 11,000 feet above sea level, they graciously volunteered to drive us the rest of the way, one by one, on the back of their machines.
Not wanting to look like the mountain had conquered us, we huddled and decided that because of the impending sunset that it was probably best to take up their offer. Not because none of us could walk another step, but because of darkness, or so we convinced ourselves.
So the snowmobilers revved their engines and we got on, one to a snowmobile, a total of three per trip.
Being the man that I am, I allowed the women to take the first sets of rides. Being that I was the newbie on the trip, I allowed the rest of the group to go ahead as well – leaving me as one of the last two to take a ride up.
The round-trip up and back down to our spot took the snowmobiles 15 to 20 minutes, giving me time to sit around, think and analyze what was happening. Seeing that everyone was having difficulties fitting onto the snowmobiles with their packs and snowshoes the idea crossed my mind that we should designate the next trip up as a cargo expedition, meaning the remaining few of us could tie our gear down on one snowmobile. This way, I thought, when our number was called we could easily hop on back and head up. I suggested my idea, and it went over well. The next snowmobile down carried all of our stuff up.
So there I was with one other person, my friend’s friend who I first met on the car ride up from Denver to Leadville. She seemed like a good girl, and the thing that stuck out about her was that she was a tiny girl, and that it looked like her pack weighed more than she did. I bet she was five feet tall and 90 pounds. I mean a small girl.
As we waited for the final “snow taxi” to arrive, we talked about how great it will be to have a cup of hot chocolate in our hands within half an hour. When our chariots arrived, we were overwhelmed with joy. She got on one and then I got on the back of another one.
We talked with our chauffeurs for a brief moment, and then when they went to start the snowmobiles to take us up, the one I was on wouldn’t start. The driver tried again and again there was nothing but sputter. A third attempt. A third failure.
The three snowmobilers looked at each other in bewilderment. They had plenty of gas, so that wasn’t the issue. None was a mechanic, but they dutifully started taking the machine apart to detect the problem.
Well, by this time the sun was really beginning to set, and the night winds were picking up. The guys with the snowmobiles were, understandably, more interested in helping their fallen machine than in taking the two remaining strangers to the top of the mountain.
We decided that we needed to walk the rest of the way. We had about an hour of rest and our packs were up at the yurt, so it seemed like it’d be easier to finish the trip than the previous two miles we had traversed.
But what about our snowshoes? It didn’t seem like much of a deal, as the area we were on was pretty windblown and packed down. We hoped that the rest of the trek would have the same snowpack.
It wasn’t more than 300 yards before we got into a clearing and realized we had made a potentially grave mistake. The snow in the clearing was waist deep and powder. Every time I would take a step I would sink into the waist deep snow. It took every bit of strength to climb out of the hole that my body made as I crashed through the snow, only to take another step and create another hole.
My friend, with her dainty frame, didn’t have as much trouble as I was having. Weighing half of what I weighed, she was light enough to be able to float on top of the snow, not falling in, or if so, not falling in as far.
Trying to disperse my weight, so that I could hover on top of the snow like she was doing, I decided that crawling was my best option. Ten or 20 yards into that attempt I was beat down.
At this point, my companion made a decision that I thought would be the end of me. Being 100 yards ahead of me she yelled back that she was going to get help and that I should stay put. As the sky fell into a bright orange, sunset inspired, hue, I pleaded with her not to leave me. I wouldn’t be able to be found in the darkness and that I would freeze. She assured me that her boyfriend was in the yurt and that he would come down to rescue me. And then she disappeared around a clump of trees.
I didn’t panic. Instead I started digging out a hole in the snow that I would use as a shield from the wind, and an amateur igloo if needed. I had a Nalgene on me, but it was empty, so I filled it with snow and positioned it close to my body using my body heat to melt the snow giving me water to drink.
With no watch, I wasn’t able to discern time, but after what seemed like an hour alone, just below tree line, I heard a yell: “Evan, where are you?!”
I hopped out of my hole and saw a headlamp in the distance. I started yelling and waiving my hands. Soon the headlamp was heading my way and within five minutes the girl’s boyfriend was there with my snowshoes.
I put them on, lifted myself out of my cave, and sure enough I began to float on top of the snow – able to take steps without plunging down three feet with each step. Using the snowshoes as they were intended to be used, I made it back to safety, to the comfort of the yurt and that much deserved cup of hot chocolate.
Later, I ended up with a mild case of frost nip. It was debilitating enough that the following day – as everyone was playing in the snow – I wasn’t able to leave the side of the cast iron stove, still trying to thaw my toes out.
I also learned a valuable lesson because of a mistake that possibly could have lost my life. No matter what the circumstances or the feeling of safety, on a trip like this never abandon your snowshoes, water, headlamp or snacks. Having none of those with me could have cost me my life, but luckily I was “stranded” close to home base, and with people who could find me. If not, who knows how this story might have ended.