West Beaver Creek
I'm having trouble now in remembering which year it was, either 1982 or 1983, but it still seems like yesterday afternoon. Somewhere there's a newspaper clipping telling the story with a date on it, but I don't know where those are. It was to be a two and a half day backpacking trip starting in the high mountain valley of West Beaver Creek just south of Victor, Colorado. Victor is a near-ghost town, a relic of Colorado's gold mining days. It lies to the west of Pike's Peak, just a couple of miles from it's more famous sister town of Cripple Creek.
The Rocky Mountains do their climbing in two distinct stages. They climb in steep, ragged bluffs from about 5,000 feet above sea level to about 8,000 feet. In the 8,000 to 9,000 foot zone there are broad alpine valleys called "parks." The peaks climb from the parks on up to nearly 15,000 feet. Victor sits at about 9,000 feet. We decided to backpack down West Beaver Creek from Victor to Penrose, Colorado where West Beaver Creek joins the Arkansas River. The group was composed of Rick Molello, my wife, Marian, and myself. The Molello's had run cattle on Beaver Creek and Rick thought he knew the way.
We were not novice backpackers. Marian and I had made a number of extended treks in the wilderness, both in Kentucky and in the Rockies, and each time we had learned more and honed our skill. We had superb equipment and were in excellent physical condition. Rick was 21 and extremely strong.
Beaver Creek is dammed near Victor to make a lake. Rick's father drove us up to the lake and promised to meet us on Saturday afternoon when we emerged from the canyon near Penrose. The sky was clear and the temperature was in the mid 60's. We took off at a brisk pace following the creek which was wide and shallow. The air had the scent of fir trees and you could occasionally see the flicker of a trout turning in the water and darting away as we passed. Thursday was a wonderful day. We walked and talked, and soaked in the special feeling of being truly alive that you get when you're on your own in the natural world. Since we were walking downhill, the travel had an easy feel to it, even with a forty pound pack and heavy hiking boots.
In retrospect, I suppose we hadn't fully considered the implications of the fact that this creek would drop nearly a mile in altitude during the next fifteen miles. There was a reason for this miscalculation: both Rick and his father had told us that they had made the walk in a day and driven cattle up the creek each spring in earlier years. There was only one catch: they were mistaken about the creek. Later, we would figure out that they had done their walking and cattle driving on the eastern branch of the creek, but they had never walked the branch we were on. They had assumed that the creek that ran from the lake was the same one they knew from the other end. The other branch is dammed at about the same altitude. Rick's grandfather had hunted in those mountains and knew the difference, but, out of a misplaced sense of respect for me (I've often wondered if it wasn't sadistic humor), he had decided not to say anything about the mistake.
Friday was more difficult as the creek began it's plunge toward the plains. We had to cross it several times and the going was slower. A couple of times we had to walk up the hillsides to bypass tight spots. Still there were no real problems and we were making reasonably good time. As the sun went down Friday evening, we began to hear thunder in the distance and the air had a fitful, stormy feeling about it. We made a couple of lame jokes about getting washed down the creek in our sleeping bags, but they weren't terribly funny. I had looked at the topographical maps a couple of times that afternoon because I was beginning to have difficulty visualizing how someone would drive a herd of cattle through some of the spots we had seen.
What made me want to take on places in the wilderness so rough that they didn't even have foot trails? To say that I had something to prove is incomplete. I did, certainly. I needed to feel that sense of total self-reliance that comes with those "no second chances" kind of places. But there was more to it than that. I already knew that I was pretty tough and could take care of myself. It was not a classic Teddy Roosevelt complex--sickly asthmatic child grows up to be super-macho adventurer. The wilderness was the place I wanted to be. It matched my soul and my mind. It wasn't so much a matter of proving my body could take me there as it was a need to be there. Had I seriously doubted my physical capabilities, I probably wouldn't have gone. For all of my romantic zaniness, I remain fairly sensible about matters of life, death, and injury.
Beauty was a part of it. That part of the Rockies has grandeur. It has wonderful variety in landscape and foliage since there are so many different altitude levels and rainfall zones. The Rockies are so large that it rains on one side of the mountain and not on the other. You can move from arid scrub oak and sage brush to lush stands of fir and aspen in just a few hundred yards. The creeks are miracles in themselves, so clean that normal water purification processes actually pollute them. In the summer there are wild flowers like nowhere else on earth, strange plants whose leaves and stems are stunted to withstand the harsh winter, but bloom with incredible intensity of color. They give off musky, exotic scents. The air is thinner, lighter, and it can make you light-headed if you push too hard. And, of course, there are the views. It is nothing short of mystical to be able to stand on solid ground and see more than a hundred miles away. Beauty was a part of it.
There was a spiritual side to it, also. Don't worry--I'm not going to get gushy about metaphysics and spiritual experiences. I've always been the kind of person who mistrusts answers that are handed to me. I've always felt that the traditional explanations served a set of needs which didn't always coincide with my own. That's all. Nothing fancy. I'm a seeker. I knew that holy men, shamans, poets, and philosophers had taken off for the uninhabited spaces throughout recorded history, and I wanted to see if there was anything to it. If that makes you uncomfortable, I'm sorry, but it's part of the picture.
Reconstructing the feelings of five years ago is a tricky business because I know things now that I didn't know then. The image of "the wilderness" kept popping up in my writings. There was an unconscious energy pushing me to get there and feel that primal union. There was an intuition that something would happen to me there, something which couldn't happen in the safety of my civilized life. There was something out there from which we had insulated ourselves--perhaps that life force which is both primitive and absolute was waiting for me there. I had endured twenty years of academic education, and I needed to experience life in its unexplained state.
There's a sense of unity that comes when you walk upon the earth with everything you need to survive on your back. You know that you are doing something that people have done for ages. You don't "own" the world because no one can do that, but neither does nature own you in the same way that it owns the deer and the bear. The trail does have an end, and waiting there are warm showers, hot steaks, and soft beds. There is a sense of merging yourself into something timeless, which is, in its own strange way, perfect. With just a bit of imagination, you can forget what century it is.
And finally, there is that awareness of challenge and threat. You can really mess yourself up in the wilderness. You can be injured and lay there for days before someone can get you out. You can get yourself killed. You can be struck by lightning, mauled by a bear, bitten by a snake, fall from a cliff, drown in a creek, or just freeze to death. You feel your life when you're that close to death. It sounds drastic in the retelling, but maybe I needed a brush with those things to be sure that I was alive.
Saturday morning was cloudy and wet. It had rained in the night, and our sleep had been troubled by thunder. The sky looked like it could rain again. We got our little gas stoves burning for coffee and oatmeal and talked about sleeping with one ear open for the roar of a flood. We had pitched camp as far from the creek as we could, but not far enough to be sure that a real flood couldn't reach us. As my brain cells slowly awakened, I noticed that I was hearing the creek. The sound was unfamiliar. I walked down to the water. We had a problem. Our babbling mountain brook was gone. In its place, a raging torrent of white water boiled between the granite walls of the canyon. We would learn later that five inches of rain had fallen Friday night on Pike's Peak.
We had chosen the spot for our camp site Friday night because it was beginning to get dark, but there was another less conscious reason: we appeared to be in a bottleneck and couldn't see a way to push on further. In the morning, with a fitful wind and threatening rain, we had to confront that problem consciously. From the map, things didn't look good. We were on the inside of the "Y" formed by the two branches of the creek which meant that we would have to cross the water eventually to get out of the canyon. The canyon was getting very steep with sheer rock faces plunging two hundred feet down into the water. The opportunities to cross the creek were limited, and, as we would find out later, some of them led nowhere, forcing us to cross again to the inside of the "Y".
In retrospect, I could have saved us time and bruises had I decided at that moment to cross the creek and follow the ridge on the west side of the creek down, but we had a mental hang-up. We clung to the idea that the creek had been traversed by a herd of cattle and would open up into nice walking terrain just around the next bluff. As far as I know, that never happened.
In what would have seemed at the time a completely separate universe, a soldier was reported "absent without leave" from Fort Carson. His superiors were worried because he was one of those "special forces" guys and they knew he had a mean streak and was capable of hurting people with little or no provocation. On Friday afternoon, I had found a deer carcass. It had struck me as odd because it had been butchered--something that hunters rarely do in the field.
Saturday afternoon was the hardest and most dangerous hiking of the trek. We continued down the canyon on the eastern side, going down to the water, looking for a place to cross, and then climbing back up when none was found. One place looked promising. The water was fast so we decided to hold hands to get across. I stepped into the icy water first with Marian holding my hand and Rick holding her other hand. The pressure of the water against me was very strong, but I made it all right, at least until I stepped onto a smooth, flat boulder that sloped into a deep hole. Immediately, the water had me, pushing me off my feet and down the creek. With the heavy backpack on, I was almost helpless against that current. Marian reached for me instinctively and she too was caught by the current. We were swept over a waterfall which was about ten feet high. Ten feet doesn't sound like much, but when you're not in control of your body, have a heavy backpack on with the speed of the water pushing you, and sharp rocks to land on, it's bad.
As the water swept us down toward much taller waterfalls, I knew I was hurt, but fortunately I was alert. A willow branch hung over the creek and I managed to catch it. Looking back I saw Marian, or at least her backpack, and leaned out and caught her. Rick had managed to catch a rock and was already on the bank. He helped us out. Later, Marian told me that, as the water tumbled her downstream, she thought, "So this is what it's like to drown." The willow was on the eastern side of the creek: we were still trapped in the inside of the "Y". I swore then that if I could get us onto the other bank of the creek I'd never cross it again. We checked for injuries. I had a deep gash on my shin and my knees felt like they had been pounded by sledge hammers, but we had no broken bones as far was we could tell. Rick got panicky at that point, and overestimating our injuries, volunteered to take off down the creek to bring help. I insisted that we stick together and prevailed.
We were in another bottle neck. Wet, cold, and banged up, we started back up the mountain. It was steep and rocky. We had to climb nearly a thousand feet to get over the ridge and past the cliffs. It clouded up and began to rain again. At one point, I remember stopping to rest and laying down on wet rocks. I wanted desperately to sleep. I could have closed my eyes and slept on those rocks in the rain. Probably, I never would have awakened. Looking back, I'm sure it was a combination of shock and hypothermia. Death by hypothermia is seductive because it feels so good to lay down and quit moving.
Believe it or not, we crossed the creek again that afternoon in the same way we had before, but we made it with no trouble. We found a relatively flat spot high above the water and pitched camp. This is the kind of situation in which quality equipment is a life-saver. We had a good tent with a storm fly and expedition-quality sleeping bags stuffed with synthetic fiber. The tent and bags focus body warmth and conduct moisture out. Once we could get some tea and corn cakes, and then settle into our bags, we were fine. We slept deeply that night, even as a stormy wind roared through the trees.
In that entirely separate universe of the civilized world, several things were happening. The Army had come to grips with the fact that a potentially dangerous soldier had gone over the wall, and they wanted him back. His car had been found abandoned on a dirt road which led to the rim of the Beaver Creek canyon. We were supposed to be in Penrose on Saturday afternoon and Rick's father was to meet us where the creek finally emerged from the mountains. When we didn't show, Rick's dad called the sheriff who happened to be running for re-election. The sheriff smelled a public relations coup on the wind and notified the El Paso County Search and Rescue and the Fremont County Search and Rescue teams. El Paso County Search and Rescue had a close working relationship with the Army and Fort Carson. They often collaborated on rescues using Army helicopters. The Army, sensing that they had a public relations nightmare on their hands, mobilized their choppers and prayed that they found us before their missing soldier did. In the meantime, someone called the local TV station, and from there the story spread to the newspapers and the Associated Press wire service.
It was decided that the Fremont County Search and Rescue would start at the mouth of the canyon and work up, while a team from El Paso County Search and Rescue would start at the top of the canyon and work down. The Army choppers would search from the air with some of the El Paso County people on board. Although we didn't actually need them in the strictest sense, it is still gratifying to know that so many people were willing to mount such a massive effort to find us. We could have been badly injured, and the rescue effort could have made the difference between life and death.
Sunday morning was cool and windy but there was some sunshine. We didn't rush our breakfast of coffee and instant oatmeal. We hung our clothes around on the bushes to dry and talked about how everyone would probably start looking for us soon. My legs ached. I was worried that I might have broken bones or damaged my knees. I was a mass of bruises from my thighs down. The large gash on my left shin was painful just to look at, and I wondered if it would cripple me as the day wore on. Marian had similar bruises but no cuts. I bandaged my shin and we took some Tylenol.
I walked to the edge of the bluff where we had pitched camp. We were about three hundred feet above the creek. It was still frothy and high. I wasn't going to cross that creek again. Looking at the topographical map, it appeared that we could follow the ridge of the mountain all the way down the creek. There would be a steep bluff where the mountain finally dropped off the flat land, but we could deal with that when we got there.
We did some of our most pleasant walking of the trip Sunday. Moving along the ridge was faster--there were less obstacles and more level ground to walk. The sunshine didn't last. We had several gusty rain storms in the early afternoon, but they weren't heavy and didn't last long. The sense of having escaped the trap gave us a psychological boost, but we were cold and hungry. We had planned to have enough food to last through Saturday afternoon and we were a full twenty four hours past that. We reduced our portions to make it stretch. In the Rockies, food is vital because you need calories to maintain your body warmth. Hunger and heavy physical exertion carries with it the threat of hypothermia when the body can no longer maintain its normal temperature. Other problems crop up also. Thinking becomes muddled and reaction time slows. You fall more when you're tired and hungry. Somewhere around three in the afternoon we started hearing a distant "whop, whop, whop" which sounded like helicopters, but it would fade in and out so we couldn't be sure.
We had to cross a branching gorge to stay on course. It had only a trickle of a stream in it but it was very steep and full of undergrowth. The rocks never saw full daylight so they were mossy and slick. Pushing through the thick brush on unsteady footing, I fell twice. With my legs already banged up, the falls were excruciating. I remember saying, "I just can't handle this anymore," which was an absurd statement thinking about it now. The only alternative would have been to hang myself on the spot. I was carrying about ten pounds more weight in my pack than Rick or Marian, so we shifted a couple of the heavy things to their packs and kept walking. As the gorge brought us nearer to the main canyon we began to hear the helicopters clearly. At first it didn't occur to us that they might be looking for us.
We stopped and looked at the maps, and it was a good thing we did, because another gorge ran parallel to the one we were in, and it was too steep to cross at all. We climbed up the ridge to the other side. The view was breath-taking. We could see Beaver Creek far below, a twisting ribbon of white, and beyond it the plains stretched out for a hundred miles. I don't think flat land has ever looked so beautiful to me. But between us and the plains lay another day's worth of mountains, at least. We stood on the top of cliffs which were six hundred feet of vertical rock. Way down in the bottom of the canyon we could see an Army "Huey" helicopter slowly searching the creek. We were so high above it that it looked like a tiny green dragon fly.
"What if they're looking for us?" I don't remember if anyone vocalized the question or if we all thought it at once. Something about the way the chopper was tracing the creek struck me. "They're looking for bodies," I said. Rick started yelling at them and waving his arms, but there was no way the crew would hear him. I suggested that we build the biggest fire we could. We were on the dry side of the mountain and wood was plentiful. We scurried around grabbing dead-fall wood, threw it in a pile and poured a bottle of stove fuel onto it. It lit immediately, but in a clean, nearly smokeless, dry wood fire.
Marian suggested the we say "The Lord's Prayer". My first reaction was a typical "what's that supposed to accomplish" kind of discomfort, but I muzzled it and agreed. The three of us stood on the cliff and solemnly intoned the sacred words. I'm not a big one for "miracle stories" but that chopper turned toward us as the "amen" disappeared into the air. I threw some water onto the fire to make more steam, an act I would later regret, and remembered that Rick had a bright orange rain parka in his pack. He got out the parka and started waving it like a maniac. Soon they spotted us.
What happened next isn't easy to visualize. You must remember that we were on the edge of a tall cliff with more mountain rising steeply behind and above us. The Huey circled around and came back so that it was heading down the canyon, and slowed to a hover near the edge of the cliff, nearly touching the rock with its strut. The crewman in the door motioned to us to come to them but then the chopper wheeled over and dived away down into the canyon. This maneuver was repeated three times, and I remember thinking, "Gee, this is a fun game." It seemed that they wanted us to step into the chopper but the rotor blast was pushing them away from the mountain. Finally they just flew away past the next mountain. I thought Rick was going to lose his mind. He screamed and cursed at the vanished chopper. In fact, I got a hold of him because I feared that he was going to jump. In a couple of minutes the chopper reappeared, swooped down, and tossed something to us. It was a note weighted with a steel ring. It said, "Stay where you are. Will be back with different helicopter tomorrow morning."
We were going to get out of Beaver Creek after all. The mountain wasn't going to swallow us, but spending another night there presented new problems. For all of its scenic value, our cliff was a lousy place to camp. There wasn't enough dirt or level space to set up tents, and there was no water. We hadn't noticed the light failing during our abortive rescue, but now the day was fading fast. There wasn't enough time left to go hunting for water. We strung Rick's tent between a couple of stunted cedars making a lean-to and piled up the packs to break the wind. The clouds cleared out and the wind settled down. In the clear air of that altitude it seemed as if we could see every star in the galaxy. Forty miles away in Pueblo, the Colorado State Fair launched its fireworks display and we watched it. From that distance it looked like a clump of luminous flowers which quickly bloomed and faded in the darkness.
There is a sensation almost like an ache that I feel in the presence of truly great beauty. From that windy cliff with its hundred mile view through the kind of air that God would want to live in, we watched the daylight fade. The ache was strong then. It was the kind of day that lasts a lifetime. You might not call a helicopter rescue by the Army a "victory" but it felt that way to us. We had beaten the canyon. We were going to get out without taking another step. That was an extremely good feeling. We made corn cakes and a cup of tea for each of us. It was the end of our food. We talked and made the tea stretch. We talked about what had happened to us, what people were going to say, and what we should have done and not done. It was very important to me that we be awake and ready to go when the Army arrived the next morning, and I knew that those guys rolled out early. We talked about that. Rick talked some about his life. He was going through a rough time at that point. He was twenty one and his driver's license had been revoked for reckless driving. He was single and lonely, and searching for some direction in his life. He wanted to go into the military, but his legal problems were snagging him up. I felt sorry for him. He had some big obstacles in his path. I tried to encourage him and help him endure the problems he was facing. I don't know if I did any good or not.
I think I owe it to us to state that we weren't in any kind of physical trouble. We had good equipment, and were in sound physical condition, if a bit dinged up. We had good maps, and the method we were using to exit the canyon would have gotten us out in another day. From our point of view, we didn't need rescue, but if the Army was going to insist, who were we to turn them down? In retrospect, I think the Army was more concerned about their soldier bothering us than anything else. The rescue operation wouldn't have been as intense without his specter in the background. As it turned out, the car had been a trick to throw the Army off of his trail. He had stayed at the canyon for a while but had been picked up by a friend before we ever got there. He was later arrested in Barstow, California.
I don't think any of us slept very deeply that night. Our campsite was one where you could roll right off into the next life if you got to jamming around in your sleeping bag. The absence of a tent around us created an exposed feeling. I was awake before dawn. I lay in my bag for warmth until I heard Marian stirring. The air had a moist, stormy feeling, and the sky had clouded up again. We got up with the weak sunlight which filtered through the clouds. I began to worry that we were in for another storm. The cloud cover seemed to be moving closer and becoming more dense. I couldn't stand the thought of weathering a day of rain and wind on the rocky precipice without food or even a tent to shelter us. We waited for two interminable hours, and all the time the weather got worse. That waiting and worrying that the chopper might not come was as bad as anything we'd been through.
Around 8:30 A.M. we heard the muffled thumpthumpthumpthump of an Army Chinook helicopter. Our excitement was intense, like Christmas morning, high school graduation, and the birth of your first child all rolled into one. We were glad to be getting out of that damned canyon. Soon the huge chopper floated slowly into view from over the ridge south of us. There's no way they're going to land that sucker on this ledge. What are they going to do? I thought. The Chinook positioned itself directly above us, perhaps a hundred feet in the air as we watched. The down blast of the rotors makes a wind of about a hundred miles per hour and it was blowing sparks from the embers of our campfire around on the hill. We had no water to douse the coals, but we had done our best to bury them in rocks. Unfortunately, this arrangement created an omni-directional blow torch in the rotor blast of the chopper. We scurried around stamping out the small fires it was starting. As this was happening, a large hatch opened in the belly of the Chinook, and a man descended on a slim steel cable.
The soldier, an Army captain, put Rick and I on the cable first, strapping us to a steel contraption that was something like an anchor. We went up. The rotor blast made us swing around in large circles as we ascended. As we swung out past the cliff, I looked down once and saw nothing between myself and the rocks below except seven hundred feet of empty space. I decided not to look down again. Once inside the helicopter, Rick and I were grabbed and nearly thrown into the cargo area of the chopper. Marian came up next with my backpack. The Army guys, for all their skill in search and rescue, were a little jumpy about taking hold of Marian since she was a female, and Marian wasn't about to let go of the cable until someone had a firm hold on her, so we had a tense moment with Marian clinging to the cable before one of the crew finally grabbed her and pulled her off of it. Next came Rick and Marian's packs. The crewmen got them off of the cable, but set them too near the edge of the hatch and they fell back out, nearly hitting the captain on the ground who was busily trying to put out the little fires on the hill. Rick's Nikon F1 camera was literally shattered by that fall.
The helicopter crew offered us the choice of being taken to the mouth of the canyon where television news crews waited to film us with the sheriff or they could take us back to Fort Carson where there was food. We chose Fort Carson. I have a feeling that one of the most vivid memories of my lifetime will be that flight across the rugged foothills of the Rockies, skimming a few hundred feet above the tree tops in the thundering Chinook. To move across those hills so effortlessly after fighting four days for every foot was an exhilarating experience, and visually breathtaking to boot. Those choppers are loud. When you get into one they give you little disposable ear plugs which are made of foam and look just like marshmallows. They come in little individual tear-out packages, and I almost ate mine but one of the crewman showed me what they were for just in the nick of time.
The Army and the El Paso County Search and Rescue Squad were almost like a bunch of kids who had found a treasure in the woods. They were delighted that we elected to go back to Fort Carson with them. It seems that we were the first "live" rescue they had made in several weeks, and they wanted to "debrief" us. They wanted to find out how we had survived, the things we had done to make our food stretch, what kind of food we had, our equipment, how we stayed warm, and how we had attracted the attention of the searching chopper. They were so eager to barrage us with questions that they almost forgot that we were near to starvation, but we finally got the message across that we would talk much better in the presence of some food. Cold chicken, soda pop, and C-rations were produced and soon we were busily munching and talking. It was then that we learned that all the news services and papers had picked up the story of our dramatic predicament and rescue.
I'll never read a newspaper or listen to a television news report in quite the same way after hearing what they did with our little adventure. There is a fine line between reporting news and creating it, and in our case the media definitely crossed the line. To hear the papers and tube tell it, we were trapped for days on a narrow ledge above churning flood waters. In fact, we were never trapped, never in serious danger of losing anything but a few pounds, with the exception of the time we got into the water and lost our footing--that was genuinely dangerous. Aside from that, we were just trucking around some very rugged woods praying for T-bone steaks.
Did we find what we were looking for? Did we come face to face with the absolute truth of nature and our own existence? I'd say we came close; we brushed it. Seven years later I'm still thinking about what happened in that canyon. I can see it and feel it as if it were yesterday. The canyon has become part of me. It goes with me everywhere, and, in the same way, a part of my soul will always stand on that cliff with Marian and Rick and watch the night hang its stars so near that we could almost reach out and touch them.