February 11, 2001.
It looked much like this when we set out that day. The wind was raging wild gusts, threatening to just pluck us off the ridge and send us into oblivion. That’s what drove our decision to hike up the peak behind the bowl, the peak in the background that you see pictured here.
The further we hiked on our usual route around the Loveland Pass bowl on the Continental Divide in Colorado, the more tracked out and ice-crusted we realized it was, so we headed to the peak behind the bowl. It looked fresh and promising and untouched. We wanted a hard workout and we wanted a sweet ride back on our snowboards.
That decision, that little decision could have ended our lives that day. I was sixteen, my sister, Jennie, was twenty.
We rode down that peak after climbing as close to the summit as we dared, given the strong winds. The sun was stretching low across the sky, we had gotten a late start that Sunday. We strapped in to our boards and had a sweet few minutes making our lines down that peak. We soon reached the bottom and realized it was much flatter than it had appeared from the top. We couldn’t ride any further, so we unstrapped to hike back up to the Loveland Pass bowl.
Unfortunately, the snow was much deeper than we had anticipated. We were post-holing up to our waists, sometimes our chests. We quickly realized it would be impossible to hike back up where we had come from against that kind of snow with the equipment we had (which was only our snowboards). So we attempted to follow the slope downward, hoping to meet back up with the Pass road on the other side. The hiking was slow plodding, we were exhausted, wet, hungry + thirsty. We had a few ounces of water between us and our uneaten lunches were waiting for us back in our brother’s car. He and a friend were riding close to where we had parked at the top of Loveland Pass.
The sun slipped behind the peaks and within minutes our situation began to worsen. Temperatures immediately began to drop, and we began to realize we had a long way to go and very little daylight. We had now hiking below treeline and came to a clearing where we were able to look out and get our bearings. We were expecting to see the white peaks on the other side of the Loveland Pass road, believing we were in the trees just above the road. Instead, we saw a tree covered mountain ahead of us, between us and the road. Even fourteen years later, that image is burned in my memory.
Thats when a panicky pit formed in my stomach as the realization hit like a punch: there was no possible way we would make it over that mountain and down the other side in the approximate hour of light we had left.
It was terrifying and devastating. My sister and I were both in tears at this point, but not panicking. We quickly shifted gears. We had a little light left and we needed to make some sort of shelter before it was too dark and cold to do so. We began digging/burrowing a hole down into the snow and making a sort of opening big enough for us to fit in. A snow cave. Jennie had heard about it on some survival movie she had seen.
While she worked on that, I trudged out a large S O S in the snow in the clearing we had stopped in, trembling from the fear as much as from the cold. We stuck our brightly-colored snowboards up in the snow just in case someone would see them. It was strange, but instinctively we already knew we would be needing rescue. We were saying our plan was to get up and keep hiking at first light, but we were scrawling our pleas for help in the snow. We hadn’t had food or water now for about 12 hours and had fully exerted ourselves hiking in the deep conditions. We now realized we had at least another 12 hours of waiting to drink water. We knew our brother and friend, as well as our family would soon realize we were missing (we had planned to meet back up with our brother earlier that afternoon to drive back down to Denver together). We figured they may begin looking for us. We hoped.
The temperatures dropped. Dusk was settling in. All was quiet. Silent. We could barely look at each other for sake of the gravity of our situation, and the weight of the realization of how foolish we had been. We knew once we crawled in that hole in the snow, we were committed. We would be spending the night in our sopping wet gear with no food or water in the frigid February backcountry snow of Colorado.
We crawled in head first. We pulled some branches over the opening of the snowcave and packed snow around the piney fronds until we could basically seal the opening shut. We could see a little light through the snow above our heads but mostly, it was dark.
We were shivering, talking, crying off and on. Talking about our plan for the morning to get up and keep hiking as soon as it was light. We were praying. We were quiet. We worked at staying warm and staying awake. We sang hymns. We cried out to God. We waited. It was dark.