By Emerson Saum
In February of 2022, CSAR announced its first-ever blog contest, open to both backcountry search and rescue members and non-members. The contest was judged by Matt Lanning of Chaffee County SAR South, Ben Wilson of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, and Lisa Sparhawk of CSAR. This article by Emerson Saum won first place in the mission story category for non-SAR members.
-911, what’s your emergency?
-Hi, my name is Emerson, I am an idiot and ran out of sunlight hiking on Buffalo Mountain with two friends. We’re in the forest with only our cell phone lights and we cannot find the trail
-Are you in any immediate danger? Is anyone hurt?
-My pride is pretty wounded but besides being lost, we’re fine. We have plenty of water and animal crackers.
-Okay, Emerson, I am transferring you over to mountain rescue, who will reach out to you shortly.
-Thank you so much, you’re a lifesaver, please don’t send a helicopter.
For the last few years, I have considered myself an expert hiker. I have hiked through jungles, mountains, in the United States and abroad. I know the routine. Choose a route, pack the appropriate clothing and food, meet up with friends, hike to a scenic spot, take photos, eat snacks, occasionally swim in a lake, and return. My hiking confidence, though, was temporarily shattered after a trip out west.
Feeling stuck from COVID, a few friends and I decided to escape Cleveland and travel to Colorado for two weeks. The excuse being if we have to work from home and social distance, why not at least do it in the mountains where we can hike, bike and enjoy a change of pace.
I traveled to Silverthorne, Colorado, about an hour and a half west of Denver with two friends, Ulia and Supriya. The three of us met as graduate students at Cleveland State and have remained friends since.
We arrived in Silverthorne on a Sunday afternoon after being stuck in a packed Toyota Prius since Friday evening. Silverthorne is one of many small towns in Summit County that are closely connected around Dillion Reservoir. As we drove to our condo in the city the road wound back and forth with the city below and mountains above.
After getting excited about the various amenities of the condo (it has an electric blender!) and settling in we went on a rain-shortened hike that evening. On Monday, we decided to be a bit more adventurous, and since our condo was at the base of Buffalo Mountain we decided after work that the plan was to summit the mountain. The mountain has an elevation of 12,777 feet and a summit we could see from our condo’s patio. The start of the trail was only a 30-minute walk uphill. Maybe because we could see the trail summit from our condo and never had to get in a car to reach the path, it lulled us into a false sense of security. In hindsight, a full day of work and a 3pm start time is not the best preparation for climbing a foreign mountain.
After about an hour and a half of climbing, the hiking trail opened to a literal pile of rocks. We could see a summit about 400 meters above us. However, the most direct route before us appeared to involve using all four limbs to scramble upwards. Scanning the rocks, there did not seem to be any other discernible path besides going straight up. After about 25 seconds of contemplation, I began crawling up the rocks.
Ulia and Supriya did not share my conviction in this plan. Instead of blindly following me, which in my head was the plan, there was immediate questioning of my route.
Calls of, “Emerson, is there a path? Are you sure we can go that way?” and, “Get a haircut, you look like a troll,” rang from below. It did not help that a group of guys was descending the mountain and they were walking over piles of rocks completely upright. From below, it appeared these guys had found the mythical path. Seeing the men descend so effortlessly only strengthened the women’s resolve that Emerson does not know where he is going. After coming within earshot of the guys, I yelled to the men asking about the existence of any specific route. The leading guy shrugged his shoulders and chimed, “Not really.” Despite the lack of a clear path we persisted upwards, and after about an hour of scrambling, we reached the top.
Actually, we thought it was the top; however, when hauled ourselves over the last of the rock wall we noticed that the mountain sloped very gently for another half mile upwards. Between where we were standing and the actual peak there was a large family of mountain goats grazing and teenage boys who had passed us racing to the summit. Considering the time and incredible view we already had, we were content with the false summit. We celebrated with photos and planned our return. It was getting late, and personally, I was worried about descending the rock wall.
Luckily the descent down the rock wall was not as treacherous as anticipated. Supriya had figured out that there were tiny piles of rocks in a pyramid-esque shape that could be used as markers to indicate the least steep way to navigate the mountain. Following the guide rocks, Supriya and Ulia descended the mountain practically vertical, and after initial stubbornness I began following the path as well. The guide rocks made descending physically much easier, although the sun was setting in parallel to our hike downward and it was becoming increasingly apparent that we were going to run out of sunlight before we returned home. The immediate problem becoming evident was re-finding the start of the trail again. As we reached the bottom of the rock pile, the mountain was already only lit by twilight, and darkness was quickly falling.
It became clear that we should have marked with a flag where the trailhead started so we could use it as a guide from above. At the base of the rocks we walked to our left and to our right, searching for a trailhead. After 20 minutes we thought we had found the trail. Trying to be the hero who found the path I rushed into the forest, only to come to the realization that we were not on any recognizable path. However, peering through the woods there did appear to be a semblance of a trail. To get there the three of us stumbled through branches and over rocks to discover again that we had yet to find a trail. Within minutes we heard the teenage boys returning and yelled to them, hoping they might respond and help us, but they didn’t hear us through the thickness of the forest. We tried slashing our way through shrubs toward them but they quickly disappeared.
At this point, it was completely dark and we were using our cell phone lights to guide us as we inched our way through the forest. We were using trail maps on various apps but considering our relative remoteness, their accuracy was questionable. After about an hour of inching our way toward a trail location on our phone but never actually coming closer, my plan changed. I figured I could simply descend straight down through the forest towards the streetlights that we could see in the distance. I knew that was our ultimate destination and I was not going to be stuck in the forest when I could see my home.
This plan failed nearly immediately as I fell on my butt and slid ten yards down the mountain, finally grabbing a tree for support. After checking that all my limbs still worked, I returned uphill to where the women had wisely decided not to follow me. After a little deliberation, we decided we needed some professional help.
After talking with a 911 operator, we were transferred over to Becky of Summit County Rescue Group. Using our cell phone signal she took our coordinates via satellite and informed us that we were actually pretty close to the correct trail. Unfortunately, because we only had cell phone lights to guide us, she thought it would still be too difficult to guide us to a path remotely. Instead, she was organizing a team to come and retrieve us. While waiting for a rescue team she did instruct us to climb upwards and to our left for about 20 minutes until we arrived at a rock field, where we were to wait for approximately an hour.
Upon following her directions, I called her back to provide an update. During every conversation I had with Becky, I apologized, declaring in various forms how thankful I was for her help and reiterating my lack of mountaineering skills.
While waiting for help, I could not stop dwelling on the failure and embarrassment I felt calling 911 because I got lost hiking. I was told my aversion to asking for help was a form of Toxic Masculinity. However, just sitting there in the forest knowing that other men were coming to my aid because I got lost hiking was tortuous. I assumed each of the men coming had just tucked his kids away for the evening and was settling into his favorite spot on the couch to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with his wife’s legs resting on his while sharing root beer floats. Just as he is completely relaxed for the day, his phone rings. A dispatcher informs him that “another idiot is lost in the woods and needs help.” He tells his wife, “I hate to leave, but I need to save some tourists.” I envisioned this while sitting on a fallen log in basketball shorts, eating elephant shaped crackers. While dwelling on the failures may be a little self critical, I believe the internal embarrassment this causes is a healthy emotion and intrinsically holds you accountable in the future.
While we waited for the search party to arrive, I began mentally formulating ways to explain how this accident occurred, and this wasn’t the most embarrassing thing ever to happen. I assumed their internal dialogue was in a sing-songy voice
time to save the clueless, I am the hero, time to save the clueless
After about 30 minutes of waiting near the rock field, we were told to start yelling “help” and whistling. Personally, I thought yelling “here,” in the pitch-black darkness would have sufficed but now was not the time to complain. After seeing glimpses of lights in the distance and hearing the rescues calls for ten minutes, they finally found us.
In the dark, the guys instructed us to walk toward them about 100 yards. When we met them there were approximately seven guys. Most were in their 20 and 30s, and all were sporting proper hiking backpacks and headlamps. There was one older guy who seemed to be guiding the rescue. Upon greeting us, they checked that we had food and water and gave us spare headlamps. After ensuring we were comfortable and in a condition to hike down the mountain, we began returning home.
As we walked, for my own sake, I had to ask how often the rescue team fielded distressed calls. A younger guy from Alabama told me that it happens regularly, especially in the summer. By the end of the hike, I had learned that this was their third call of the evening. I also learned that generally, guys call for help more often than women. While waiting in the dark for the men to find us, I assumed that all the guys coming up had massive egos and a savior complex. After talking with them for 30 minutes I realized that they were super nice about the rescue. Most of them seemed excited to be there and enjoyed volunteering to do the work. Their motivation seemed to be a love of hiking, a desire to help people, and an excuse to not do the dishes.
When we arrived at the base of the hike, there was another mini team of people waiting to ensure that we had a ride home, and that the rescue went smoothly. Becky, the mission coordinator, greeted us and took our personal information. She reminded us that the organization operated with a tiny budget and was mainly funded via donations. Even though we walked to the trailhead from our condo, we still accepted a ride home. As a parting gift, I semi-jokingly tried offering beer and animal crackers.
In hindsight, I certainly learned the value of a headlamp and staying on the path. Part of me feels compelled to join the mountain rescue team, despite the fact I live in Cleveland and clearly would need some training beforehand. I think a donation to their organization is an adequate substitute. I also consider the hike completed, considering I walked the entire trail on my own accord. However, if you have to call mountain rescue, I think you forfeit the right to brag about the accomplishment.
Postscript from the Summit County Rescue Group: We think Emerson is hilarious! We are happy to let him brag about climbing Buffalo since he has clearly learned a valuable lesson. We do want to add one important note. Our field teams are not all “guys” — we have 20 women on our team. None of them happened to be on the first field team that night, but some of them were on the mountain. And they want to get out of doing the dishes too.