This is the story of how a hike on a popular trail that I’ve done plenty of times became an outing where many things went wrong. But, more importantly, this is a story or how being prepared, well trained and experienced kept things from getting worse.
Along with my friends Dave and Dan, I had planned on a snowshoe trek to the Crags —
just south of Divide — in neighboring Teller County. All of us are well experienced hikers and snowshoers. Dave, a frequent hiking partner, is a retired Coast Guardsman, and a couple of years younger than me. He hikes a few hundred miles each year, is well equipped and very knowledgeable with reading the weather, maps, risk assessment, etc.
Dan, another frequent trail-mate, is a college student who returns to his home in my neighborhood during his breaks from school. He's also well equipped and knowledgeable, and not only hikes but also builds trails during the summer months. In other words, the three of us know what we’re doing on almost any trail and almost any situation.
When the day came for our hike to the Crags, I got in my Jeep and found it wasn't running properly: The engine ran rough, and it was having a hard time going anywhere. By the time I was able to get it fixed it was getting late, so we called off the trek, deciding to go the following day. In retrospect, I should’ve seen the Jeep problem as an omen.
The following day, I picked up Dan and Dave and we headed for the trailhead. I’ve mentioned the Crags trail in previous blogs as both a good summer hiking trail and a good winter snowshoe trail. I’ve also warned that the road to the trailhead can be pretty treacherous in the winter, and a high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
We got to the parking area near the trailhead just fine. The road, though snow-packed, was in fairly good shape and there was actually a Subaru wagon that had made it to the lot — parked in a corner of the lot that had been packed down by other vehicles. Based on my previous winter trips, I put the Jeep into 4-wheel drive (low range) and started to plow through the deeper snow in the lot — the idea was to leave a packed-down section of the lot for other small vehicles.
That was a bad idea. The snow was deeper than it looked, and instead of nice, soft powder it was mostly solid ice. After about 25 feet, the Jeep high-centered on hard-packed snow and were stuck.
Being the prepared person I am, I got the shovel out of the back and started digging (how many people carry a shovel in their SUV? You should.). And after about 20 or so minutes of digging, placing some traction aids under the tires and some pushing from Dave and Dan, I was able to back out and get back onto firm surface without a problem.
I'm digging the Jeep out.
Well, not quite.
One of us – I won't point fingers, but his name started with “D”— suggested driving down the road to what looked like a packed down parking spot by the pit toilets. We tried.
That was also a bad idea.
You guessed it; we got stuck. Why any of us thought the snow on the road would be any different than that in the parking lot just 30 feet away is a mystery to me. But, no problem; shovel, traction, push. Move 3 feet; get stuck. Shovel, traction, push. Move 3 feet; get stuck. Shovel, traction— well, you get it. 30 minutes later, the Jeep was out, and parked. We were all tired, but dammit, we came here to snowshoe and we were going to snowshoe. It was sunny and nice and Dan had never been to the Crags. WE WERE GOING TO DO THIS.
We hitched on the snowshoes and hit the trail. The trail was pretty well packed, although off the packed trail the soft powdery snow was anywhere from 12-24” deep. Even though we were tired, we kept a good pace, stopped a couple of times for pictures and to talk to other hikers and made the 2.75 miles to the top of the Crags in about 90 minutes. Not bad for being tired and snowshoeing. Dave was coming off of a few weeks without hiking, so he complained of being tired, but otherwise, all was well. We hung out, snacked, took pictures and started back.
And then things started to get bad.
At the Crags, before things got bad
As I led our group down back to the trailhead, I was able to get up a good head of steam and move pretty quickly. Dan was right behind me, but I noticed that Dave was lagging behind a little and getting further back. We stopped for a breather as Dave caught up and we let him catch his breath. He said he wasn’t feeling well, but chalked it up to not having been out in a while. We started back down, and after a few minutes I saw that Dave was way behind us. When he caught up again, he complained about not feeling great, so when we started moving again, I slowed down the pace, but it didn’t help. Dave caught up, but now it was clear he wasn’t feeling good. And then the vomiting started. Followed by generalized weakness. Putting my EMT skills to use, I tried to figure out what was wrong… Altitude sickness? Maybe, but didn’t seem likely. Food poisoning? Sure looked like it. We were under a mile from the trailhead, and I knew the only thing we could do was to keep moving, not only to stay warm, but to get Dave home. I put him in the lead, so we could make sure we didn’t out-pace him. It was a long mile. Dave’s vomiting, followed by dry heaving, continued. He was getting dehydrated and couldn’t keep water down. He stopped often, and had to be urged to move along, albeit at his own pace. It was becoming more and more obvious that the situation was getting dire. I knew that Dan and I would have a difficult time carrying Dave down the remainder of the trail, if he went down and didn’t or couldn’t get back up. There is no cell phone coverage, but I wouldn’t have hesitated to active either mine or Dave’s emergency beacon if needed. We slowly made our way down the trail, and when we were about .25 miles from the trailhead, I went ahead and got the Jeep started and warmed up. As soon as Dave and Dan got down, we bundled Dave into the Jeep and heading back towards civilization, stopping several times for Dave to get sick. I made the decision that Dave needed to go to the hospital, and we made our way to Pikes Peak Regional Hospital in Woodland Park by around 4pm. We got him inside and I briefed the staff on Dave’s symptoms and what led up to our delivering him to the emergency room. Shortly after, his wife who I had called while on the way, showed up. At the time, it was still looking like food poisoning. An anti-emetic, some IV fluids for dehydration, and I expected he’d be home soon. I’d seen this scenario many times in my career.
Dave texted me at around 10pm that night and said he was home and would fill me in the next morning. I was surprised he was getting home that late.
The next morning Dave told me that the cause of his problem wasn’t food poisoning or altitude sickness, but atrial fibrillation, a heart condition where the heart beats irregularly. I had no idea Dave had this condition, and to be fair, Dave said the last time he had an issue with it was 20 years ago. The irregular heartbeat caused his circulation to be less efficient than usual. He wasn’t getting good blood flow to his head and the exertion, along with decreased oxygen levels caused by decreased blood flow was causing the nausea and vomiting, and the dehydration from the vomiting made things even worse. The emergency room doctor told him that if Dan and I hadn’t kept Dave upright and moving, and if he was alone and decided to sit down and rest, his generalized weakness could’ve caused him to doze off or pass out and likely succumb to the elements. This was indeed a close call.
The good news is he’s fine and will be hiking again soon.
The lessons learned here are many
. Even with four wheel drive, you can get stuck, but being properly equipped will usually cause that to be more of an inconvenience than a disaster. Medical emergencies can crop up at anytime. Although I carry Immodium in case of diarrhea, I have nothing for vomiting. I’ll be working on that. Keeping everyone moving not only kept all of us from getting cold, but decreased how long it would take to get him to proper medical attention. Even if we had to activate an emergency beacon, it would’ve taken time for help to get to us. Still, it was an option that we were prepared to use. Hiking as group was also key to this not becoming worse.
Getting to medical care was vitally important. Initially my goal was to get Dave home, but going to a hospital was the better choice. Being a veteran EMT, I had the advantage of training and experience, but even having some basic first aid training would have proved useful. And finally, not panicking, keeping a clear head, and constantly evaluating the situation also helped keep this hike from going from bad to disastrous.
Happy trails! Be safe.
Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor and business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for over 24 years. He is the president of the Friends of Cheyenne Canon and a member of the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: firstname.lastname@example.org.