By Erica Jurgensen
One particular class we teach is Outdoor Survival to our Jr. Explorers (8-12 year olds). Little did I know that this class would come in handy while I was out exploring the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
It all started off with a list of things we should have done to prepare for our hike but never actually did. Big Mistake! I always tell my students to be prepared but I of course did not take my own advice. When I left for the hike it was bright, sunny, and 85 degrees out. I had my hiking shoes and long pants on but was just wearing a t-shirt. I thought about bringing a jacket, but decided against it. I also had a day pack along with some water and snacks and enough room for the camera. The one correct decision I made was to not conquer this hike alone.
The start of the hike was very leisurely with a nice gravel path to follow on. We followed the path up to an area called Alberta Falls. It was an amazing site to see all the snow melt rushing through the pass. We continued on our way with anticipation for the view around each turn. We saw the snow-peaked mountains in front of us and the Valley of Estes Park behind us. As we continued we came to a fork in the road. We knew we wanted to continue to the right to make the loop to see three different ponds on our hike. But when we looked to the right, there really wasn’t much of a path. All we could see was a few footsteps walking through the snow.
We checked the map over about three times before determining that it was indeed the way to go. So, we followed the footsteps through snow that grew deeper as we went further into the mountains. It was surprising how much snow there was when the air temperature was so warm. We followed orange markers that were tied around the tree every 20-50 yards or so.
Around a turn we finally came across the first of the three ponds. It was spectacular to see the still water reflecting the mountain tops. At this point we had walked a little over 4 miles and it was now the mid-afternoon. We stopped for a snack and it dawned on me that the skies were getting darker. Little did we know that every afternoon during the month of June, it apparently rains in the mountains. Yet another mistake!
I always tell the kids to do some research of the area before you go into the wilderness. Well, the only research I did was that we were somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Seeing the darker skies we realized we should probably kick our leisurely stroll into high gear.
We got off the path a bit and realized that we were no longer following footsteps but instead we were walking on a water path. We did not realize this until the snow broke through behind us and we saw the freezing, gushing water. You can believe we got off that as quickly as possible. Luckily the path wasn’t too far off.
As we continued on our little path we came across another group of people and asked them to make sure we were headed in the right direction. Good choice! As it turned out we were indeed heading in the right direction. When we came around yet another turn, we finally saw one of the other ponds from a distance. As we started our descent down, my friend continued to head towards the direction of the pond, which was to the left. But I saw a T in the road going to the right that he did not see. I paused for a moment because the one to the right seemed more like a path then the one to the left. But I fought my instinct and continued to follow my friend to the left. Another big mistake!
This path had footsteps on it, but it was one of the sketchiest paths I have ever been on. There were times when we had to cling to the snow and traverse across a cliff to get to the other side. If we were to fall, it would be a 20ft tumble down. Remember how I said I only had a t-shirt on? I was definitely regretting my decision now of not being prepared. My hands and arms were freezing. Now there was thunder and lightning to add to the mix. We continued on this ‘path’ for a half a mile before coming to a dead end. Seeing this dead end was utterly heart-breaking. The last thing we wanted to do was go back the way we came! But that was the only choice we had.
So, back across the cliff we went! There came a point where we saw the footsteps we had been following go down a slope. We debated for a time if that was the way to go. It was within this debate that I saw a lightning bolt strike the mountain directly above me. In a panic, I decided I needed to get off the mountain. I once again forgot my tips to my students and let panic take over. Yes, I slide down the slope at a very unsettling speed. Luckily, I was able to stop. My friend however was not so lucky and slide into a rock.
We were very fortunate that this bad decision did not result in any broken bones. Unfortunately for us, it was not the correct way to go, again. And back up the slope we went. We went back to where I saw the fork in the road, which did indeed turn out to be the correct way to go. When we finally made it to the lake, we kissed the sign that told us we made it to our destination!
After a long adventure, I now have a tale to tell my students. I make it a point that they understand to always prepare for the worse, don’t fight your instincts, as well as to never let panic take over. Even an instructor can be in the worse of situations. It can happen to anyone. This post is not to scare anyone away from hiking the Rockies. In fact, I highly recommend doing it. Just make sure you check the map and dress appropriately!
Erica is a veteran naturalist intern at The Outdoor Campus and is an elementary education major at the University of South Dakota.