Two women from York picked their way down a precarious Colorado mountain trail to safety Friday after being stranded for two days in an ice storm near Rocky Mountain National Park’s tallest peak.
Suzanne Turell, 33, and Connie Yang, 32, hiked down from Longs Peak, a 14,259-foot mountain, where they had been pinned down since Thursday morning on an exposed slope in white-out conditions.
The news was a relief to their families and co-workers, whose communication with the women, and with park rangers, had been cut off.
The women had sent a text message at 9 a.m. Thursday saying they were immobilized by the storm and their cellphone batteries were dying.
Michael Turell, Suzanne’s father, said late Friday that, “We did hear a little while ago that they are ‘off the mountain’ and appear to be in relatively good condition.”
Torrential rains this week have washed out roads, knocked out power and cut communications in a wide area of Colorado’s eastern Rockies.
At least three people have been killed and another is listed as missing, The Associated Press reported. Hundreds more have been forced to seek emergency shelter along Colorado’s heavily populated Front Range, which has received more than 15 inches of rain this week, according to the National Weather Service. That’s about half the precipitation that normally falls in the foothills near Boulder in an entire year.
The flooding hampered park rangers’ ability to move around Rocky Mountain National Park and mount a land-based rescue of the Maine women. Bad weather grounded helicopters throughout the area.
“They had 12 inches of rain in 24 hours,” said Patrick O’Driscoll, a public affairs specialist for the National Park Service in Denver.
Rangers “knew of the women’s situation (Thursday) morning and wanted to mount a rescue attempt, but from then until (Friday) the mountain was socked in. There was no visibility,” O’Driscoll said.
Just as skies started to clear Friday, Yang and Turell hiked off the mountain and met a ranger at the trailhead.
O’Driscoll quoted the chief ranger for the east side of the park, Mark Pita, saying, ” ‘They came out on their own. They’re fine. They were not injured.’ He also said the park is seeking to arrange a ride for them out.”
Family members and rescue workers learned of the women’s predicament from a text message that Turell sent to Yang’s sister on Thursday:
“We need help. At top of longs peak. 13400 feet. White-out snow storm.”
“No injuries. Iced over risk of hypothermia. On South ridge.”
“No battery. Yellow tent. We are off trail.”
The text included precise coordinates for their location, about 800 feet below the mountain’s summit.
Yang and Turell were equipped with gear from their employer, NEMO Equipment of Dover, N.H., for a weeklong excursion into the Rockies, but did not have winter clothing or ice hiking equipment, said family members.
The two are experienced hikers who have trekked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Rim Trail, said Turell’s mother, Barbara Turell. They also have hiked in New Zealand as well as Maine.
“They are in very good physical condition,” she said.
“The problem is to get the rescue people over the roads to get to their trail,” she said. “They were iced in, and in white-out conditions. … The surface is ice and they did not have ice-climbing equipment.”
Yang, who is listed as the engineering director for NEMO Equipment, and Turell, the company’s director of design, are some the longest-serving employees of the company, which started in 2002.
The company moved from Nashua, N.H., to Dover two years ago, and Yang and Turell moved to York.
Kate Ketschek, a company spokeswoman, said, “They both are very book smart but they also have a lot of common sense and they are problem solvers.”
Yang is featured in a YouTube video for kids by Design Squad Nation, a production of WGBH-TV’s educational foundation that promotes engineering as a career. Turell makes a brief appearance.
Every fall, the women take a multiweek backpacking trip, Ketschek said. Last year, they did a back-country hike in the Sierra Nevadas, using compasses to guide them.
“They’re experienced in traveling for long periods of time at this time of year out West,” Ketschek said.
They left for the Rockies on Sept. 4 and probably got on the trail Sept. 5, Ketschek said. They were due to fly back this weekend and return to work Monday.
Longs Peak is one of the tallest mountains in Colorado and the tallest in Rocky Mountain National Park.
“It’s a popular and, at times, challenging hike-climb, depending on your route,” said O’Driscoll, with the National Park Service. “It’s not a technical climb. There are a few tricky spots. Every summer we do at least a couple of rescues off the peak.”
He said it is unusual for the park to get winter weather this early in the year.
Rocky Mountain National Park has been closed, and visitors and the staff are being evacuated from the park.
O’Driscoll said hikers are still in the park’s back country but presumably aren’t in exposed areas or in danger from flooding.
“The park has been keeping close tabs on them, doing welfare checks, making sure they are not in need of rescue,” he said.
Even when Turell and Yang descended from the trail, they weren’t out of the park yet.
Flooding cut off roads into Estes Park, at the eastern park entrance. People had to rely on the Trail Ridge Road — the route that connects the park’s east and west sides over a 12,183-foot summit that was closed to all but emergency and evacuating vehicles — to exit the west side of the park, then loop back, adding 75 miles to the trip to Denver.
Andy McClelland, manager of mobile marketing for L.L. Bean, said he has hiked a handful of mountains in Colorado over 14,000 feet, although not Longs Peak. He said the weather on those mountains is unpredictable.
“You could have a bluebird day and, out of nowhere, a black thundercloud rolls in,” he said.
Hikers are exposed when they’re close to the summit of any substantial mountain, McClelland said.
Joshua Ruschhaupt, director of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club, said hikes on “fourteeners” aren’t unusual at this time of year. He said any hiker would have been caught off-guard by this particular storm.
“There are reports I’ve seen that this is a 500-year flood event,” he said. That means a storm of that magnitude comes only once every 500 years.
— Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: