September 18, 2013

Uncertain of rescue, Mainers saw perilous descent as only hope

By David Hench
Staff Writer

Connie Yang and Suzanne Turell huddled, shivering uncontrollably, in a small, ice-encrusted tent and struggled to tap out a text message calling for help.

Connie Yang, left, and Suzanne Turell are shown in Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada, where the pair hiked last fall.

click image to enlarge

Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Each urgent message about their location, the color of their tent and their growing risk of hypothermia was followed by an error message saying it couldn't be sent.

After 30 seconds, the cellphone battery died.

The couple from York, Maine, were trapped on a steep Colorado mountainside at 13,400 feet, surrounded by ice-covered boulders that made walking impossible and perilous cliffs that made it insane to try.

Even if their distress call did get out to Yang's sister in New York, howling winds and near white-out conditions made a rescue impossible.

On Tuesday, four days after Yang and Turell walked to safety, they sent a four-page statement to the Portland Press Herald describing their ordeal in detail for the first time.

"Though we were prepared to wait out the storm, we also realized we were one bad event away from complete disaster," they wrote in their account, which was posted on a web page created by Yang's sister. "If our tent ripped away in the wind or the poles broke or we got caught in a flash flood or broke an ankle, it could be the end."

Yang and Turell, experienced hikers who work for NEMO Equipment, a camping gear company based in Dover, N.H., set out Sept. 6 on a weeklong back-country hike circling Rocky Mountain National Park.

The extended forecast called for highs in the 80s, lows in the 40s and a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoons. They had adequate gear and clothing for the trip they planned, they said.

Their final three days were to be spent off trail, culminating with a climb over Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet the tallest mountain in the park. Their route included a challenging ascent up Clark's Arrow, through a feature called the Keyhole to their protected campsite in the Boulder Field.

Yang and Turell set out Sept. 11 from their camp at 11,500 feet, searching for the trail, often marked by simple stone cairns, over the peak to their next site.

Visibility was just 20 to 30 feet in cold, driving rain, but they were optimistic that they could hike the relatively short final ascent -- if they could find it.

"We searched for several hours for the entrance to Clark's Arrow, often ending up at the edge of 200-foot cliffs," they wrote. Cloud cover made their GPS unreliable, they said.

They couldn't find the way over and felt it was too dangerous to hike down. They were suffering from the initial stages of hypothermia despite wearing long underwear, mid-layers and down jackets. They set up their tent on an exposed shoulder of the mountain, at 13,400 feet, anchoring it the best they could, and waited for conditions to improve.

They didn't.

Rain turned to sleet and snow and ice. They spent the night clearing off the tent so it wouldn't collapse, and trying to maintain body temperature. The next morning, Thursday, a lightning storm hit.

That's when they decided to call for help.

"We were exposed at over 13,000 feet and couldn't realistically move, since we hadn't found the trail opening and the area was iced over in every direction, with steep slopes and unprotected cliffs," they wrote. "We felt that in the present conditions, we wouldn't survive long."

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