September 14, 2013

Stranded Maine hikers survive Colorado ice storm

By David Hench
Staff Writer

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.

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Connie Yang, left, and Suzanne Turell of York are experienced hikers.

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Four people are dead and dozens missing in Colorado floods

The Associated Press

LYONS, Colo. — The rescue of Coloradoans stranded by epic mountain flooding accelerated Saturday as debris-filled rivers became muddy seas that extended into towns and farms miles from the Rockies. Authorities expected to find more fatalities when full scope of destruction emerged.

Helicopters and hundreds of National Guard troops searched the mountainous terrain for people as food and water supplies ran low in remote communities cut off since Thursday. Thousands were being driven to safety in convoys.

A woman was missing and presumed dead after witnesses saw floodwaters from the Big Thompson River destroy her home in the Cedar Cove area, Larimer County sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.

"We're sure there are going to be additional homes that have been destroyed, but we won't know that for a while," Schulz said. I expect that we're going to continue to receive reports of confirmed missing and confirmed fatalities throughout the next several days."

Four people have been confirmed dead since the harrowing floods began Wednesday. The high water has affected an area nearly the size of Connecticut.

National Guard helicopters flew in and out of the mountain hamlet of Jamestown late into Friday night after it became isolated by rushing water that scoured the canyon the village sits in. Rescuers on the ground focused on the town of Lyons.

By Saturday morning, the Guard had evacuated nearly 800 people by air and ground.

More than a dozen helicopters were available to aid with rescue efforts.

"We have the ability to go whenever, wherever," Master Sgt. Cheresa Theiral said.

Still more rain was expected Saturday. And the outlook for anyone who preferred to stay behind was bleak: weeks without power, cellphone service or running water.

"Essentially, what they were threatening us with is, 'If you stay here, you may be here for a month,'" said 79-year-old Dean Hollenbaugh, who was evacuated by helicopter from Jamestown, northwest of Boulder.

For those awaiting an airlift, Guardsmen dropped food, water and other supplies to residents of the winding, narrow canyons that cut through the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Although the number of confirmed deaths stood at four, authorities feared more bodies could turn up in areas that remain inaccessible.

"The thing with this event is, we don't know what we don't know," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.

More than 170 people remained unaccounted for in Boulder County, but that number could include people who are still stranded or who escaped but have not made contact yet, the sheriff said.

As the waters rose, thousands of people fled mountain and downriver towns, where rivers were still swelling and spilling over their banks Saturday.

One was Mary Hemme, 62, who displayed a pair of purple socks as she sat outside the Lifebridge Christian Church in Longmont. The socks were a memento of the more than 30 hours she spent in an elementary school in Lyons. Many evacuees were given dry socks because most had wet feet, Hemme said.

She recalled the sirens blared at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"Mary, we have to go. This place is flooding," she recalled friend Kristen Vincent saying as they clambered out of a trailer into water that was nearly knee-deep.

"It wasn't just sitting there," she said. "It was rushing at us."

Soon the trailer, like others in the park where she was staying, was submerged.

Hemme said she walked up at hill a daybreak and surveyed the trailer park.

"The most terrifying thing was when I climbed up on that cliff and looked down," she said. The water had carried cars as if they were toys.

"I was so afraid that I was going to die, that water came so fast."

The dayslong rush of water from higher ground turned towns on Colorado's expansive eastern plains into muddy swamps. Crews used inflatable boats to rescue families and pets from stranded farmhouses. Some evacuees on horseback had to be escorted to safe ground.

The city of Boulder reported late Friday that the rushing waters had caused "a significant breach in its main wastewater pipeline" to the treatment plant, but officials said it would not affect drinking water.

Near Greeley, some 35 miles east of the foothills, broad swaths of farmland had become lakes, and the raging South Platte and Poudre rivers led to rescues of stranded residents late into the night, the Greeley Tribune reported.

Hundreds of roads were closed or damaged by floodwaters, and a 70-mile stretch of Interstate 25 was closed from Denver to the Wyoming line.

Rocky Mountain National Park closed Friday, its visitors forced to leave via the 60-mile Trail Ridge Road to the west side of the Rockies.

It will be weeks, if not months, before a semblance of normalcy returns to Lyons, a gateway community to the park. The town, surrounded by sandstone cliffs whose color was reflected in the raging St. Vrain River, consisted of six islands Friday as residents barbecued their food before it spoiled. Several people set up a tent camp on a hill.

Some 2,500 residents were being evacuated from Lyons, but Hilary Clark was left walking around her neighborhood Friday.

Two bridges that led into the area were washed away. Unlike other parts of Lyons that had been reached by the National Guard in high clearance trucks, no such help had arrived for Clark.

"We're surviving on what we got," she said. "Some of us have ponds in our backyard, and we're using that water and boiling it."

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said recovery would be long and expensive — similar to wildfires the state is more familiar with.

"Please be patient," he said. "This is an unprecedented event."

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:

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Additional Photos

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

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Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet, is one of the tallest mountains in Colorado and the tallest in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Wikipedia photo


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