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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Part II Of "Mission Improbable: What Happens When You Go For Broke

The only one's who never make a mistake are those who never try anything new.  Albert Einstein

Something that wasn't made perfectly clear to our convivial covey of Hiker Babes was one itsy-bitsy (and likely significant) detail: Bobbie and Mark hadn't actually and completely scouted Bimetallist Trail to where it joins the Weehawken Pack Trail. 

Gaining "The Ridge."

On a day forecasted to be fully sunny and mild, Hiker Babes Ruthie, Bridget and Jen answered the "call of the wild" and joined us on a somewhat ambitious back country trek...the only conspicuous absentee being the fast and furious, Michelle (finally, I get a break from speed-hiking).     

It was an early start, unusual for our sleepy head gang of geezers. A hint crispness hung in the air, the kind that portends an impending change of seasons. 

We dropped my truck about 4 miles up Camp Bird Road at the Weehawken Trailhead. It would serve as the "pick up" vehicle (should we be successful) for a one-way hike deep within the Mount Sneffels wilderness. 

Another couple miles drive landed us at the Yankee Boy Basin Road which we followed another mile till we were nosing onto an obscure and brushy four-wheel-drive road that dead-ended at the Bimetallist Trailhead. 

Being mostly "geezers," it made good sense to save a couple thousand feet of elevation gain by making this first attempt a top-down hike...a misnomer as there would still be plenty of uphill to grind out.  

It didn't take long to break from shade into full sun. With not a single cloud in the sky we huffed and puffed our way up, hoping for a second wind. 

The trail to Bimetallist Mine is "unmaintained," thus it comes-and-goes willy-nillie and leaves the unfamiliar hiker wandering more off course than on. Above the mine it gets worse, as it turns into an old seldom used "pack trail."  But, having scouted it a couple of days earlier, Bobbie and I had a feel for which direction to go when the trail petered out. 

We pushed up, up, up...shedding layers of clothes and warming to the task of gaining our first objective: "The Ridge."


As we crested "The Ridge" there was a collective gasp among our group...partially due to elevation, but mostly due to the astonishing views.

Bobbie and Ruthie gain first peek from The Ridge.

When asked where to now? I pointed down and said, Way down there...into the basin. 

But how?

Just follow Bobbie and watch your step.

Ruthie negotiates a loose, marbly trail with steep drop-offs 

Almost down to the basin...

Happy Hiker Babes

I "assumed" that the big blocky mountain behind the Hiker Babes in the above photo was Potosi...which, according to our scouting trips, meant we had only to follow the basin down the Weehawken drainage till we picked up the pack trail, where another three thousand feet of descent would land us at Weehawken's Trailhead and a waiting pickup vehicle. Onward!

Headed down into the wrong basin and drainage. 

But it all felt a little too simple and too easy.

It never occurred to me that, while similarly shaped, Potosi is 13,700 feet in elevation—a near 14'er—not to mention at least three times broader than what laid above us.  

Add to that, if "The Ridge" elevation was 12,000 feet, I should have known that the connecting mountain was at best 13,000 feet...and nowhere close to measuring up to the high and mighty Potosi. 

But it was shaped like Potosi, it looked like Potosi, so it became Potosi (Assume = "ass/u/me"). And this, is where our big back country adventure begins to fall apart. 


In our anemic defense, Bobbie and I did scout to within sight of Potosi's unmistakeable 13,700 foot summit-block, from the pack trail above Weehawken. 

From an above-timberline vantage point, I made the reasonable assessment that connecting the trails would be relatively straight forward. 

Still, just to be sure, I did another Google Earth fly over after our recon trip and was able to stumble across bits and pieces of what I hoped was come-and-go pack/game trails that would suffice. Satisfied, I stamped it "a long day, but doable."

Another factor that contributed to my confusion on the mountain appears in the photo below. Note the gray spired portion of the on the right...

Familiar Hoo Doos...

On our scouting trip up Weehawken to the pack trail, Bobbie and I hiked alongside a mountain with the most unusual spires and hoo doos, towering overhead like an army of monolithic monsters. 

While the hoo doos explains my confidence that this was the correct basin and drainage, it doesn't excuse my assertion that, "Hey, we hiked right under those hoo doos cross canyon." I said. 

Down we go, aiming for the hoo doos, searching for the pack trail that got us there. 

Hoo doos

The Bottom of the Basin

Humility is the ability to acknowledge the depths of one's own ignorance. 

It might be the wrong basin, but it's beautiful nonetheless. (Spoiler Alert: We should be headed up to the ridge line above the Hiker Babes) 


Jen and Bridget, taking in the majesty before following me down into the wrong drainage...

Houston, we have a problem...

Deep under the hoo doos, neither Bobbie nor I could find the pack trail, just random game trails that either disappeared or cliff-ed out. 

We're too high...we're too low, I said as we stumbled around "high" and "low" in search of the pack trail.

Bobbie even thought she recognized some of the hoo doos, while I couldn't find the obvious couloir I had scampered up to get that better view overtop the forest. It was from that vantage point that I spotted Potosi, and the southern ridge line that we needed to climb in order to get into the next basin over...the one that led to "The Ridge" and, ultimately, Bimetallist Trail.

Hiker Babes looking for the "Pack Trail" under the hoo doos.

About then, Jen pulls out her phone. It has a hiking app I've never heard of. She even found and downloaded a map that showed the Pack Trail. (What? My Gaia app showed nothing of the pack trail). 

We compared the topo lines on our apps. Close inspection revealed that the "you are here" position indicator on Jens phone showed us to be descending the wrong drainage...one entire basin over from the right one: Weehawken! 

After failing to find the "pack trail" and being cliffed out again and again, I had to admit that, even though our route looked identical to the drainage Bobbie and I had hiked up a few days ago, it obviously must not be the same one. 

We turned around and began the long slog back up into the basin overlooked by the  mountain I thought was Potosi, but now questioned.  

The "Faux Potosi" basin

Desperate to find the next drainage over, we climbed up a near vertical slope of tundra on the extreme right side of the above photo. I even followed a couple of sketchy game trails that were above and beyond my comfort zone...not to mention something a pack mule would ever negotiate.

Suddenly, while high up on that near vertical tundra slope that overlooked the wrong basin, I had a "Big Dubya" moment. 

Recall the early '60s movie "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World," starring the always whacky, Johnathan Winters. In the movie a madcap, star studded cast was running all over Hell and each other in vain attempts to find a buried treasure, for which one of the "clues" was: "It's buried under a big W.

With everyone running around, shovels in hand, digging holes in park lawns...fighting...a frustrated Winters finally looked up, only to discover four leaning palm trees that formed a perfect "W."  A grin slowly waxed across his pudgy face. "Why it's the Big Dubya!"

Fighting for balance on that high up, dead end slope, a more distant familiar shaped mountain caught my eye. "Why, It's the Big P." Bingo. There it was...the real Potosi, rising huge and ominous, dwarfing the faux Potosi at the head of our basin. 

As it turned out, from all points lower in that basin, the real Potosi was hidden behind the faux "Potosi."
The Faux Potosi Mountain blocks the view of the real thing. We must ascend that ridge to the right, which will put is under Potosi and in Weehawken's drainage.

Some of the gals wanted to go for the ridge to Potosi. But there was no sign of a trail, and it was steep, another thousand feet up. My legs were getting tired, and it was well into afternoon. Having lost my sense of direction and confidence (manhood), I overruled. Better to error on the side of safety. We should head back the way we came...live to hike another day.

When you come to a fork in the trail and choose the safer of the two, you sure don't expect the worst to happen. But it did... 

After all the miles, sketchy drop-offs, and getting lost in the wrong drainage, I thought we were on the downhill slide to home. Having spent a joyful, albeit unsuccessful, day hiking in beautiful remote back country, we hadn't seen another soul all day. 

I was tripping along several hundred yards ahead of the gals when I heard someone yell. I stopped to listen, then from afar, heard Bobbie's voice: "Hiker Down! Mark...Hiker down!"  I turned and bolted back up the trail. "Coming!"  

It was Jen. She had taken a head-over-heels tumble off a loose section of trail and was lying head facing down on a steep embankment. If not for landing between a couple of pine trees, no telling how far she would have went. 

By the time I got there, Bridget and Ruthie had somehow righted Jen so her head was facing up hill. But she couldn't move her right leg without excruciating pain...a "ten on a scale of ten" she said.

With a weak one-bar of cell service, Ruthie called 911. It was a swimming in molasses experience...the time consuming protocol and trying to explain where the fuck we were to someone who was definitely not a "local." 

Fortunately Jen had a SPOT in her backpack, a GPS device that relays an S.O.S. and your exact position to proper authorities, in this case not an ambulance, but rather the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team...the only ones outfitted and trained for such a high mountain rescues. Jen pushed the "Call" button while Ruthie kept explaining our predicament to the 911 operator. 

Knowing how obscure the trail and our location was, I told Bobbie and Bridget to hike on down to the trailhead in order to meet and guide the rescue team back up to us. I sent two, just in case one of them got injured on the way down. By the time they reached the trailhead, the rescue team was already on site and making their way up. 

A little over two hours would pass before we spotted the lead hiker, making his way over rough terrain to our position. We yelled and waved our arms. 

It was Jeff Skoloda, a metal artist whose art gallery I used to work at. One by one, other team members began to arrive, two of them carrying a portable liter (stretcher), and finally Doctor Patrick Brighton, a real MD who diagnosed a probable broken leg (it was).

It was 9:30 pm, well after dark, before the rescue team could get Jen off that mountain and into a waiting ambulance. 

Below are a few photos of the rescue and a link/paste to an article in the Ouray County Plaindealer, as well as my letter of thanks to the Editor.  

Air Casting Jen's broken leg. Note one of the rescue team members hold Jen's hand.

On a trail so narrow, on a mountain side so steep, this was the only way to get Jen down. A helicopter was called but it was tied up with 3 other rescues in our area alone.

A good start, but still a long way down to the valley below.

'Every single one of us could need them'

By Mike Wiggins, from The Ouray County Plaindealer

Jen Norvell has been hiking since she was 5 years old. She grew up in the Catskills and lived in the Adirondacks. The retired U.S. Army officer once ran a program that took juvenile delinquents into the backcountry. She knows wilderness first aid. “I’m not the one who needs to get rescued,” she said. “I never thought I’d be in a situation where I couldn’t take care of myself.” That changed in a split second last week when the 49-year-old Ouray woman slipped and tumbled off a high mountain trail while hiking with a group of friends. She’s grateful for the GPS tracking device she had with her — and even more thankful for the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team members who answered when she pressed the SOS button. The rescue of Norvell, the owner of Mountain Dog Arts, was part of a hectic Labor Day weekend for the all-volunteer, nonprofit organization. It began with a call early on the morning of Sept. 3 for a hunter who had developed a form of acute mountain sickness at the base of Cimarron Ridge about seven miles east of Ridgway Reservoir. Two ground teams were deployed, but fellow hunters were able to move the man into a meadow to be picked up by a medical helicopter, according to Ouray Mountain Rescue Capt. Tim Pasek. It continued later that afternoon when a hiker sustained a foot injury along the Blue Lakes Trail and was flown out by a medical helicopter. And it ended with another call in the Blue Lakes area early Sunday morning, when multiple people reported hearing rockfall but didn’t actually see anybody get caught in it, Pasek said. A ground team was sent up to the Mount Sneffels trail head on the Yankee Boy side of the mountain to investigate, and a fixed-wing aircraft from Olathe Spray Service flew over Mount Sneffels looking for any sign of anybody in distress but didn’t find anything, Pasek said. The second call among those four came from Norvell, who was hiking with four friends — Mark and Bobbie Johnson, Ruthie Westfall and Bridget Schoo — the afternoon of Sept. 3. The group had been wandering around Senator Gulch that day and was trying to connect the Bimetallist Mine Trail with the Weehawken Trail. Around 2 p.m., at an elevation just below 12,000 feet, they decided to head home for the day when the dirt and rocks on the narrow, unmaintained pack trail gave way underneath Norvell's foot, sending her head over heels three or four times down a steep slope. She came to rest 30 to 40 feet later face down in a stand of pine trees. Without those trees, she figures she might have fallen another 300 feet. The pain was immediate and searing. The fall broke a bone and damaged nerves in her lower right leg. Any movement, any touch felt like “a thousand knives” jabbing into her leg. One of her friends was only able to get a weak cellphone signal, so she pressed the SOS button on her GPS device that communicates directly with Ouray Mountain Rescue. Rescuers got to her before two of her friends made it to the trail head. “They literally ran,” she said of the rescuers. “They were fantastic.” Rescuers secured her in a litter and hoisted her back onto the trail. Two crew members used chainsaws to clear downed timber. The group then made the long, precipitous descent down the trail to a waiting ambulance, which Norvell was loaded into around 9:30 p.m. Everything about the rescuers impressed Norvell — from their professionalism and skills to the way they communicated with one another. “There was absolute, 100 percent trust in whoever was near me,” she said. She spent the night of Sept. 3 in Montrose Memorial Hospital and was released the next morning with a crutch to help her get around. Doctors have told her the broken bone will heal on its own. It’s rare for Norvell to hike with others — often her only companion is her 8-year-old border collie, Sunday. This day, she was hiking with the only people she hikes with. Without them — and without her GPS tracking device — it could have been several days before anyone found her. Most of all, she’s thankful for the swift response of Ouray Mountain Rescue. To show her gratitude, she plans to make at least 100 pine-scented candles — a nod to the smell that accompanied her on her tumble — with the group’s logo on them. The candles should be available for sale next month. All the proceeds will go to Ouray Mountain Rescue. “Anybody in this town who hikes or mountain bikes, it can happen to you,” she said. “You might need these guys. Every single one of us could need them.” 

My Letter to the Editor:

Dear Editor: On Thursday, Sept. 3, a group of four “gal” friends and I embarked on a backcountry hike on an unmaintained, come-and-go pack trail. While returning, one of the gals (Jen) took a fall on a steep, narrow section of the trail and suffered a broken leg. We needed help. Fortunately, Jen had a “SPOT” emergency device that called in our GPS coordinates to the Ouray Mountain Rescue team dispatch. At just under 12,000 feet elevation, on an obscure, unmaintained pack trail, I wondered how long before (and even if) help would find us. I sent two of our group (Bobbie and Bridget) down to the trailhead in order to facilitate OMR finding our trailhead and route, well hidden off the Yankee Boy Basin road above Camp Bird Mine. To our relief, lead members of the OMR were already arriving and on the way up as Bobbie and Bridget reached the trailhead. Around 2 hours after Jen’s fall, OMR team member, Jeff Skoloda, reached the scene of Jen’s fall. Since the trail was “come-andgo” at best, Jeff had the presence of mind to mark the route with ribbon on his way up, which greatly accelerated the response for remaining team members. One by one, OMR team members began arriving, including Doctor Patrick Brighton, who tended to Jen’s injuries while awaiting a portable litter (stretcher). Once the litter arrived, the team made safe and swift work of securing Jen into position and hoisting her back up on the trail. She was fitted with an inflatable cast to stabilize the broken leg for the long trip down on a narrow and precipitous trail. Finally, after dark around 9:30 PM, Jen was loaded into an ambulance. Our hiker group was extremely impressed with the swift and skillful response of OMR team members. For all who contributed to Jen’s rescue ... from the dispatcher, to all the people on radios who helped coordinate response, to the crew with chainsaws who cleared deadfall and branches ... we can’t say thank you enough for your training, time, effort, dedication, and kindness. Further thanks for specific responders to Jen’s rescue include: Jeff Skoloda, Dr. Patrick Brighton, Nate Disser, Xander Bianchi, Justin Hofmann, Grant Kleeves, Dan Hughes, Clint Estes, Tim Pasek, Mark Iuppenlatz, Kim Mitchel, Jenny Hart, Annie Quathamer, Blaine Eischied, Patricia Eischied, Don Fehd, Matt and Lindsey Hepp, Dolgio Nergui, Andrew Smyser, Lance Johnson, Bill Dwelley, Ruth Stewart, Sam Rushing. Mark and Bobbie Johnson, Ouray, Colorado


  1. Oh my goodness! This post made me emotional. There are some real angels out here among us - something we all need to hear and see more than ever these days.

  2. What a great resource to have, and volunteers to boot. Glad she will be ok.A lesson to all about preparedness in the backcountry!

  3. Mother of God, been fearing that "tale" for way to long, but as usual it all played out so professionally thanks to everyone involved. Im just glad Jen was hiking with the Pros :)
    We will be buying a couple of those candles when in town later this month Jen and so glad you are going to be able to go back into those beautiful San Juan Mountains again, there is not place like'em.
    Great communications to one and all Mark !
    Will be looking forward to seeing you & Bobbie on the porch at Seldom Inn for some drinks and catching up, oh, and do we have some surprising news for you
    Stay Thirsty My Friends
    Love Ya
    Doug & Al from a World on Fire

  4. What a way to conclude the 2020 Ouray high elevation hiking season. Pretty soon the high country will be covered in more snow and you will be planning your Utah and Arizona getaways. Stay safe.

  5. Mountain rescue people are just the best. Good on Jen for having a spot. That was a long day for all involved, happy she's off the mountain.

  6. Glad for a good outcome! And as for Gaia GPS, I often look at multiple map sources before finding some trails or feature names. It's well worth the Premium subscription cost for the hundreds of map layer options in Gaia! The Historic Topos are a favorite for history lessons on the trail!

  7. Sp sorry to hear about your friends injury. Good to know the SPOT works and quickly. We always carry our SPOT. Hopefully we will never need it.

  8. The SPOT unit is a good thing to have in conditions like that, I had one on my person (not on my saddle) every time I rode my horse 12+ miles alone in the forest. You just never know what will happen! But oh those photos of beauty!! So purdy!

  9. Good to hear that such a scary situation worked out ok. Really makes me think about the SPOT as a valuable backcountry tool. Those folks at OMR are awesome!

  10. Wow, what a story! Thank goodness for the "Spot" and for the rescue team! I hope you and Bobbie will carry that device in the future...

    1. The subscription price of that SPOT unit keeps going up and up and up . . . everyone in a dangerous sport has kicked around a bunch of alternatives. If there's any lawyers here in this little group, here's my idea about suing SPOT for limiting the unit to one couple or one person. If the unit is registered to Ms. Doe and Ms. Smith borrows it and needs a rescue, Ms. Smith must pay the full cost of the rescue (GEOS member rescue benefit is part of the subscription cost and she therefore according to this Australian company that administers the whole program, doesn't qualify to get the free rescue). Is this legal? Why can't the unit be shared amongst five or so un-related folks who regularly do things together and who want to use it, have someone be in charge and split the annual subscription accordingly amongst the five folks. Just throwing it out . . .

  11. For those that get this far in the comments, what Mark does not include is his calls to me, Jen's husband who was not on the hike but safely in my home, throughout the whole ordeal. It was Mark that called me before the GEOS/SPOT SAR operators. It was he that told me the situation and Jen's status. He was calm, forthright with the incident information and what he believed was her condition. His calls always were ahead of the calls from the GEOS/SPOT operators and I even told them info that that they did not have that was given to me by Mark. I, and Jen obviously, are very fortunate to have had Mark and Bobbie, and the other 'hiker babes' with Jen that day. Jen would probably not have been able to get herself situated and had the presence of mind to do the things they did for her before, during and after the rescue teams arrival. Mark, Bobbie and all the others brought Jen's car home and safely returned her favorite hiking partner Sunday (the hiking Border Collie) to our home. They remained in contact with us while we went through the ER / hospital stage and even brought dinner and beer to us the next night, while checking in on Jen and me. For those interested Jen is doing well, broken Fibula, walking on it as she can (not a weight bearing bone) and already planning her next hike with the gang. So although Mark gives thanks to the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, which they deserve, but it is also Mark, Bobbie, Ruthie, and Bridget that deserve a big thanks and appreciation as well. It is this small community of like minded people, that help each other as they can that make living here such a pleasure, beyond the beautiful pictures and stories that Mark puts up on this blog.

  12. Wish Jen all the best. My wife broke her leg walking to her car after work. The street department had dug out some asphalt from the road and Joalenn just tripped over it.
    Don’t let Jen think that hiking is dangerous, accidents can happen anywhere. Lucky that Ouray has such a excellent rescue team.

  13. Wish Jen all the best. My wife broke her leg walking to her car after work. The street department had dug out some asphalt from the road and Joalenn just tripped over it.
    Don’t let Jen think that hiking is dangerous, accidents can happen anywhere. Lucky that Ouray has such a excellent rescue team.

  14. Whoa, what a story. I am glad that things turned out okay in the end. Thank goodness for the SPOT. I carry a Delorme although I hope to never need it for an SOS. I hope that Jen is recovering well.

  15. Great retelling of a harrowing tale. I'm glad it all worked out with everyone safe in the end. Mountain rescue people are heroes. And she's absolutely right, something like this could happen any time to any one of us.


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