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In Search Of Wilderness Safety

On the morning of Oct. 1, volunteer Mike Kloser was among 220 people swarming around the summit and surrounding area of Mount of the Holy Cross.

His mission was desperate.

The weather was deteriorating - temperatures at sunrise hovered around freezing. Somewhere in the high-elevation wilderness Michelle Vanek, a 35-year-old mother of two, was missing.

Kloser, an eco-challenge champion who slept little and searched for several days, was one of many who hoped to find the Lakewood woman.

"Everybody was optimistic that (Oct. 1) would be the day that we would come up with something," Kloser said. "But at that point the likelihood that Michelle would be alive when we found her, because of the elements, the chances that she'd be alive were slim."

It was the biggest such search in Colorado history. It began Sept. 24, and included several square miles of rough mountain terrain. Snowfields, boulder fields, colossal cliffs and erratic weather made the search even more difficult.

Thousands of nooks and dark pitfalls could have held her body, and even shoulder-to-shoulder searches revealed nothing. Not a trace of Vanek could be found - not even a glove, a hat or a broken ski pole.

After a fruitless day of searching Oct. 1, the weeklong effort was suspended.

"I think the thoughts of (the rescuers and parents) were basically saying that we've given it our best effort," Kloser said. "And we'll call it quits on the big effort."

For more than a century, Mount of the Holy Cross, and the wilderness area around it, has been a place of pilgrimage for those who wanted to view the cross-shaped outline of snow visible on the mountain's east face. In recent decades it has become a popular hiking destination for those who climb Fourteeners - mountains with elevations of 14,000 feet or more.

Yet the area also has been the scene of terrifying emergencies, near-deaths, disappearances and tragedy. More and more people hike into the Holy Cross Wilderness Area every year, and during peak season as many as 75 people a day attempt to summit the peak. The growing number of people heading into the area creates a growing safety and search- and-rescue need.

After a summer full of high-profile outdoor emergencies, officials in the area are hoping to remind wilderness users to be thoughtful and cautious when spending time outdoors.

Of particular note are the loose granite boulder fields in Colorado's high country. These areas can give mountains their rugged appeal - but also present a particular danger.

Perhaps no one knows this better than William McCann, a 16-year-old from Texas who spent 15 hours trapped underneath a boulder near the shores of Blodgett Lake, near Mount of the Holy Cross. McCann had been climbing with his Outward Bound group in early July when a large boulder fell onto his foot, trapping him. An ordinary hike turned into a terrible ordeal - and all it took was one loose boulder.

"It just crunched my boot and it felt like my toes were about to pop," McCann said at a news conference July 7.

The experienced Outward Bound staff with McCann at the time are trained as first wilderness responders - a kind of EMT training for wilderness situations. But even with the help of the Outward Bound group, the boulder didn't budge. A 911 cell phone call from a nearby summit reached the Eagle County Sheriff's office the afternoon of July 6.

The Sheriff's office contacted Vail Mountain Rescue, a volunteer group specializing in dire backcountry situations. Until the disappearance of Vanek, it would be Mountain Rescue's most publicized story of the year.

Only two Eagle County incidents made the regional news, but Vail Mountain Rescue is called to action in the area much more often. Of the 12 missions Vail Mountain Rescue has conducted since July 1, six have been to the Holy Cross Area.

Vail Mountain Rescue's Barry Leff said 2005 is not an anomaly.

"Just about every year we head out into the Holy Cross area with this type of frequency," Leff said. "Mount of the Holy Cross is one of Eagle County's central destination points for outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking Colorado's Fourteeners is a growing pastime, and (Eagle County) has one of the most approachable. It's a major event area each summer."

The growing popularity of hiking Fourteeners can give some hikers a false sense of security, Leff said.

"Part of it's the law of averages. With more and more outdoorsmen and women heading into the woods a certain percentage of people are going to get lost or have trouble up there," Leff said. "And it's also become a social norm. The mentality is, 'Everybody else is hiking the Fourteeners, what's stopping me?'

"It's commonplace for people to go into the wilderness unprepared, without proper clothing, shoes, snacks or survival gear," he said. "On the other hand some people go in with excellent equipment, but without the proper knowledge of that gear and a diminishing respect for the power of nature. Too often our equipment contributes to a false sense of security and preparedness."

When things do go wrong in the wilderness, mountain rescue groups around the state are called into action. These groups are often a branch of the local sheriff's department.

Their focus, Eagle County sheriff's department spokeswoman Kim Andree said, is to get their job done and do it the best they can - little else matters.

"They do it for the love of what they're doing," she said. "Not for the money or the stardom, not for anything other than the inner peace it gives them after a mission."

Part of that mission, she said, is to educate the public about safe procedures in the wilderness, and to keep people from getting into tough situations.

McCann eventually was freed from the boulder by portable, inflatable pads, which can lift up to 45 tons. He is reportedly back on the football field in Texas, 100 percent recovered.

Vanek's family isn't speaking with the media, but Vail Mountain Rescue volunteers have said there is little hope of finding her alive.

Of the six missions to Holy Cross this year, Vanek's is the only one that still lacks a happy ending.

Making decisions in the high country isn't easy. High altitude, heavy exertion, dehydration, hunger, weather and panic all can play a roll in clouding a hiker's judgment. Leff, Andree, Kloser and the people at Mountain Rescue agree that a healthy respect for nature is a must-have mentality for anyone who wants to keep a beautiful trip into the wilderness from turning into a nightmare.

Doing it right

An invigorating hike into Colorado's backcountry can turn bitter quickly. Changing weather, confusing terrain, injury and disorientation can make the wilderness a difficult, even deadly, place to be. The Vail Mountain Rescue group has helped prepare these pointers to remind adventurers what to bring and what to do when heading outdoors in winter or summer. For more information, or to make a donation, visit

Tips

Bring a cell phone and be aware of areas with reception. Look for high ridges or peaks with distant views for reception. If you get in over your head, 911 is just a call away.

Make sure your cell phone is fully charged before leaving, and leave it turned off until you need it.

Carry a map and compass, even if you have a GPS.

Bring enough food to last longer than you expect to be out.

Let someone know before you go - always tell a friend where you're going before you head out.

Remember, cotton kills: Cotton will get wet and stay wet for hours, and that means hypothermia. Try replacing that cotton T-shirt with a lightweight fleece.

Even if it's warm when you start out, bring wool socks, long underwear and rain gear in a pack.

A whistle and bright colors can help you signal other hikers if you get injured or stuck.

Stay on the trail, even if a shortcut seems apparent.

In winter, carry a shovel, avalanche beacon and probe when you go in the backcountry.

Snowmobiling? Go with a friend and always carry snow shoes or skis - just in case.

Beware of avalanche dangers and check weather conditions before you head out.

Don't just carry an avalanche beacon - train with it and know how to use it.

Clothing and gear

Although you might plan to be out for a short while, nature could have other plans for you. Here's a list of appropriate clothing and gear for a cold-weather day-trip.

Quality hiking boots: Don't try to backpack in tennis shoes or trail shoes: your arches and ankles will never forgive you. And take a few day hikes in your boots first to break them in.

Tarp or space blanket: A tarp can become a tent with a bit of ingenuity, and a space blanket can be a lifesaver in dire conditions.

Headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries: Not only can a light help you find your way, but it can also help you signal rescuers in the dark.

Sunscreen: This might not immediately seem like a live-or-die item, but it could prevent carcinoma and melanoma in later years.

Sunglasses.

Warm sweater.

Light, shell-style rain gear or winter shell.

Warm long underwear.

Wool socks.

Hat with brim.

Strike-anywhere, waterproof matches.

First-aid kit.

Multi-tool or knife.

Light gloves.

Wool or fleece hat.

Ski pole or walking stick.

Water.

Dried fruit, energy bars and/or other lightweight, compact and healthy snacks.

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