When Shawn got up and went out for more food, I nabbed his seat. I’d been eyeing it for a while—it had a small heater underneath it.
We were sitting in the Sheriff’s base command vehicle, a spacious, comfortable bus with plenty of seating. Not to mention the coveted heater. Out the window, I could see headlamps still bobbing in the darkness up on the cliffs of Officer’s Gulch above us. As much as I’d hated to miss all the action on the front side of the cliffs, where the real rescue took place, I was glad to be inside and warm, rather than still up there. My own team had gone up the backside, from Copper, and had come back down before midnight.
One by one, members of various teams from the front side came inside the bus to warm up as they got off the 600-rappel. I felt slightly guilty, but I never gave up my heater-seat. Some of the front teams were elated, others were just dog-tired.
“Have you been down for a while?” I asked Billy when I saw him. He looked warm and dry already.
“Yeah, I came down early, I had a scare,” he said. “A big rock hit me when I was going up the fixed ropes, before we even reached the subjects. It pinned me back against the cliff and scared the shit out of me.”
I tried to imagine the tragedy that could have been—one of our best rescuers injured or even killed on a mission to save a couple stupid kids. It was unthinkable.
Dan Burnett came in from one of his many TV interviews. There had to be at least four stations out there, milling around rescue and Red Cross vehicles, waiting for the final teams to bring the two stranded hikers down.
“Should be any minute now,” he told those of us sitting inside. “I’ll bet you guys want to get out of here.”
I turned to Joe Ben, one of several MCs we had for the night. “What clean-up needs to be done?” I asked him, thinking I would expedite my own departure.
“You can start going through the gear pile out there,” he said. Reluctantly, I left my heater and got off the bus, worming my way through the clusters of rescuers and support workers standing along the bike path. I stopped at the Red Cross truck and ate a couple pancakes, fortification against the cold. Then I began sorting through climbing gear, separating ours from anything that might belong to Alpine Rescue Team.
“Hey Anna, I’m headed home,” Joe Summers stopped to tell me on his way by. I gave him a hug.
“Get warm,” I said. We shared one more laugh about Paul’s fall in the swamp before he left. The three of us, Paul Johnson, Joe and I, had been sent up the mountain range on the Copper side at about 4:00 that afternoon to see if we could reach the top of the ridge and descend the other side above the stranded men. Our terrain was mostly non-technical, but we were several hours behind the front side teams in getting started. We’d climbed for about four hours before deciding they were bound to get there before us. Our descent had been riddled with navigation errors, and after cliffing ourselves out several times and having to climb back up, we’d finally set up a rappel on a wet, slippery sheet of rock just before the bottom. Paul’s fall in the swamp, unfortunately, had come at the very beginning of the climb, so he must have been cold throughout the evening. I was only cold at the end.
There was a slight commotion on the bike path ahead of me. I looked up to see two team members bringing one of the guys out, leading him toward the waiting ambulance, a TV camera following them down the path. The subject was walking on his own, a blanket draped around his shoulders, shivering.
I tried to imagine the scenario that led to this. After all, I was in college once. They are sitting in their car in the Copper Conoco parking lot, smoking a joint. They’ve checked out of Copper’s employee housing already and have nowhere to go. They thought they’d camp for the night. Maybe Edward is gazing up at the moon shining above the Tenmile Range as they smoke. Maybe David says, “Hey, let’s camp up there!” Maybe he’s kidding, but Edward takes him seriously. They get out of the car. They begin to climb in the darkness, one of them wearing only tennis shoes, the other wearing, absurdly, a cape. He probably jokes about flying off the top when they reach it. They climb in silence, each of them thinking the other will call it off. Neither does.
When they reach the top, several hours later, they are still high, and it’s the witching hour. The game of chicken continues. Maybe they stop to smoke again. They begin to descend the other side, one-upping each other with daring moves down the slippery rock as the terrain gets more and more technical.
Finally, they come to the spot where we have found them, their home for the next 36 hours, and realize they can go no further. They each make several attempts to climb back up and find themselves slipping back down onto the ledge. They have a cell phone, but a hazy sense of mixed paranoia and optimism prevents them from using it. They wait until morning, and then, in the cold, harsh light of dawn, they make the call to the Sheriff’s Office.
I stopped to talk to Brian, who was on the team that reached the stranded pair first.
“They asked me what took us so long,” he said in disgust. “They thought we were just going to drop a helicopter on the top of that ridge and lift them off.”
I shook my head in disbelief, and asked Joe Ben if I could go home now.