It was supposed to be a few days of introducing city-dwellers to a taste of the wilderness. Nothing dramatic or harrowing, a little fishing, a few hikes in the alpine meadows and they would be sufficiently challenged.
They all trusted me. I had grown up in these mountains and had led backpacking trips into them for years. They trusted me for my knowledge and experience in the mountains. They trusted me because each of them, at different levels of intimacy, had bared their souls to me in confidence. They trusted me because I was their pastor.
The week of fishing, hiking, and exploring was relaxing and pedestrian. As we prepared and ate a dinner meal one evening someone said, “Hey pastor, let’s climb Broken Hand tomorrow,” they said.
“Okay,” I said. “We will leave after a good breakfast in the morning. Bring a lunch, your wool hat and gloves, and your rain parka. We should be up and down in about four hours; three hours up and one down.”
The next morning the sun bathed Crestone Needle in a soft red hue that reminded me of why that mountain range was named the Sangre De Cristos—Blood of Christ. We ate a simple breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, packed our gorp, filled our water bottles and stuffed our day packs. It was a cool morning so most wore their wool gloves and hat. We said a prayer and off we went.
When people would ask me why the mountain was named Broken Hand I would tell them, “Well, look at it. See that large outcropping of rock on the north ridge? Looks like a twisted thumb doesn’t it? See that series of spirals off the side of the summit? Don’t they look like finger nubs?” But that was all told in ignorance. I had forced that explanation onto many people over the years until I was reading about the history of the mountains I had grown up in and learned that an Irish-born man named Tom Fitzpatrick who had made a name for himself as mountain man and scout for the Fremont expeditions of the early 19th century—the mountain was named after him. Broken Hand is what the Rocky Mountain Indians called him due to a musket exploding in his hand and resulting in a disfigurement.
There are cairns to mark the trail up over the first rock-band of cliffs. Then there is a football field-sized shoulder of grass and tundra and a faint trail that leads up to the second larger rock-band. The trail ends at a twenty foot steep rock wall. I had been up this scramble before and it is a low exposure scramble requiring four points of contact for about fifteen of the twenty feet of rock. But for this group it was the most challenging part of their week. Some were nervous and maybe even a little scared while others loved the feel of “real” mountaineering if only for fifteen feet.
I positioned myself close to the nervous ones and “spotted them” all the while talking them from one hand-hold and toe-hold to another until they were firmly on the brittle late summer grass above the rock scramble. After they all were up, I showed off by climbing up the rock face as fast as I could. It took me about two moves and I was up with them. They were impressed with my agility on the rock face, especially for a man my size.
Feeling good about myself I said, “We can’t get there from here doing this.” Which is what I always say when it is time for the group to get up and start climbing again. I don’t know where I got it, maybe from a John Wayne movie. I say it to this day.
The climb was easy and uneventful from there. We wound our way between the ribbons of rock and stayed on the grass ledges. There was no trail, so we just switched back and picked our way up to the summit. The grade was steep and we stopped often to catch our breath at the high altitude. On our last break just seventy five yards from the summit I suggested we eat our lunch on this the leeward side of the mountain. The wind up there can be pretty stiff and as sweaty as we were from the climb it was a good way to get a chill.
After a few minutes of basking in the noonday sun and enjoying our light lunch we gathered ourselves for the last little push to the summit of 13, 570 foot Broken Hand Peak. Banked by Humboldt Peak on the north and Marble Mountain on the south the South Colony drainage emptied into the tawny colored floor of the Wet Mountain Valley. The old mining road that had been closed for decades lay on the floor of the heavily wooded canyon like a yellow thread on a green dress as it meandered down towards the Valley.
I had told the group that when we summited we would be able to see into New Mexico. Said we would be able to see San Antonio Mountain, the San Luis Valley and the Great Sand Dunes. Turns out that when we finally made the ascent, unknown to us, a massive storm had filled the San Luis Valley to the west. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but clouds filling the valley floor like smoke filling a bathtub.
And it was coming our way.
“Let’s eat a bite, take a swig of your water and head back down before we get covered by that cloud bank,” I said.
I knew that descending on wet grass and rock was dangerous and that there was only one way off the upper cliff bands—that twenty foot cut in the cliff we had scrambled up earlier; where I had showed off my rock climbing moves. I was feeling a little anxious when I saw the cloud moving so slowly. When weather moves slowly it stays a long time swirling around the steep-walled alpine crags and peaks.
I underestimated the how fast the cloud was coming and the slow moving group. In a matter of minutes we were drenched with the thickest band of moisture I had ever seen. The wind picked up to around fifteen miles per hour and the mist clung to the hair on my arms. We put every piece of our clothing on to stay warm and dry. But that meant that many of the group was still in shorts. We grew cold. The ground got slick. Visibility was reduced to a few feet. We slowly crept down the grass ledges, carefully placing our feet so as not to slip.
A few in the group began to shiver. We had not brought enough clothing. We had no windbreak. We were unprepared for this weather. I knew better because this was August and the monsoons from the Gulf of California are as predictable as the sunrise. The wind began wrapping around the mountain and blowing horizontally along the face of the cliffs, cutting through our clothing. All the faces kept looking at me with expectancy. We couldn’t see South Colony Lake below, the canyon floor or any of the surrounding peaks.
All we could feel was the cutting wind and gravity pulling us down.
I looked at my watch and we had been two hours winding and inching our way down the slick face since we had left the summit. I couldn’t tell how far we had come. I had no land marks for reference. I was blind. I felt a weight in my chest. Fear.
We were in a situation where our bodies were losing heat faster than we could produce it. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. It can make you sleepy, confused and clumsy. Because it happens gradually and affects your thinking, you may not realize you need help. That makes it especially dangerous. A body temperature below 95° F is a medical emergency and can lead to death if not treated promptly.
Some in our group had become lethargic and very confused. I had given my wind-pants to a weaker person in the group. My pectoral and abdominal muscles began to shiver uncontrollably. I knew as long as I was shivering I was somewhat safe. My body was in default mode of warming my core. But how long would that last? I was losing precious energy by the minute.
With everyone to huddled together against a rock over hang and their backs to the wind to create a windbreak for the weaker ones in the group I left to try to find the cut in the cliff-wall and that twenty foot scramble and get us off of the mountain.
I took about ten steps and looked back towards the group and could hear them talking in muffled tones as if they were speaking through a pillow, but I couldn’t see them. I tried to get a mental picture of where I was and was drawing a blank. I dropped down to the edge of the cliff to search for the way out.
I found a little gully and began to slowly descend into it but it ended at the cliffs edge. (click on the picture) Dead end. I climbed back up and moved horizontally and found another gully—probed down it—dead end. Another and another and another…all dead ends. I was getting weary. I was getting scared. I began to run on the across the slick rock and grass in a desperate attempt to find the right cut in the rocks. I felt the hypothermic clock tick in my brain that my time was running out. I was desperate to get the group off the mountain.
The opaque cloud blanketing the mountain was not giving up the secrete passage. I began to breathe out the name “Jesus” with every step. I’m not sure if it was a prayer or a curse. I was feeling desperate and panicky; a first for me in the mountains.
I stepped on a table-sized stone and it slid out from under me and disappeared into the mist below. I instinctively twisted my body to face the wet ground and began to dig my toes and finger tips into the wet rock as I slid down the mountain towards the edge of the cliff. After ten feet of clawing like a cat slipping off a wet tin roof, the toes of my boots found a three inch crack in the rock and I grabbed a lip of another rock and stopped my fall. Relieved, I let out a banshee scream of frustration, anger, fear and relief.
Then I heard the rock that I had dislodged slam onto a rock ledge a hundred feet below me. It bounced and kept bouncing—exploding like a gunshot every time it hit the cliffs.
Suddenly the group who had heard my scream and the rock hitting the cliffs below began to cry out my name, “Joe! Joe! Oh, God. Joe!”
“I am alright!” I yelled into the mist.
I looked at my finger tips and saw that all the skin was scraped off and the nail on my ring finger was gone. It had been torn out to the quick and hung by a thread-thin piece of flesh. My hands were bleeding, but I was Okay.
I climbed back to the group, calling out to them to give me some directional soundings. My steps were slower. I remember thinking, “Joe, you have to slow the action down.” I took a deep breath and began to call the name of Jesus with every step, like a blind man looking for a friend.
When I got to the group I said, “Let’s all stick together and start working our way the opposite direction horizontally. What do you guys think?” For an hour we traversed the mountain until we came to a gully full of talus, scree and snow. I couldn’t see where it ended. It disappeared into the cloud.
“What do you guys think about going down this gully and see where it goes? It may end in a cliff and we will be stuck, but I think we have to get off of this mountain and out of this weather. Let’s all get in a circle and say a prayer,” I said.
It was a simple prayer, “Jesus, have mercy on our souls.”
We zigged and zagged across the chute of loose scree, waiting for each person to cross before the others attempted so as to not knock down rock on those below. After seventy five yards of this we hit snow that was captured in the shadows of the gully from last winter.
I am going to make some foot holes in this snow. You space yourselves about six feet apart, face the mountain, kick your toes deeply into my footprints and carefully back down the snow,” I instructed.
They all nodded their heads that they understood.
Then I said, “We might get down there and find an ice or stone cliff. I don’t know what we are going to find. One more thing: if you start to fall and can’t stop yourself by clawing into the snow with your fingers and toes, I will not try to grab you to save you. If I tried to do that there is a good chance I will be pulled off this mountain with you. I will wave and pray for you on your way by.”
I heard a few chuckles of nervous laughter.
I turned to face the steep strip of snow and began to kick step backwards down what felt like a bobsled run. One slip on this snow and I was dead man. My skinless fingers were numb from digging into the snow. It was slow going, but I was not scared anymore. Maybe I was not thinking clearly due to hypothermia, maybe I was leaning on the everlasting arms, but I kept moving. I looked up to check everyone’s progress and we looked like a daisy chain of humanity perilously perched on very thin holes in the snow. If the guy at the top lost his footing and started to slide there was a good chance he would slam into the group like bowling pins.
After a few more steps I looked over my shoulder and down the snow and could see the lower lake of South Colony. We had dropped out of the clouds! I could see that the snow ribbon was passible all the way down to green grass and a trail about four hundred yards away. I was ecstatic. We were going to make it.
I yelled up the good news and said I was going to take one of the teenage boys with me hurry back to camp and fire up a stove for hot drinks and start supper of chicken and dumplings. A cheer broke out on the mountain.
Later that night sipping hot cherry Jello I muttered under my breath: “Three hours up eight hours down.” My fingers were bandaged; everyone was rehydrated with warm liquids and had plenty of carbs in their bellies. The group was cocooned in sleeping bags while I stood out in the dark trying to figure out what went wrong.
It was quiet in the meadow save for the sound of the gurgling brook a few feet away. A bat darted by chasing a desperate insect in the twilight.
I replayed the day in my mind—some parts over and over again. How did this happen? How had I come so close to leading seven people to their death? People die every year in the mountains from less than what we endured. But, for me, “the expert”…how had we come so close to being one of those sad stories on the ten o’clock news?
I sipped my hot drink, listened to quiet voices in the tents behind me and looked back up at the mountain with the craggy summit silhouetted against a deep indigo sky and I am almost certain I heard a voice say to me, “Arrogant leadership got you into trouble, but humble leadership got you out.”
I crawled into my tent and called my wife on my cell phone and wept. After she prayed for me I closed my eyes and clawed at the mountain all night in a fitful sleep.
Looking back through the spiritual prism of time, Broken Hand was a warning to me. It was a prophetic utterance. Barely a year later, I ignored this warning and fell off a moral mountain taking many good people with me in my fall.
That was a long time ago. I have spent many years relearning what it means to be a leader. Sometimes you only get one Broken Hand warning. Better learn your lesson while you can still climb.
I am climbing and leading again, slower and more careful this time, but I am climbing…usually from the back of the pack.
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. 1 Cor. 10:12