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October 2006

How to Stay Safe in the Wilderness

Retracing the route to people's accidents can help us prevent our own. These 10 trips lead you to the exact locations of disasters from Denali to the Grand Canyon.

8. Stuck In Steamboat
Colorado Skier shivers through 9 backcountry days with a busted leg.

The Epic
Charles Horton figured he could get a good workout in before dinner. It was a sunny April morning in 2005, and the XC ski trails at 8,500-foot Dunckley Pass near his home in Steamboat Springs, CO, beckoned. He wouldn’t return for 9 days. As Horton was on a gradual descent 3 miles from the trailhead, one ski punched through the crusty spring snowpack and wrenched his right leg, tearing cartilage in his knee and snapping his tibia and fibula. He splinted his leg with his pack and compression straps, and tried scooting back to his car on the skis, but that proved too physically demanding. He bedded down in a tree well, covering himself with pine boughs for insulation. Wearing four layers of Ibex wool and an old windbreaker, Horton slept in the sun during the day and stayed awake through the night, moving himself down the trail a couple hundred yards at a time. He rationed energy bars and sucked on snow for water. After 8 days, Horton’s landlord returned from vacation to find Horton missing, and a search began the next morning. He was found within an hour, awake and coherent despite a core body temp of 86°F. “A huge piece of surviving is your mental attitude,” he says. “I stayed positive by focusing on small accomplishments.”

The Trip: Hike the 8.3-mile Long Run Trail at Dunckley Pass to survey the jutting plateaus of the Flat Tops Wilderness to the west, and the densely forested Sarvis Creek Wilderness to the east. Horton was found near the spur trail to Chapman Reservoir. Take that spur to camp or swim in the lake’s clear water. Or continue the loop, taking a break at The Bench, the system’s best viewpoint, near the junction of Crosho Lake Trail. (970) 638-4516

The Way: From Yampa, go north on CR 17 for 5 miles to CR 132, then head west 3.4 miles to FR 16. Go 2 miles to the Dunckley Pass trailhead.

9.The Stubborn Pursuit
Western explorer gets railroaded in the Rockies.

The Epic
John Charles Frémont may be the best American explorer you’ve never heard of. One of the most prolific surveyors of the frontier West, he mapped the Oregon Trail, was the first to cross the Sierra in winter, and put Las Vegas on the map–literally. In 1848, a Missouri businessman hired Frémont to find a suitable rail route across the Rockies. He left St. Louis in October with 36 men and 120 mules. But by the time the party reached Colorado’s La Garita Mountains, conditions were so harsh that 100 mules froze to death in one night. Progress slowed to as little as 1.5 miles between camps, and eventually a third of Frémont’s men died from exposure or starvation. The rest survived by cooking the remaining mules, dropping to the cover of treeline to build camps, and felling numerous trees to keep raging fires burning. Frémont’s Fourth Expedition reached Sacramento the following spring, but to this day no interstate railway crosses the La Garitas.

The Trip You can still find a few of Frémont’s camps today–look for high and crudely cut stumps along their route in the Rio Grande National Forest. Head to Cathedral Campground near Del Norte, CO, and pitch a tent in the blue spruce next to Embargo Creek. Then set out on a 7-mile round-trip hike to Frémont’s “Christmas Camp.” The first 2 miles are on FR 640; Frémont’s Camp Trail (885) takes up where the road fizzles out. You’ll climb steadily through Douglas fir and aspen before cresting into a meadow where the party camped for 5 days, singing carols to raise morale. USGS quads: Pine Cone Knob, Pool Mountain

The Way: From Del Norte, drive 9 miles west on US 160 to Embargo Road, following signs to Cathedral Campground.

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