It was lucky we did, otherwise, Jameson might not be alive today.
When I started planning my backpacking excursion in Colorado’s West Maroon Bells mountains I never expected to become the main character of a stranger’s best man’s speech. But my two friends and I were no more than two miles into the 26-mile loop, our backpacks overstuffed with gear and food when we became just that.
We were hiking the Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area near Aspen. We’d gotten a late start, the winding, treacherous drive up and over Independence Pass taking more than the hour and a half we’d expected due to some stops for snacks and pulling over to marvel at the incredible views. My friends Evin and Alexa had never met before this trip, but I had no doubt they would get along splendidly given their similar senses of humor and badass natures.
I’d met Alexa three summers previously at a Jewish summer camp outside Yosemite National Park. She and I were both first-year staff and she was working in the infirmary conquering her fear of vomit and I was helping kids conquer their fear of heights on the ropes course. In just our first few interactions, we both laughed so hard, playing off each others’ absurd senses of humor, that a fellow staff member called us “long lost best friends.”
I’d met Evin two years previously in Breckenridge, Colorado where I’d moved to ski and climb and where she was doing the same. When we became roommates our second winter there, I knew this gal was a friend soulmate. We’ve started pursuing backcountry skiing and snowboarding, learning about avalanches, gear and route planning in tandem. Evin similarly possesses a spectacular sense of humor; on a trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I laughed so hard I almost threw up. We were the three amigos that were meant to take on this challenge. And as it is always with cases of raw wilderness experiences, that friendship was expedited all the more.
Our first campsite was meant to be a short three-mile hike in from the trailhead but a wrong turn a half mile in required us to stop at Crater Lake due to dwindling sunlight, just half the distance we’d planned. It was lucky we did, otherwise, Jameson might not be alive today.
The light was waning as we sought out a waterfront campsite, finding one in a grove of Lodgepole Pines. We donned our puffy down coats and pulled warm beanies over our ears as the temperature plummeted, the sun quickly setting behind the massive 14,000-foot peaks we camped near.
After filtering water from the cold, shallow lake and lots of laughter as we worked on hiding the bear can high in a tree (Evin fully taking the task at hand and ended up sliding down the slick bark like a panda) we pitched our tent, turned our headlamps on to read our respective books, and snuggled in for the night. The tent we’d borrowed from the outdoor store in Aspen was nice and roomy, a top-of-the-line Mountain Hardwear three-person. An hour passed, and one by one we shut off our lights and rolled over on our thin sleeping pads to sleep. We had nine miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain to cover the next day and needed our rest.
We were awoken at once by a deafening crunching of leaves and a hoarse, “Hello?”
My eyes sprang open, and I could see the whites of both Evin and Alexa’s eyes as we looked at each other in alarm. A minute passed and I could only hear my heart rate triple. Then, a hoarse cough.
“Do you have any water?”
Alexa, with thoughts of her nursing education and protocols already flying through her head, immediately unzipped the tent door and leapt into action. Evin and I hesitantly followed feeling the fear through and through. We found a tall, thin man, extremely pale and shaking, wearing wool socks on his hands in lieu of mittens. Alexa immediately gave him her water and guided him to a large log to sit. His hands were trembling so violently he could hardly drink.
His name was Jameson; he and his brother had been hiking together and became separated five hours earlier. How this happened in the span of a mile and a half we never really understood. Jameson was out of food and water, and he’d decided hours earlier that his last resort would be to ask the three girls across the lake for help.
Jameson was far too weak to hike, and to send anyone for help in the dark would only cause more injuries.
He was visibly ill from dehydration and altitude sickness. His hands were purplish gray, his face stark, and between small sips of water he kept saying, “I just can’t breathe.”
This situation felt all the more serious in that a week previously, a young, fit woman had died from pulmonary and cerebral edema, both caused by altitude and lack of acclimatization, on a backpacking route near us. She’d had all the symptoms Jameson was currently suffering from but didn’t turn around. The only treatment for altitude sickness is to hydrate, rest, and most importantly, get the hell down from 11,000 ft. Jameson was far too weak to hike, and to send anyone for help in the dark would only cause more injuries. It was up to us: one nursing student, one ex-wilderness trip leader, and one girl who had recently read an all-too pertinent story in the newspaper and held an expired Wilderness First Responder Certification. That last one is me.
We cared for him the best we could, but never let our guard down in case this was just a rouse to get three girls out of their tent. Evin later admitted she had her pocket knife on her the whole time. Suddenly we heard shouting from across the lake.
“Quick,” I said. “What’s your brother’s name?”
“It’s Ben,” he managed to stutter out, head rising from between his knees with a slightly hopeful expression. We began shouting back, “Ben! Ben, Jameson is here!“
We separated the components of their tent, which smelled like the attic of someone’s garage with rusty poles and in color pattern was reminiscent of 80s workout apparel.
While still urging Jameson to drink water, a man that shared Jameson’s characteristics emerged from the wilderness. He immediately ran to his brother’s side to make sure he was okay. Evin and I set up their tent while Alexa and Ben tended to Jameson. We separated the components of their tent, which smelled like the attic of someone’s garage with rusty poles and in color pattern was reminiscent of 80s workout apparel. It turned out these brothers didn’t have a rain fly for their tent. When we brought this up, Jameson coughed, gestured to his pack and said, “We have ponchos though.” Ev and I looked at each other in the dim light and shook our heads slightly.
Ben had seemed hesitant about turning back when we had suggested it earlier. I, maybe unwisely, blurted, “Dude, your brother could die.” Luckily, due to Alexa’s greater credentials and training, she talked Ben through the potential severity of his brother’s condition a bit more tactfully. When we all returned to our respective tents, Alexa laid on her back and staring wide-eyed, and expressed, “I’m really worried.”
I was indeed worried as well, but I was certainly able to sleep until I awoke with disgust to the sound of Jameson’s retching. It was quite violent and lengthy. The gagging and heaving continued for a couple hours making quite a mess of the campsite we had so carefully arranged. But in the morning, I awoke to a different sound, the one of a tent being packed up. When we crawled out of our own we saw Jameson with some color to his skin tone, and he was smiling.
When they got back, we laughed about us being their saviors and learned that this trip had been Ben’s wedding gift to Jameson and that Ben was going to use this story as the preamble to the best-man speech. We laughed but carried ourselves a little taller after that. There is of course much more to this story. Three more days in fact. Each view was equally breathtaking, each conversation stimulating and thoughtful, each day filled with more laughter than the last.
The final day on the trail we awoke before sunrise, picking our way carefully over roots and rocks, gawking at the snowy peaks that glowed in the early morning light. We continued up above treeline, our legs red from cold. We hooted and hollered on the summit of the last pass, reveling in the joy and vigor we felt. We meandered down the last few miles, past Crater Lake again, marveling at how long ago that seemed and how seasoned we felt just three days later. When we got back to the car, we took off our boots with sighs of relief mixed with a little bit of melancholy. On the drive back to Aspen, where we planned to feast on tacos, we talked through the details of our next trip. The John Muir Trail was of course next, a rather bold jump from our recent four-day trip to about 18 in the backcountry. We needed to savor this feeling of freedom for as long as possible. But we all agreed, we would have to invite Ben and Jameson.
Monica Nigon moved from Minnesota after graduating with a Journalism degree to Breckenridge, Colorado to pursue her skiing career. With this great move, Monica fell in love with backcountry touring. She spends her off days exploring the Colorado mountains in the solitude of the wilderness as well as taking educational courses to keep her going farther for longer and most importantly, safer.
When the snow has melted away, Monica doesn’t leave the mountains but starts climbing with a new perspective. You can find her with chalky hands and shoes too tight as she scales the ridged Rockies on steep slabs, rock climbing to the top.