‘It can happen to anyone’: Losing (and finding) the way off Ute Pass
Before I left at dawn to hike Ute Peak, my iPhone’s “Timehop” application reminded me that it had been a year to the day since I interviewed an avid backcountry skier known to some Adirondackers as “Ron Kon.” He was a man who shared five critical words about the worst-case scenarios in wilderness during winter.
“It can happen to anyone.”
As I sipped my coffee and double-checked that I had all my gear before making the 10-or-so minute drive from my home in Heeney to the trailhead atop Ute Pass, the photos from that 2016 day jogged my memory. A year ago, I drove several miles down a rocky road near the heart of New York’s High Peaks Wilderness to profile Ron about his work as a member of the Keene Valley, New York Fire Department’s volunteer backcountry rescue team. At 62, Ron still sometimes responded to calls to help those in dire need somewhere out on dark, icy trails.
About an hour into the conversation, after Ron welcomed me into his living room and showed me his extensive ski collection, I asked him a more personal question.
Have you ever been rescued?
It was a difficult question for Ron to answer, but he took it in stride and answered it with respect and humility.
I soon learned he survived what many describe as the worst backcountry accident in the modern history of the Adirondacks: the February 2000 Wright Peak avalanche. It occurred during a different epoch of skiing and backcountry adventuring in this wild region of northeast New York, as many locals, Ron included, believed avalanches were only something that happened out west.
Ron would have been one to know, as he was the first person ever to ski top to bottom all 46 Adirondack High Peaks. But with newly formed slides on Wright Peak thanks to 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, Ron lost a friend in that tragic avalanche.
Thinking back to his naivety when dropping in on that newly formed slide on a fresh blue sky powder day, Ron shared knowledge he didn’t have when that 2000 day started, when he thought avalanches didn’t happen in the Adirondacks.
“It can happen to anyone.”
Such is the adventure life in the backcountry, Adirondacks or Rocky Mountains. And just a few hours after Timehop reminded me of that afternoon with Ron Kon, I found myself backing down and respecting the power of the mountain, the power of wilderness during winter, while on my way to Ute Peak.
In my attempt to hike the five miles through the Williams Fork Mountains to the 12,303-foot Ute Peak, somewhere I lost the exact trail I was supposed to be on, not that that was hard to do with several inches of untouched snow in this relatively remote section of wilderness in Summit County. Solo in the wilderness, after I used my GPS, compass and map to orient exactly where I was, it seemed to me I followed a somewhat-freshly carved ski trail about a half mile northeast of where I was supposed to be on the Ute Pass Trail leading to Ute Peak.
Once the ski tracks disappeared, surrounded by mostly untouched snow and the creeks of trees nearly downed, I had two choices. One: I could further go off trail, bushwhacking about 1,000 feet up a drainage and through the dense Arapaho National Forest to (hopefully) re-meet up with where the Ute Pass Trail is supposed to be. Or, two: I could re-trace my steps both literally, and via the GPS and in-hand map, to try to find exactly where I went wrong.
As early morning blended into late morning, I re-traced my tracks about a mile to what my GPS and memory were telling me was the Ute Pass Trail. Once I was sure I was back on the correct trail, I turned back around after a Clif bar and some water. Then I started what became another hour of attempts to try and find where the Ute Pass Trail was supposed to break to the right, up and over a hill.
It proved fruitless. On this weekday, I hadn’t seen a soul on the trail. My car was the only one parked in the Ute Pass Trailhead parking lot. And with few previous steps in the snow aiding in showing the correct path to follow, I decided to call it a day.
It’s never fun turning back on a hike, especially after you’ve added on 2 miles or so of trying to find the way. But as I returned to my car at the trailhead, giving up on the sights I might have seen at the top was worth not getting into further trouble lost and alone in a wilderness foreign to me. Humbling myself much like Ron had humbled himself in the wake of the 2000 avalanche, it was tough to swallow that I had lost the trail and had to turn around. But, two more important thoughts crossed my mind. Both passed along on those Adirondack trails.
One: “Losing the trail can happen to anyone.”
Two: “Getting to the summit is optional. Getting off the mountain is not.”
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