Trek to the Elk Tooth

Here is another true story about a wilderness trek that I published some years ago.

It was early May in the Rocky Mountains, and anyone who has been in that region knows that snow lasts through June in many years. This year was no different. It was 1993 and I had planned to hike the entire way back Peaceful Valley to the Elk Tooth. This in itself was a good hike, even in the warm season. Round trip the hike is about 18 miles.

I had just finished up an assignment and had the urge to get backcountry and push myself hard. I loaded up my backpack and headed out to the trailhead which is situated at about 8,700 feet. The day was cloudy and the temperatures hung in the 30’s. The small parking area was empty and there were no fresh tracks to be seen. I did not figure there would be since it was a Thursday and the trail was not heavily used, especially in May with all the deep, wet snow.

The Elk Tooth itself stands at 12,868 feet above sea level and is one of the least visited mountains in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The mountain is literally shaped like a tooth (more like a sharks tooth than any elk tooth I’ve ever seen) with a sloped northern side that is cleaved off to form the southern cliff. Some locals call it the “wave” because it kind of looks like one. Its other name is the Sawtooth, but this can be misleading since there is also a Sawtooth mountain by Mt Bierstadt and Mt Evens. Truly, at that time maybe a dozen people summated the Elk Tooth in a year, so it was quite remote. I liked remote, still do.

I had planned on doing the trip in three days, three very long grueling days at that, with the depth of the snow. I locked up my car and saddled up my backpack, took a few nice deep breaths and started my trek heading west. In short time I reached the Middle St. Vrain River which I would follow clear on back to the peak. Even though snow billowed thick everywhere, the river was free and flowing swift and cold to the east where eventually it would sprawl out into the Great Plains far below. There were no storms in the forecast so I had figured my trek would play out nicely.

Beyond the chickadees, occasional gray jay, and the lonesome call of a distant raven, the trees were quiet. In the distance I could hear the chickaree (red squirrel) yelling at something, most likely its own shadow, scolding it for being too close or some nonsense that only a chickaree can understand. Old tracks from elk and mule deer wandered in posthole patterns through the lodge pole pines, showing just how deep the packed snow truly was underneath me. The air was humid enough to hold the thick odor of spruce low to the ground to fill my nose with the rich flavor. Ahh it was going to be a nice wander.

My plan was to hike back as far as I could in one day, set up camp, pack up and head the rest of the way to the Elk Tooth the next day, and then push hard on day three to make the entire trip back out before dark. I was in exceptional shape and had embarked upon many ventures of such length before. This trek was not for subtle observations and relaxation, but rather conditioning and pushing my body. Well it did just that…

I walked west with my pack and through the varied terrain of lodge pole pine in the dry shady areas, spruces in the dark moist sections that were covered with old man’s beard, which is a type of shaggy trailing moss, much like Spanish moss of the south. The dry southern exposures were populated with the mighty ponderosa pines that smelled of vanilla when the heat of the sun baked them. Open field clearings, small in size, but mini ecosystems essential for the feeding of many forms of life, with the grasses and berries popped up once in a while.

The sound of the rushing river was a constant accompaniment along the trail, and made for hearing the occasional chickadee flock difficult unless they were quite close. The air was cooling down and a slight breeze was picking up from the west as the air swept down from the Continental Divide. The treetops began swaying in the lofty dance.

With the moving air and the dampness commonly found in the early spring, even in the normally arid mountain range, I could smell the strong musk of mule deer droppings with urine makings being uncovered by the top layers of melting snow. Thousands of feet below along the Front Range, by Boulder, the trees were starting to pop leaves and wildflowers adorned the barren ground, but in the high country it was still very much late winter. If I stepped off trail I would sink up to my waist in snow without my snowshoes. Because of the land exposure to the sun, when the sun was out, the snow levels and conditions varied dramatically along the trail. In one section I would find myself putting on my old wooden snowshoes and walking over drifts 10 feet high, only to be taking them back off 200 yards later because the trail had only an inch of snow left on it.

I was climbing in elevation steadily. For the first half of the trip the elevation gain was easy and would leave me having only ascended a thousand feet. Since the trail followed the river it remained low in the river trough which was a gradual incline. The point at which I would stop for the night was along the stream crossing of a tributary that fed the St. Vrain River. This stream came out of Red Deer Lake, which sat between the St. Vrain River and Buchannan Pass Trail to the south. I would branch off and head south west at around 9,800 feet elevation. The next day I planned to continue south to Buchannan Pass Trail, and take it west to Buchannan Pass just over 11,000 feet on the Continental Divide. From there it would be south again to the Elk Tooth.

8 hours after I started hiking I found myself coming to the end of a large field where the trail south west branched off towards Red Deer Lake. That was my turn off. My pack thermometer said it was 8 degrees Fahrenheit, much colder than when I had started. The snow was much deeper the further back and the higher I went, but the river was still open. But just the river. I had no idea what I was about to find and how it would change all my plans…

The colors, pale and a wash of grays smeared the sky as the hidden sun crept slowly behind the Continental Divide to the west. The shadows of the east grew like a secret in the depths of a mind isolated from a heart. Night was coming.

The winds ceased as the land held its breath for the falling day, but the temperatures went with the fading light, down, steadily down. Snows lay six to eight feet deep beneath my snowshoed feet. It was old snow that had lain through months of dark winter. Though it was May and spring somewhere, in the high mountains spring was not a season. Winter dragged onward and then like an explosion of melt and bursting ground color, a brief summer would show its fleeting face before winter returned.

I turned back south. I wanted to make it to the next stream crossing before I retired for the long day. If I pushed it I would make it in an hour or so, but forty five minutes of that hour would be in the dark. After my pause to honor the day now gone, I moved onward.
As I walked on there was not a sound beyond my movements. The mountains were silent. I had no idea what was under me.
The next step I took set me into the air. The earth left, the snow careened passed my face as it skyrocketed upward at blinding speed. Searing needles stabbed my flesh like ice picks as I plummeted into the rushing waters. My legs jammed into my hip sockets with the weight of my pack as my feet hit the rocky bottom. Struggling to keep my balance, the freezing waters swept relentlessly over my legs all the way up to my waist. Streaming out from under the snow pack on my left and disappearing once again under the snow pack on my right, the black waters seemed like some kind of serpent monster attempting to swallow me in the newborn night.

The snow rose around me like a white wall six to eight feet high on all sides, and I stood in around 35 degree Fahrenheit rushing waters waist deep. I clawed desperately at the snow walls trying to climb out while my legs screamed in pain. The snow was granule and wet and just gave way beneath my talon fingers. I had stepped on a Ghost Patch, which is a thin layer of snow covering an empty hole beneath, and now I was locked in an icy water well sealed in by eight foot snow walls. The night was upon me and I was eight hours back into the wilderness.

As I stood at the bottom of an eight feet snow well, standing in waist deep icy rush waters, my predicament ran heavily upon my racing mind. The more I tried clawing my way up the snow, the more the snow just piled down into the black waters. I began to also see that the stream was far wider than I could originally see in the snow hole. The more I dug into the banks of wet snow, the more water underneath was revealed. I did not have much time. I needed to get out of the water as fast as I could before hypothermia set in and my toes and feet began freezing.

Though I certainly did not want to get any wetter than I already was, I had little choice but to reach down into the frigid waters to unbuckle one of the snowshoe bindings. I knew that if I could free a snowshoe and use it as a shovel I had a far better chance of surviving the situation than trying to hand dig out.

Pushing my arm down to my foot I struggled to find the binding buckles as my fingers froze. I dared not lift my foot to the make the reach easier for threat of losing my footing in the swift current and falling completely in. I also knew that if I raised my foot above the water the buckles would ice instantly making it impossible to undo them. In the dark I fought the ice penetrating my bones, and the current with my face mere inches above the water trying to free my foot from the snowshoe.

My feet and legs had gone numb. They no longer hurt which was a bad sign. My pelvic region was also just about numb since the pain was subsiding. “Snap”! Finally, the buckle released and I worked hard to try moving my leg to get my foot free of the binding without losing the snowshoe to the racing current. The shoes where the old bear-paw wooden kind with rawhide lacing. Knowing that I just jammed my hand down, even though I could not feel the details of the lacing anymore because my hand was freezing. It worked because my icy hand wedged into the lacing and I quickly dragged the snowshoe out of the water.

With my dry hand I grabbed one side of the snowshoe and with my frozen one I jammed it through the lacing and started carving at the snow wall as hard as I could. More and more snow fell inward toward me and crashed against the down current wall of snow. As I dug I forced myself to walk forward and soon found the ground rising out of the inky waters. Once my feet were on land, I dug more fiercely, and within minutes made my way back to the top of the snowpack.

I dared not stop my movement and continued to beaten down a hard-pack of snow around me. As soon as I had completed the pack, I started ripping off kindling from the spruce trees next to me and throwing it on the ground. I dropped my backpack, and with my one hand managed to tear open the compartment with my fire-lighting bag in it. Between my teeth and one hand I ripped open the bag and dumped the tinder bundle out, grabbed my emergency lighter and held it between my teeth while quickly piling the tinder and kindling. I started shivering uncontrollably and knew I had almost no time left to get myself dry.

Flicking the lighter time and time again, and trying to hold it steady while my muscles convulsed in emergency spasms was a worrisome act. If I dropped it in the dark I was dead. Flick, a steady flame and the tinder lit! I watched and prayed to the fire to grow and spread. I held my breath so not to accidentally blow it out. It spread and caught the kindling, and a warm glow brought visual life to the frozen death around me that threatened to claim my bones.

Ripping more branches from the trees and fed the fire, my elemental savior. The flames grew larger and hotter, brighter and quicker. Heat began radiating off its life and I started ripping off my wet clothing. From my waist down I could not feel the heat, but my hand throbbed in agonizing pain as the circulation attempted to penetrate the flesh. Soon I had on only my coat and hat. My body was exposed from the waist down.

More wood and then I torn out my sleeping bag. Part of it I placed under my feet and the rest I held up behind me to reflect heat, or more accurately trap heat from the fire around my body. I did not have the fancy emergency blankets we have today. I shivered and quaked like dry leaves in a strong autumn wind waiting for the heat to kick start my circulation and begin to warm my flesh.

Slowly the fire grew larger and hotter with more sustenance, and my uncontrollable shivering began to weaken as my core started warming up. My legs and feet screamed in agony as the circulation pumped down into them, as my body decided my core was warm enough to start moving blood into the extremities. Only when the stopped paining me did I dig a small pot out of my back, throw some snow in it and set it by the fire.

Even though I was warming up, and had snow melting into hot water to drink by a nice fire, I was still naked from the waist down with soaking wet boots, socks, frozen pants rumpled in the snow, and was eight hours back into the wilderness. My night had just begun and it would be a long one.

Only once I had drunk some of the hot water and put more snow into the pot to melt did I begin trying to figure out my best move. I realized that with my timeframe I would not be getting back to the Elk Tooth. Since that was quite clear I questioned going any further. It really made no sense. With my situation I knew that the best sense was to head back out. If I had a week I would have stayed out, dried everything completely and continued on, but I did not have a week.

Analyzing my clothes and boots I knew it would take all night of a blazing fire to dry them. My sleeping bag was also wet since I was standing on it in the wet snow next to the fire. After a few minutes I realized my best choice, considering my timeline, was to pack up and hike the eight hours back out. I certainly was not looking forward to that, but knew that I would not be sleeping with the need to feed the fire continually since all that was round me was fast burning soft wood. That meant an entire night with no sleep after and eight hour rough hike and a frigid plunge into the stream at nightfall, only to be followed up with an eight hour hike back out in the morning.

Waiting would only tire me out more. I spent another hour surface drying my boots and clothes. Once my pants were fairly dry and my boots were not sopping anymore, I got myself dressed and packed my backpack up again. I had gathered and dried a fair amount of tinder by the fire in case I needed to make another fire before the night was out. Stuffing the tinder in a dry coat pocket, I covered the fire with snow and headed back the direction I had come, carefully navigating around the stream.

With each footfall I could feel the water in my boots. My feet were not swimming, but I could definitely feel I had donned a pair of heavily damp boots. I focused on moving with fair speed to keep my body temperature up. If my core temperature was kept high my extremities would take care of themselves. And so I trudged in the dark.

About every hour I had to sit down and take off my boots and socks to rub my feet down. Even though I was moving they would get quite cold in the wet boots. Once they began to ache I would stop to give them a rub down and hold them in my warm hands until the stopped aching. Then I would shove them back into damp freezing boots and start walking again.

The night was clear and the stars seemed to go on forever in all directions. The Great Bear was directly overhead and Cassiopeia nearby. Arcturus glittered brightly with its pale red tinge. The winter sky was changing fast into the skies of summer, though summer was still a long way off. Beyond my snowshoes sounds and heavy breath there was nothing beyond the slight breeze creating a noise. The mountains were quite, very quiet.

I only had about an hour to go but my feet just could not take it anymore. I had suffered minor frostbite on my feet years before during a caving accident in January. I knew one day that wouldn’t bother me anymore, but those areas still got cold faster than the rest of my body. I had to stop and build a small fire to warm them by. As I was warming my feet I also warmed my boots so my feet had a chance of staying warm for a little bit after I started walking again. The fire felt nice. I was tired, very tired. Fifteen hours of hiking through snow at elevation and an icy dive to top it off was taking its toll. I only had an hour to go, just an hour. Then I could unload into my car and drive home to rest.

By the time I had reached my car I could see the faintest light in the eastern sky. Of course there were mountains between me and the east so I could not see the horizon; just a whisper of light was all. I had made good time considering I had to stop every hour. I stood looking and the frozen hunk of metal, my car, and wished I had more time so that I could have remained and continued my journey to the Elk Tooth. But alas I had to be at the base in a few days and I need quality rest beforehand. If I hadn’t had to be at the base I would have stayed in the backcountry that night by the fire, dried everything good, and continued my hike the next day. That would have been the sane and practical thing to do. Nevertheless, there was always another time. So I got in my car, took off my wet boots, started it up and cranked up the heat!

In SF and Spec Ops training we had to go through similar environmental circumstance challenges; entering freezing water in mid winter, diving down to the bottom to retrieve an object, walking into freezing water slowly without allowing the body to shiver or contract or allow the reactive gasp for air to happen, starting fires with freezing and numb hands, etc. The above experience was my first hands on reality experience outside training though.

Through life’s twists and turns I never made it back to the Elk Tooth and Saint Vrian Glaciers like I had hoped.
Little did I know that in a couple years I would be getting married on the mountain right across the road with a view back to the Elk Tooth though!

Unfortunately I can't find my photos of the Elk Tooth, but here is a link to an online image.



Holy smokes, I'm glad you're alive to write about this. It's a good thing for all your training, or you might be a dead man. Thank you! This was gripping.
Holy smokes, I'm glad you're alive to write about this. It's a good thing for all your training, or you might be a dead man. Thank you! This was gripping.
I knew you would enjoy it, as you seem to be partial to all trekking stories :)
If it weren't for my training I would have given up the ghost long ago! If it weren't for a lot of things actually, I would have been knocked out of this world many times over through the years.
But here I am, in bed, feeling horrid as usual and watching the blizzard rage out the windows.
Hope you are doing well.
amazing tale.....really well written.

really enjoyed reading that...took me a while. I struggle with the visual challenges of The Paragraph.

And then the challenge of three sentences strung together somehow triggers a big brain challenge.

I'm still a bit unclear on WHAT you fell into. Is it a stream beneath the snow? Or just snow melt accumulated beneath teh snow in the spot you haplessly picked to fall into?

Your very fortunate, @Nord Wolf

My dear friend is gone. Left his two toddler children and wife on the banks of a high elevation mountain lake, the canoes had come untied, drifting away into the pitch black nite. He never returned from going out into that lake to retrieve the canoe.

I carry my friend with me. In my heart, he accompanies every field trip I once undertook.

I don't go on field trips, any longer it seems, unless sometign changes, something gives.

Please give, please! Another trip to beauty, nature, and peace.
But here I am, in bed, feeling horrid as usual
I'm so sorry, and I hope you get a break from it. I remember you in my prayers (along with others here.)

I knew you would enjoy it, as you seem to be partial to all trekking stories :)
Yes! I love them, and I look forward so much to them. I'm glad you wrote them down when you were feeling up to it. Again, I'm so sorry you're feeling horrid.
amazing tale.....really well written.

really enjoyed reading that...took me a while. I struggle with the visual challenges of The Paragraph.

And then the challenge of three sentences strung together somehow triggers a big brain challenge.
Thanks. I know, I wrote this back in 2014. Today I would have a bear of a time trying to type something out like the above story! I trust in time I will be able to again, but for now I am just digging up the old writings, copying and pasting them here for folks to read.

I always enjoyed poetry, well written books and once had an IQ of 147, but with my decline with ME/CFS I doubt I come anywhere near that anymore.
I didn't have a "normal" life of going out to parties, getting coffee with friends, going out to bars, etc. Working in spec ops I didn't outwardly communicate much. Most of my communication went into writing. So after retiring I started opening up, basically learning how to live a more "normal" life in open communication with people. It was difficult, but because I enjoyed the art of written communication, I saw it as a challenge and new skill to get good at.
I'm still a bit unclear on WHAT you fell into. Is it a stream beneath the snow? Or just snow melt accumulated beneath teh snow in the spot you haplessly picked to fall into?
It was what's called a "ghost hole". It is a span over open water that lightly freezes over, but is so quickly covered by deep snow, the thin ice never has a chance to thicken. You can have 10 feet of snow built up over it, never hear the water rushing under it, but your condensed weight standing on two feet breaks through. I plunged down into the river below.

I'm sorry to hear about your friend.
Yes! I love them, and I look forward so much to them. I'm glad you wrote them down when you were feeling up to it. Again, I'm so sorry you're feeling horrid.
yes, how fortunate to have these valuable experiences to fall back on, to reflect on, and to feel alot of gratitude for the amazing life you've led.

Just the name Elks Tooth is enchanting. Glad you've got a confortable p lace to watch the blizzard, safe with blankets, @Nord Wolf
@Nord Wolf

I shared your Elk tooth Story with my husband. (Mr. Wisconsin)

I told it to him, riffed it, with dramatic effect. He understands, falling into frozen lakes....frostbite...

He said you were supposed to have brought with you the Goats.

these goats know how to fully avoid GHOST HOLES.
I shared your Elk tooth Story with my husband. (Mr. Wisconsin)

I told it to him, riffed it, with dramatic effect. He understands, falling into frozen lakes....frostbite...

He said you were supposed to have brought with you the Goats.

these goats know how to fully avoid GHOST HOLES.
Ha, well yes… tell him Thor hadde viktige saker den dagen og kunne derfor ikke låne meg Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. (Thor had important business that day and so could not lend me Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, his two trusty goats.)
So I had to go it alone that day. ;)
Goats are great ...I remember the 1st time I saw one ...had these amazing glassey.smokey eyes ... Wonder why their pupils are so thin ?

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