Photos courtesy of Nina Lundstrom.
At 6:45 a.m. on Nov. 24, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Marci Foster awoke to her phone ringing at her home in Los Angeles. Calling was her son, Jackson Foster, a Colorado College sophomore, on a block break trip in the Utah backcountry.
“Hey mom,” Foster remembers saying. “We are camped right now. We are going to try to find our car today, and hopefully we will. We’re at the Manti-La Sal/Dark Canyon Boundary sign, and you should hear from us again by noon [today].”
He made the call standing waist-deep in snow, surrounded by four backpacking companions: first-years Kathryn Jacaruso, Abram Mamet, Nina Lundstrom, and Jacaruso’s older sister, Rives, who does not attend the CC.
By 3:45 p.m. that afternoon, Marci Foster was worried enough to report the group missing to authorities in Utah.
What ensued was a nearly 24-hour battle for survival before the students were rescued from a remote area of the Manti-La Sal National Forest in an effort involving a helicopter, snowmobiles, and the United States Forest Service.
The hikers had gone through the basic preparations. They checked the forecast for the block break weekend — which at the time called for about five inches of snow — and packed enough food and water for the four days. They emailed their parents a description of their planned route, spoke with a ranger in the area, and left CC after class on the final Wednesday of last block.
They arrived late that night at the Peavine Trailhead in the Manti-La Sal National Forest to camp.
“We woke up to snow and cold, but it was fine. We were expecting it,” said Lundstrom.
The group hiked in to the Wooden Shoe Trailhead and continued into the canyon, progressing about ten miles Thursday and ten miles Friday.
By Friday afternoon, the snow was knee-deep, and the temperatures were dropping.
“The weather was intense,” Foster said. “It was just so cold. You couldn’t just stop [hiking].”
Finding the trail became difficult.
Foster noted markers like corrals and signs as benchmarks, confirming they were moving in the right direction.
“We decided on Friday that we were going to try to get to the car by 3 p.m. on Saturday, then drive all night so we could be back for Sunday brunch,” said Lundstrom.
The snow continued, though, in a storm that swept the West and was reported by the Huffington Post to have killed eight people.
“It hit hard,” said a representative of the Grand Junction branch of the National Weather Service. “The automated readers we have set up in the La Sal [mountain range] measured 20 inches of snow in some places, meaning that in other places, it probably reached 40 inches deep.”
The storm began to wear on the hikers.
“Saturday was the hardest day,” Lundstrom said. “It was exhausting, and it was also really cold. I was really tired and sweaty. That was when everybody, I think, was really excited to get to the car.”
But the hikers quickly realized that reaching the car would be a difficult — if not impossible — task.
The group passed the Wilderness Boundary sign, lost the trail, and made camp.
On Sunday morning, Foster found a rare patch of cell phone service and placed the call to his mother. They then backtracked a couple miles to find the sign again and attempt a different off-trail route out of the canyon. As they worked their way up the steep ravine walls from their campsite at around 6,500 feet to around 8,000 feet, the snow only got deeper, and the light faded quickly.
“It didn’t matter if it was light out or dark out. It literally got to the point where we had to say, ‘Here’s our compass, let’s just try to find the best route,’” said Foster.
‘THIS IS ABOUT SURVIVING’
The group mentality shifted, abandoning dreams of Rastall brunch and focusing on safety and conservation. They melted snow when their water supply ran out and slowed down their food consumption as their worry grew.
“We were [hiking] so slowly, it was really hard to tell how fast we were going because of the snow,” Lundstrom said. “I kept on feeling like, ‘We should be at the car now. We’re lost. This is bad’.”
Fatigued, they reached the top of the canyon and found a road.
“That told us that we were in a good place,” said Foster. “Roads lead to somewhere. We followed the road on Sunday until about 4 p.m., when we camped. We said, ‘Tomorrow is Monday, we’re going to miss school, but that’s not what this is about. This is about surviving. Tomorrow, we’ll hike a little more on the road, and if it’s in the wrong direction, we’ll turn back.’”
At that point, though, the hikers realized that they could be trapped even if they made it to the car.
“It just broke my heart a little bit when we hit the road and clearly no one had driven on it since the day that we got there,” said Lundstrom.
“At that point we knew we were going to need help,” said Jacaruso.
Monday dawned with blue skies and the first sunshine the five students had seen since leaving CC.
But by mid-morning, a few students felt too sick to continue, likely as a result of dehydration, stress, and exhaustion. The group split: Mamet and the Jacaruso sisters rested in the tent, while Foster and Lundstrom blazed ahead.
About two hours later, a helicopter circled both groups.
“We were all lying half-in, half-out of the tent, frantically waving at it. It was funny. We were all just in our socks,” Lundstrom laughed.
The helicopter could not land due to snow conditions, but minutes later, snowmobilers showed up bearing Gatorade and fried chicken.
“It was the strangest thing, but it was delicious,” said Ludstrom.
“Best fried chicken of my life,” said Jacaruso.
Chicken aside, the rescue was emotional.
“There were tears when we saw the helicopter,” Mamet said. “Then the snowmobiles came and I broke down.”
Lundstrom’s father and Mamet’s parents, all from the Denver area, traveled out and witnessed the rescue. A joyous reunion ensued, followed quickly by a trip to the hospital.
Though none of them realized it during the trip, each of the five backpackers experienced stage one to two frostbite on their feet, fingers or toes.
Foster described his toes as “a little bit dead.” He could not walk around normally until two days after the incident.
Mamet’s fingers and left foot were numb for days afterward as well.
“There was snow getting into our boots all day,” Foster said. “I will forever bring gaiters in winter situations.”
The hikers and rescue party found the car battery dead, confirming that they would have been trapped even if they had completed their trek.
The park service hopes to recover Lundstrom’s car from the area before the snow melts. Worst case, it will be there until springtime.
Back at CC the Monday following Thanksgiving break, Lundstrom and Foster peeled off their socks and compared toes. Lundstrom’s were swollen but nearly back to normal, while Foster’s were tinged black in places.
The group is grateful to their rescuers, volunteers and employees of the Forest Service.
“We’re writing them thank-you notes, we’re doing all that we can,” said Jacaruso.
The cost of the rescue is still unknown, and the group confirmed that they will have to incur the costs of the search.
“Going forward, I need to trust myself a little more navigationally,” said Lundstrom.
“It was sad that we had prepared for this trip and then this snowstorm hit and I admit, we could have been even more prepared. It’s not what you want to be known as as a hiker, depending on outside help,” said Jacaruso. “I’m going to take some financial responsibility and some emotional responsibility, like taking care of my parents because this was a traumatic experience for them too.”
While the adventure was a stark reminder of the dangers of their pursuit, the hikers are certainly not done exploring.
“I’ll definitely come back to the area again, just to see where the trail actually is,” said Foster.