Photo courtesy of Sarah Laico

On the Thursday of fifth Block Break, the Burn Hut Trip, after a long, exciting day of learning to skin, eating avocados, and enjoying incredible backcountry views, was just a quarter of a mile from the hut—the end of a 5 mile journey.

While breaking for a breath in a wide-open valley of powder with the afternoon sun sprawled across it, group leaders Austin Martin and Grace Brofman agreed that if the group continued across the valley and took a right, the hut should be very close.

Some of the eager trippees—myself included—started skinning furiously across the slope, dying to take off our boots and rest in the cozy hut. We took the right and came to a fork in the trail. We found a sign for Moonshine Park in .6 miles, where our hut supposedly was…we prayed it wasn’t that far.

Our fearless pseudo-leader Lykke Bonde started going up a steep hill to the right of the sign, only to yell down that it was definitely not the right way—far too difficult. Austin arrived at the fork, and called back to Grace and freshman Claire Harkins, the last in line, to go left. The rest of us travelled left until we reached a skin path to the right up to the hut, while Austin cut right sooner to forge a new, more direct path to our new home for the next few days.

When we reached the little shack, the six of us could not be happier. Finally, a chance to drop our heavy packs, kick off our boots, rest, and snack. Austin informed us that he was going to ski back down to Claire and Grace to make sure they were making progress, and told us to stay put. We thought nothing of it.

Around 15 minutes later, Austin returned, breathless. Claire and Grace were nowhere to be found. He skied back to the valley where they last were. He skinned up the sharp slope that Lykke had abandoned. He’d even gone left, past the right that we all took up to the hut, up a ridge. No matter how much he called in each spot, there was no response. We had been less than a quarter mile from the hut, and Grace and Claire knew to go left. Were we that far ahead? It didn’t add up.

Mobilizing immediately, we started to create an organized search and rescue plan. We decided that Austin, winter-start Marta Sola-Pfeffer, and I would go back up the ridge from taking a left at the fork, while Lykke and sophomores Lauren Spector and Grace Connolly would return to the spot in the valley where they were last seen, as it is recommended for lost people to return to the spot they first went “missing.”

By splitting in this way, we ensured that there was at least one Wilderness First Responder in each group (Lykke, Austin, and myself). Furthermore, everyone except for Marta, a new student, had at least Level I Backcountry training through the Ahlberg Leadership Institute. Leaving notes at the hut and the right turn leading to it, the two groups hurried to their locations, calling loudly and persistently.

Lykke’s group didn’t find them, so they started writing an initial report to detail what had occurred and our current and future plans. Meanwhile, our group reached the top of the ridge and kept calling. As we skied down, we examined the pole plants to the right and left of the skin track—all signs indicated that someone had been skinning up, due to the direction of the pole drag.

We continued down to reach a flat section, followed by a steep, icy hill. We agreed that if Marta and I were struggling on it, Claire, also a beginner, would have struggled too. Yet there were no tracks that demonstrated any difficulty skinning up the path. Now we were really scared.  It just didn’t seem like Grace and Claire went this way. We decided to turn back.

Racing back to Lykke and her group, we filled each other in and sat there, puzzled. The path to the hut had seemed very straightforward; Grace had acknowledged Austin when he told them to go left at the sign; our tracks to the hut were visible and fresh. Where could they be?

It had been over two hours since they were last seen. In another hour and 45 minutes, we’d have to call search and rescue, in accordance with Outdoor Education’s policy. Marta, Grace and I skinned back up to the hut, yet we unfortunately found it empty. Back down to the valley we skied, the sun nearly set, and decided with the others that we’d just have to stay in the hut, call Ryan Hammes, Director of Outdoor Education, and wait.

We left a line of poles leading to the hut and began distracting ourselves with dinner. Austin attempted to call Ryan and reached him intermittently. Our minds wandered aimlessly. It didn’t seem like Grace and Claire could’ve mistaken our tracks. Was it some kind of external force, like a person or animal? We just couldn’t comprehend it.

It was 7:15 now—a half hour until protocol dictated that we call search and rescue. Austin, on the phone with Ryan, was just being instructed to call in a crew as he saw a light in the distance. He screamed Grace’s name at the top of his lungs, and after a short pause, received a cheery reply of “Heyyy!”

Disbelief overtook us. Not only had Grace and Claire made it back in pitch-black darkness, they were in seemingly good spirits. All of us doubted we’d see them that night. Feeding them and warming them up as quickly as possible, we awaited an explanation for this baffling disappearance.

As it turns out, Marta, Austin and I were correct to continue up the ridge to the left—the two of them had missed both tracks cutting to the right and continued toward Moonshine Park. Because it was only a half mile there, they didn’t worry that they didn’t see us or the hut: they just thought the hut was in Moonshine Park.

Once there, however, there was only a single, slippery track left to follow. Naturally, they continued for a while before realizing that the rest of us simply couldn’t have gone this way. Choosing to turn back, they buried all of their food and made the treacherous, dark, and icy journey (which included a fox briefly following them) back to our hut, where they miraculously found us.

All of us felt enormously foolish but relieved. We knew that Grace and Claire had food, water, a tent, and sleeping bags—they could’ve survived an unpleasant night. Moreover, both Grace and Claire had ALI Backcountry training themselves and both followed protocol by returning to the place they were first lost. But of course we couldn’t help but expect the worst.

What was important was everyone was safe, and if anything could’ve happened to the two of them, we were glad it was just a wrong turn. In the end, the fact that our group was able to compose ourselves and develop an effective plan of action is a testament to the incredible leadership training and skills that the CC Outdoor Education Center provides, and if we learned anything from this experience, it was the age-old saying: communication is key.

In case anyone was wondering: the rest of the trip flowed seamlessly and we all had an incredible time skinning, skiing, and eating an absurd amount of food—a true wilderness adventure.

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