The Untold Story of the Mountain Uncompaghre Peak, July 2014

“Run! Run and don’t stop until you make it to tree line!” the guide shouted as he ran past the front group to tell the lower group to go back to high camp.

Lightning struck behind them as they ran, once, then twice more as the ground shook underneath them with deep rumbles. Chills and tingles began to creep up on the skin of the eight guys and girls who had once been closest to summit.

“Keep going!” Ashtyn yelled as she ran past.

The eight guys and girls, including one leader began to sprint as lightning struck closer this time, electricity reaching six of the eight, hitting their arms to the tops of their heads.

The team had woken up at 3:30 that July morning to start their journey to summit and they had already been hiking for almost three hours when the sun began coming up slowly behind them. They could finally make out the part of the mountain where the rocks meet the ladder that had to be climbed to reach summit. Someone in the front of the group pointed out the low, dark clouds hovering above them, again.

“Keep going, everyone, storms don’t happen on mountains at nine in the morning,” the group leader called.

Not only had the group leader been going on treks to climb mountains in Colorado for more than ten years, but also, according to a lightning study conducted by NASA, storms are five times more likely to occur in the afternoon than in the morning. In addition to the lightning study, Summit Post wrote an article about how it is safer to make an early start to hiking in the morning to avoid afternoon storms and that “July seems to be the most deadly month for lightning.”

Thunder and lightning is often part of a convection storm and convection storms need heat from the ground to mix with the cooler air in, which is more likely to occur in the afternoon warmth than in the cool morning, due to the atmosphere. Mountains, specifically, are able to encapsulate the cool air from night and maintain it until the sun steadily warms the ground throughout the day.

For the group hiking Uncompaghre Peak that cool morning, not one was likely to predict what would happen with the weather later that morning.

The storm clouds at nine a.m. July 16, 2014

“I was focusing on getting to the top of a 14,000-foot mountain, mostly because I had never climbed a mountain before. There was no time to worry about a storm, especially one that we were being told we were not going to even see,” one team member said.

The group was made up of recent high school graduates, soon-to-be high school seniors and a few adults. There were 18 in total and only 4 of them had climbed a mountain before.

The hike to summit is a rite of passage for the youth group where the team comes from in Memphis. The trip to Colorado happens once every other year, making it solely for those who just graduated high school or for those who are about to be high school seniors. The team started preparing six months in advance, with endurance training, breaking in their hiking boots, and learning how to set up a tent, among other undertakings.

For this specific team, their journey to summit had already gone through quite a few more struggles than teams in the past. On the hiking day to high camp, the plan had been to drive their vans to the beginning of the hiking trail and hike the relatively short distance to find a place to camp. Unfortunately, recent rain caused a few streams that run along the path to the hiking trail to flood, making it impossible for two 15-passenger vans with trailers to be driven to the start of the trail.

One of three crossovers that had flooded, preventing the vans to drive to high camp.

“We had just eaten a huge breakfast, thinking that we were going to have an hour’s drive to the trail before having to put on our 50-pound packs and start hiking to our high camp,” one of the team members, Shae said.

Hiking for an hour is no simple task, let alone 6-7 hours. Livestrong wrote an article about how many calories a person burns when hiking, and a 150-pound person will burn around 405 calories an hour, which is why the team had been told to eat as much breakfast food as they could. Though, the breakfast food was expected to settle before having to hike miles up a mountain.

Ultimately, the team had to park their vans on the road and start hiking straightaway. The team ended up having to hike for seven hours, instead of the planned 2-3 hours. The extra hiking time added a lot of unforeseen illnesses to a few of the team members and, as a whole, the team grew tired swiftly and the couple of team members who got sick stayed sick for the entire hike.

Similar to the first hiking day, the plans for the hike to summit day were not going their way either. One of the team members, Madison, got sick every hundred feet or so. So, a couple of the guys volunteered to carry her daypack and they switched between carrying it on their front, with their own day pack on their back.

One of the guys who volunteered to carry Madison’s pack was her lifelong friend, Jonah. Jonah’s older brother had gone on the trip two years before, so Jonah had been given heads-up about how brutal hiking to summit could be. Coincidentally, Jonah and another team member had decided to share a pack to hike to summit, making it easier for the two of them to switch off carrying their own pack and Madison’s.

Sycamore View groups in the past had only gone on one other 14,000-foot mountain before the trek to Uncompaghre Peak. Uncompaghre is the sixth tallest mountain in Colorado and its summit sits at 14,308’ and the group’s high camp was at about 11,500’. Simply by numbers, the high camp and summit might not sound that far apart, but to the team who had woken up at 3:30 a.m., and to someone who is getting sick every hundred of feet, the distance seemed overwhelming.

“The clouds are not going to stick around for long,” the group leader reassured the team, as they continued to hike higher and closer to summit.

The adjusted plan for the impending weather was to get to summit, stop for a short break, and then head back down the mountain before the storm hit.

For the majority of the team, reaching summit was so close that no matter what was being said about a storm, their only focus was to make it to summit. There was a smaller number who were exhausted and wanted to turn around. The team ended up separating themselves into two groups, not that far apart from each other.

This ended up being a saving grace because Rock Mountain Hiking Trails says that in storms, groups should separate themselves, to prevent the entire team from getting struck by lightning.

The first stayed about one hundred feet ahead and kept up a faster pace, while the second group took their time and stopped when they needed to.

As they hiked their way up to the resounding summit, a few hikers who had already made their way to summit stopped at the first group and told them what they saw from summit, without letting the group down, “The clouds looked really dark from up there. They seemed to be coming from the east and they weren’t ending,” one kind hiker and her husband noted.

“We really are okay,” the group leader, Carl, assured, once again.

Unlike the first hiking day, most of the members in the front group felt it was easier to breathe through the high atmosphere on the hike to summit because of their day of rest, while others were purely adamant about making it to summit without getting sick, no matter what the atmosphere felt like.

“There’s Ron! Let’s sing Rocky Top to him,” one of the team members, Payton said when he saw Ron passing the lower group.

Payton first met Ron at the camp in Lake City, the day before hiking. Payton decided to shower, without realizing that he had forgotten his shampoo. He called to who he thought was his friend from the team, from the shower for shampoo, but Ron, a sixty-year-old man from Texas, handed Payton his own shampoo from the top of his shower. Payton officially met Ron a few minutes later and then introduced him to the rest of the team.

“For some reason, we thought that Ron was from Tennessee like we are, so we always wanted to sing Rocky Top to him when we saw him,” Madison said.

Like Payton suggested, the front group sang Rocky Top to Ron as he passed by, he waved his ski poles and did not mention that he was from Texas, not Tennessee, as he made his way to summit.

Payton and Ron near the snow bank.

Moments later, another man who had passed by earlier and who had just made it to summit said, “Groups like yours usually take a long time to make it to summit I would really suggest turning your group around.”

This time, after the many requests from other hikers telling the group to turn around, Carl decided that it was time to turn around and head back to high camp.

“Alright, everyone, let’s go ahead and turn back,” Carl told the front group. He signaled toward the lower group with a spinning motion and it was at that moment that the storm began to hit.

“One of the first thoughts that came to my mind was, ‘Ron just made it to summit.’ I still don’t remember him passing us through the storm,” Jonah said. “I would have remembered seeing Ron, but I never did.”

According to the online site, “Wild Backpacker: You’re backpacking source,” it is best to avoid a storm in the first place, but in the case that there is a storm that cannot be avoided, the instructions say to get to tree line, and if tree line is not near, find a valley to hide in.

Unfortunately, the location of the group at the moment the storm began was 100 feet from the summit of the sixth tallest mountain in Colorado and nearly 3,000 feet in elevation above the closest group of trees.

When the team should have started thinking through their emotions about turning around and becoming one of the only groups from Sycamore View to not make it to summit and how much energy it would take to make it to high camp without reward, the lightning hit.

“We didn’t know what was happening when the front group signaled to us to turn around,” Madison said.

The first lightning struck near the back side of Uncompaghre’s summit and the lower group did not hear or see the lightning.

“Run! Run and don’t stop until you make it to tree line!” Carl shouted as he ran to tell the lower group, realizing that they did not hear the lightning strike.

The lightning struck one more time, a little louder this time, as rain started to fall from the sky, light at first and then abruptly heavy.

The entire front group took off, no one reaching for another person, yet they were running like a track team, together and very fast.

The ground started to shake, harder than it had with the first two lightning strikes, and even in the scenario that was unfolding, the deep rumbles was unusual. That was when the slow tingling began.

In nearly all writings about what to do during a storm, the writer notes that tingles signify lightning approaching, leaving the person with almost no other options for escape.

The eight people in the front group started to run as fast as they could, as the lightning struck again. Each step during this particular lightning strike and shaking that followed made the eight almost lose their step with the intensity of the hit.

“I just got hit!” many voices shouted at once. No one dared to turn around to see who was hit, as the rain poured harder and sleet began to fall.

Later, they discovered that six of the eight members got hit with fragments of the lightning. The guys felt the lightning strike on their foreheads and tops of their arms, while the girls felt the strikes on the tips of their hands and arms.

The rain/sleet made it to the lower group at the same time that the front group did.

Right before Carl signaled for the group to turn around, Madison had sat down to take a break. Even when the rain and sleet made it to Madison and her group she stayed sitting because she could not fathom making it to high camp at all, let alone in a storm.

“At first, I was mad that we weren’t going to turn around when I felt bad, and then I was mad that we weren’t going to make it to summit,” Madison said, about her feelings when she was sitting down during the storm.

At this point, chaos ensued. Lightning went from few to many, the rain and sleet mixture turned to only heavy sleet, and the temperature dropped rapidly.

“Madison, you have to get up!” Ashtyn, who had been in the first group, shouted as she tried to pick Madison up by her arm.

Madison began running with the others, but she fell, as did many others. Most members had taken their outer layer off when the sun rose, leaving nearly every member with only shorts and t-shirt on in the freezing temperatures.

In a panic, the members ran while trying to get their outer layer from their packs without stopping. Some were successful, while others dropped theirs and had no time to stop and go back to get them. With frozen feeling legs and sleet falling faster, each team member ran and tried to escape the lightning, that sounded closer and on each side.

The youth minister and leader on the trip, Jim ran to each person telling them what to do, “Get to tree line!,” “Take Shae!,” “Get up!,” “Don’t stop!,” and on and on.

Team members paired up and attempted to hold onto each other without leaving the other person behind. Tree line was not any closer, but the sleet was slowing. Most members felt like their legs were frozen and lagging behind them, despite the lightning ending, as the rain fell harder.

Not knowing if the storm would pick up where it left off, or continue to slow, the team ran as far and fast as they could, almost approaching the snow bank where they had stopped to eat breakfast on their way up to summit.

The rain started to slow to a light mist.

Up ahead, three guys from the front group were beside the snowbank when it happened.

Payton went sideways and rolled all the way down to the base of the bank.

“Payton, no! Payton!” Jonah, his best friend, yelled as he ran much faster now toward the bottom of the snowbank.

Jonah made it to Payton as he stopped rolling. In abnormal words, Payton told Jonah that the top of his hiking boot had come apart and made him go forward instead of to the left when he was running.

Those that were closest behind Payton ran and caught up to the guys to figure out what had happened and decide what to do next. Payton had hit his head with each roll and seemed like he had a concussion based off his slurred words and unsteady posture.

The rain stopped and the team members were finally able to look around and see who was there and who was not. Most of the group leaders and Madison were nowhere to be seen.

The group who had once been closest to summit was now closest to high camp, but without their leaders. They only remembered “Don’t stop.” So, they continued to move forward, never stopping for a break, unlike the hike to high camp.

Jonah stayed with Payton to wait for one of the group leaders to get to where they were to decide what needed to be done about Payton, while the rest of the group stuck close together and moved forward.

The group kept up a fast pace and some even continued to run forward, in fear that the storm would return, as the dark clouds continued to hang low.

On their way back to high camp, the team talked about what they experienced during the storm, while it was so fresh on their minds. Most said that they felt like they could not see and used their partner as guidance, six said that they had felt electricity shock them while they ran, some said that they were thinking about their families and friends, all said that they prayed constantly.

When they had made it to flat ground, nearing tree line, Seth, one of the leaders, ran past the group. The team members began to assume the worst, but Seth said, “Ron gave us the keys to his truck and we get to drive it back and forth to high camp!”

Ron had appeared out of nowhere and offered duct tape for Payton’s shoes, walking sticks and yogurt to Madison, and his truck for as many trips as it took to get everyone back safely.

Instead of hiking down more, in their disheveled state, the team got to take the 10-minute drive to high camp.

Instructions from the leader who was still higher up on the mountain were: get changed, get warm, and take a break.

When the team returned to high camp they began to do just that, until Carl made it to camp and said, “Pack up your stuff, we are leaving! Payton probably has a concussion and we have to get him to a hospital. We are hiking down right now.”

In a frazzled state, the team said that they were experiencing joy to be getting off the mountain, exhaustion, pain from falling and wearing shoes that got soaked in the rain, and an array of others.

The hike down from high camp after what the team experienced earlier that day was no easy feat. The team pushed through, while also feeling weighed down, not just by their 50- pound packs and wet shoes, but by the emotional significance that the day had added.

That night, after making some calm, but urgent phone calls to their families back in Memphis, the team talked through the entire day, over pizza.

Ron drove Payton from high camp to the hospital, where it turned out that Payton did have a concussion. Madison, who had been behind the team during the storm told her story of Ron saving her at just the moment when she was going to give up. Shae told the story of the pain in her legs and her feet when she was running. Jonah told the story of seeing his best friend rolling down a hill. Everyone talked about what they thought was going to happen to them when they were caught in a lightning storm, the kind that all mountain climbing guides says a group cannot survive.

The story of the mountain has gone almost completely untold. Partly because the trip was the last of the events held during summer 2014 for Sycamore View, but mostly because the trip was something that the team held onto. However, the storm cannot go untold. As treks to Colorado go, the trip was unique and its impact was long-lasting. The team was different when they left Uncompaghre Peak, and although they did not make it to summit, they got something more out of it. They made it through a lightning storm close to the summit of the mountain, a stranger became their unexpected older friend, and most importantly, they have learned what it is like to continue and interact with others after being caught in a real and emotional storm.

Time still changes relationships and memories fade, and though the story of the mountain is no longer untold, there will always be some parts that will be kept close to those 18 team members.

Sycamore View Trek group 2014
Created By
Cayleigh Birdwell
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