Lost in the Mountains

Photo of author

By usawebstories

The camp’s director, whose name was Sandy, wrote a newsy letter to parents every week. The one he sent on August 4th, five days after the boy disappeared, was also signed by his wife, Laura. They began with a couple of sentences about “exciting trips, creative programs in-camp, and plenty of fun.” Then, in the second paragraph, they discussed the missing camper. “The counsellors notified the camp at once and the search was begun immediately,” they wrote. “Since then the search has expanded to include as many as 140 highly qualified rescuers and up to five helicopters.” The lost boy, whose name was Bill, was sixteen years old. “We are baffled but no one has given up hope,” they continued. Bill was “resourceful” and had been “trained in hiking and survival techniques.” He had no sleeping bag or tent but was carrying a backpack that contained lunches for eight members of his climbing trip.

Being at camp at that time was exciting. A few programs were scaled back, and, because Sandy was feeding the searchers, our meals felt somewhat frugal. No one I knew complained, though. Most of us would have been happy to give up all our regular activities, and to eat nothing but Cheerios, if only Sandy had let us join the search. I didn’t know Bill, but I did know what he looked like: tall and slim, with short brown hair and glasses. Holy Cross was more than seventy miles from camp, but I kept my eyes peeled even if I was just walking down the hill from our tent to the bathhouse.

In my next letter home, I wrote, “This morning at breakfast, a helicopter came flying into camp and landed on the baseball diamond.” We all ran down to welcome Bill back, but the helicopter turned out to belong to a rich kid’s parents, who were paying a showoffy visit. I was one of a group of boys who surrounded the father and urged him to take off again, immediately, for Holy Cross. (He demurred.) “The searchers have found some tracks they think are Bill’s but nothing really important has turned up,” my letter continued.

As far as I know, no child was pulled from camp by angry, lawsuit-threatening parents, and no local-news crew showed up to ask us campers if we were concerned that our counsellors might lose us, too. Bill’s mother and father had come to Colorado from the East Coast to join the search, and they, the camp’s staff, and many other people must have been in a constant state of near desperation, but on the surface everyone I encountered seemed calm and composed. We hunted for treasure, saw a melodrama in Cripple Creek, and visited the chapel at the Air Force Academy. One of my tentmates and I, with help from our counsellor, conducted a midnight raid on the kitchen at the girls’ camp, a mile away. We stole ice cream, crackers, two boxes of cereal, and an ear of corn. Camp was still camp.

At two in the morning on August 6th, the counsellor in the tent next to mine, whose name was Terry, left to join the rescuers on Holy Cross. “Now they have 200 soldiers as well as 100 local people,” I wrote to my parents that evening. “They walk 15 ft. apart picking up every piece of paper, etc. They then radio in and ask if Bill had what they found.” I continued, “Some people think he may have run away or something like that. Another theory is that he is camping just outside of camp. . . . They’re going to start keeping a counsellor in the lodge at night in case he is sneaking in for food.”

On August 11th, when Bill had been missing for twelve days, I wrote to my parents that in the morning I would be leaving on a five-day climbing trip to—of all places—Mount of the Holy Cross. “We’re not a search party, or anything like that,” I told them, “but H.C. is supposed to be the most beautiful country in Colorado.” I added that if Bill hadn’t turned up by the end of the day the search was going to be called off. I don’t know whether that was true, but I do know that, in the area in which he had vanished, two weeks was a long time for even a resourceful sixteen-year-old to survive. “I’m glad to hear Nixon won the Republican Convention,” I concluded, “but Spiro T. Agnew?”

We had planned to begin our summit ascent at 4 A.M., but fresh snow fell on the mountain during the night, and we didn’t get off until seven-thirty. A blizzard hit when we were on the summit ridge, five hundred feet below the top. “You couldn’t see 20 ft. and the wind was blowing hard,” I wrote my parents later. We turned around. My hair froze into a helmet of ice, and I could barely feel my hands and feet. We got back to our base camp shortly before one-thirty, and discovered that most of our tents had blown over. My tentmate and I re-pitched ours, and zipped ourselves inside. The wind and rain made building a fire impossible, so for dinner we ate what we’d been going to have for lunch: American cheese, canned B. & M. brown bread, an orange, and a chocolate bar. I annoyed my tentmate by reciting all the lyrics I could remember of the Animals’ 1965 hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” We talked about Bill, and wondered how he was managing, assuming he was still alive.

The weather the next day was perfect, of course. We hiked back down below twelve thousand feet and camped near Hunky Dory Lake. In the morning, we returned to the spot where we’d left Fat Albert, the camp’s ancient school bus. A letter addressed to our counsellors was lying on the dashboard. It said that at two in the afternoon on Tuesday—the second day of our trip, two weeks after Bill had disappeared—a group of backpackers from Outward Bound had found him, and that he was alive. In a letter I wrote when we got back to camp, I told my parents that I had heard that when Bill saw Sandy he said, “Will this ruin my chances for coming back next year?”

I myself didn’t go back the next year; I worked as a counsellor at a day camp at home. But I never forgot about Bill. Not long ago, I ran into a member of the camp’s board, whose name is Jerry. He’d worked at camp when I was there, and he remembered the agony of those two weeks. Jerry agreed to put me in touch with Bill. Early last month, Bill called my cell phone.

We reminisced about camp, and caught each other up on our lives since 1968. He sent me a copy of a hundred-page account he had written, by hand in two spiral notebooks, not long after he was found. Using it and three topographical maps I’d ordered from the U.S. Geological Survey, along with clues from our conversation, I began to plot his route. He and three other campers reached the summit, late on the morning of July 30th, as thunderheads approached. They signed the summit scroll and took a few pictures. Rain was falling, and Bill worried about lightning. (Before our trip, a counsellor had told me that, if I felt my hair stand on end, I should drop to my knees and bend forward, because I was about to become a lightning rod.) They headed down the summit ridge, and at some point Bill, who was walking fast, got so far ahead of the others that he could no longer see them. “I thought I was lost then,” he told me, “but I ended up back where we’d camped out the night before.” He wondered if lightning had killed everyone else. Then a counsellor appeared, and asked if he would carry food farther down the mountain, to members of the group who had returned to a hut they had hiked past the previous day. Bill and the counsellor swapped backpacks.

Bill assumed, when he began his descent, that the creek he could see in the valley far below was the one that he knew ran past the hut. But it was actually a different creek, well to the west, in a different valley: he had gone left when he should have gone right, and ended up on the wrong side of the mountain. The slope was steep, and he had to negotiate boulders and rock faces that had been made doubly treacherous by rain and wet pine needles. When he reached the valley floor, his clothes and his boots were soaked, and he was shivering. The sun was going down. He shouted for help. He covered himself with a poncho from the counsellor’s pack. “It was the longest seven hours I’ve spent in my life,” he wrote in his account. He used a cigarette lighter, inside his improvised tent, as a space heater—a bad idea, he realized later, because when the fuel ran out he had no way to start a fire. (Rubbing sticks didn’t work. He made sparks with the lighter’s flint but couldn’t kindle anything.)

During the two weeks Bill was lost, he was never much more than a mile from the spot where he’d last spoken to his counsellor. He often saw helicopters; he would take off his shirt and wave it, but they were either too far away or flying too fast. He never saw any of the hundreds of people looking for him on foot. It seems likely that the searchers believed he had followed a different route down the mountain, and, therefore, concentrated their efforts in areas where they had no chance of finding him. One day, a single-engine airplane circled directly above. He stood in a clearing and waved, but the plane flew on. He tried to climb up the slope that he’d come down, but he fell from a ledge and believes he must have been knocked unconscious. (He remembered falling, but not landing.) He used fallen trees to make an arrow pointing to the spot where he slept for several nights, directly below a large boulder, and he turned two of his counsellor’s T-shirts and his compass case, which was bright red, into signal flags. But no one spotted his signs.

Source link