Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Counting our Blessings

Tonight the Hanou / Burns / Kerschen families are counting our blessings and holding each other a little tighter.  We are recovering from a horrible ordeal with the happiest of endings.  My brother-in-law, Rob and his brother, Andrew went on their Annual Hut trip this weekend to Aspen. Hut trips are common year-round fun for Coloradans.  These 10th Mountain Division huts, built in the 1930's and 40's to help train military troops for combat in high altitude, are rentable through the Forest Service.  There is no road in or out of these huts, access is only available by foot, or snowmobiles.  Rob and Andrew and two of their friends, Dan and Matt, hiked to the Goodwin Green Hut outside of Aspen Saturday and were to return to their car Monday at noon, by 5pm when their wives and girlfriends still hadn't heard from them we began to worry.

These four men are all experienced hikers. They have hiked this exact hut trip the last 5 years in a row. It is a very extreme trip, some huts are easier and more "family friendly", but these guys are in to the challenge of the more extreme climb and adventure. The mountains between Aspen and Crested Butte are very steep. If you get turned around it is very easy to get lost. That being said, their departure day - was a complete white-out. The area received an estimated 40 inches of snow creating very dangerous conditions.

After calling the forest service Monday afternoon we were informed that Search and Rescue won't begin a search until hikers have been missing 24 hours.  It had only been 5 and we were sick with worry.  Mike, wasted no time.  He is very modest about his roll in bringing Rob and Andrew home safely, in fact he is still beating himself up a bit for not being able to find them sooner, however, I think I speak for all families involved when I say, just having Mike up there gave us piece of mind in the 48 hours that followed.  Without him being there, our feelings of helplessness would have been much stronger. 

Mike contacted a few friends who live in the Vail/Aspen area and organized his own search.  Michael (a groomsmen in our wedding and the reason Mike and I met 8 years ago!), John and Sean are experienced mountain men with good equipment and access to snowmobiles.  Mike left in the middle of the night, equipped with excellent Topo maps Ian made for him; picked up Michael and met John and Sean in Aspen at first light.  They hiked and canvased the area for 10 hours before Casey, Meaghan and Sara (the other wives) were finally able to get the Sheriffs office to send a trooper out. 

At 5 pm yesterday, Michael finally spoke directly to the sheriff and convinced them to get the official search started.  Mike was exhausted and utterly disappointed that his full day of hiking and trekking through 40 inches of fresh snow turned up nothing.  When he called to report that he and Michael were on their way to the Search and Rescue office to meet with the sheriff's department and the Mountain Rescue, we were ecstatic.  Finally, some help, but by now it was getting dark, again.  The night before had dropped to 5 degrees, we were praying that Rob, Andrew and crew had made it back to their hut and spent the night safe and warm.  We were confident that they were going to hike out and meet up with Mike Tuesday morning.  Now we knew they were about to spend a second night in the woods, probably sleeping in the snow.  It was very hard to keep our spirits up. 

I picked up Casey and Meaghan after work Tuesday and took them to my house, they had been home alone all day struggling with who to notify and counting the minutes.  Ian and Kim came to our rescue with food, tabloid magazines and the best distraction of all, a two and four year old!  Together we talked about all the possible scenarios Rob and Andrew could be facing, careful not to let ourselves think the worst; avalanches and injuries.  We kept our spirits up by talking about things we would say to Rob and Andrew when we talked to them again, joking that the boys were "grounded". 

Search and Rescue finally made it to the hut on snowmobile at 9:15 Tuesday night. Rob & crew had been at the hut, signed the log book, and did not leave any personal belongings. Good news because that proved they made it to the hut on Saturday and had only been missing since Monday. Bad news, because that meant the search was called off for the night.  We would know nothing more till morning. 

Our families were obviously distraught, no one slept Tuesday night, Ian was cursing himself for not going up to help, Casey and the girls were helpless in Denver, Mike was sleeping alone in a Glenwood Springs Hotel room wishing he could hold me.  Casey and I took our cell phones to bed with us and talked each other to sleep in the dark.  Finally morning came.   Casey and the girls drove to Aspen, Ian and Rob & Andrew's friend, Scott also drove to Aspen.  Casey and Meaghan contacted a private helicopter company and Search and Rescue gassed up two of their planes but it was snowing again and visibility was too poor for flying.

Finally at 11:45 AM Wednesday, literally 48 hours after their expected return, the Aspen Search and Rescue team located all four men safe 8 miles from the hut in the wrong direction.  They were closer to Crested Butte than Aspen.  So unfortunately, Casey and the girls had to drive to Crested Butte, which in good weather would be a 2 hour drive, but both passes that take you there were closed, turning their drive into 6 hours.  What a happy 6 hours that was for them!  I haven't heard from Casey since she met up with Rob again, but I imagine they're holding each other pretty tight tonight just as the rest of our families are too.  We're anxious to hear Rob's side of the story, but confident we will all sleep sound tonight.  This was our first encounter with the Colorado Search and Rescue Department, we have EXTREME respect for what they do and plan to make a Christmas Donation to the organization, but I really hope it was our last personal encounter with them!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Costa Rica...ahhh

It has taken me over a week to post about our wonderful trip to the "Rich Coast".  We came home a little too relaxed I guess!  What a great babymoon we had!
Mike and I l feel as though we had 2 vacations within one trip.  We spent our first half of the week inland, visiting Arenal, swimming in hot springs, taking daily seistas (ok sometimes twice daily!), hiking, eating delicious local food (they call it "typical" food), exploring small villages, and attempting to converse with Spanish speaking locals.  The volcano in Arenal is still active.  Supposedly, you can see sparks coming from the volcano on a clear night, but, you guessed it, the two nights we stayed in La Fortuna were cloudy!  We were fortunate enough to get a clear glimpse of the volcano during the day:
We took a hike around Arenal, our hike was not even close to the caliber of hiking Mike and I are used to doing.  As much as I hate to admit it, hiking while 7 months pregnant (in humidity especially) is not easy!  But, the scenery was so beautiful, we weren't disappointed!

We followed a trail map to a waterfall, a couple of suspension bridges and a few other key points.  Also, listed on the map was a house.  We're still not sure why there was a house in the middle of the national park, or who the lucky occupant was.  But, as we approached the house, a cat walked up to us on the trail. I was very skeptical of this "kitty" but it took a quick liking to Mike brushing up against his leg.  I, on the other hand was hiding behind Mike.  I kept saying, "Are you sure it's just a cat?"  Mike said, "Of course, I'm sure".  Just then the cat meowed - but this was no normal meow - the kitty growled at us!  Needless to say, my hiking speed picked up a little at that point!  Here is the quick snapshot we were able to take as we sped away:

And here is what we discovered after a little research when we got home:

The "kitty" Mike was petting, was actually a Margay, or a miniature Ocelot.  It is about the size of a house cat, only more muscular, larger eyes and it DOESN'T have a collar!  After talking to some locals and reading up on local wildlife in a gift shop, we discovered, that this cat is very rare and near extinction, most locals have never seen one, and it just walked right up to us!

Our very wise friend, Margee was in Costa Rica last fall and highly recommended we visit the Tabercon Hot Springs, saying it's well worth the high cost of admission.  Mike raised his eye brows as he handed over the almost $200 we spent to enter what we both would normally consider a tourist trap but in the end we feel, Margee was right.  It was money well spent!  I thoroughly enjoyed floating in the water, soaking up the sun, seeing the beautifully landscaped surrounding gardens, going down the water slide (yes, Mike dared me to do it - I drew quite the reaction let me tell you!) and Mike relaxed with a few cocktails in the swim-up bar.  We had the best Sea Bass ceviche for lunch!  Margee was right, it was sensational!

Like I said, this was two vacations in one.  After spending two a a half days staying in small privately owned motels like this one:
where a local Tico woman made us breakfast every morning and spoke nothing but Spanish (when we explained we didn't speak Spanish, she spoke faster!). 
We drove west to the Pacific shore to meet up with Mike's dad and sister who were in Costa Rica attending the Michigan State Medical Conference.  Cathy, actually was presenting at this conference, not just attending.  The all-inclusive hotel we stayed at for the remainder of our trip was not a small privately owned motel, to say the least! 

We gorged ourselves with delicious food 3 times a day, caught up with Cathy & Dad and best of all got to spend some good 1 on 1 time with our niece Layla who we don't get to see often enough.  Cathy wasn't able to bring Johnny on this trip because he can't get a US passport until he's been with Cathy for two years. 

Mike, Cathy and Dad ziplined through the trees with a bunch of their medical conference friends, but Layla and I had to stay behind.....ziplining is one of many activities Costa Ricans consider me too fragile to partake in. 

Apparently, in Costa Rica I can have a cocktail (practically every bartender offered me a drink), but I can't paddle boat, kayak, horseback ride or, get this, snorkel.  Seriously, I think my pregnant belly would keep me afloat better than most of the overweight people they did rent too!  Fortunately, Bill & Vicky Hughes were at the Medical Conference too and Vicky loaned me her flippers and snorkel gear.  We saw all sorts of cool fish but best of all, when we came out of the water, we saw monkeys swinging from the trees right there on the beach!  Sorry, none close enough to take a picture of.  But I did get a great picture of Layla trying on the flippers too...
There is so much more I could tell you about our trip but this post is already longer than I wanted it to be!  We ended our vacation back in San Jose, ironically, our friend Heather was there for a night too (she's a flight attendant for Frontier!). We met up with her on our last night, closing out an awesome vacation!