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!

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