“Chipeta County 911. What is the location of your emergency?”
I stammered. “There’s been a – a huge rockslide near Topaz Lake. Mount Sabin. Three of our friends were…buried.” Despite rehearsing this call in my mind as we raced to find a location with cell service, my hand was trembling, my heart pounding.
“Sir, where are you now? Are you in a safe location?”
I glanced at Laura who had drawn her legs up onto the passenger seat of my Xterra and was hugging them tightly. She was crying again. “We’re okay.” I glanced at the scrapes on my legs, the bruises forming on Laura’s arms. “We had to hike down and drive a few miles to get a cell signal.”
“What is your name?”
“Bryan. Bryan Drumm.”
“Bryan, you said that three people were buried. Did you witness the rockslide, sir?”
I closed my eyes, reliving for a moment the horror of the deluge of boulders crashing onto the trail behind us – the trail where, moments before, I had seen our companions hiking. Less than a minute earlier, Laura and I had been in its path.
“Yes. We both saw it. It was terrible.” The words rushed from my lips. “I don’t think anyone could have survived. It was enormous. Hundreds of rocks came down. Thousands. It was right behind us. I can’t believe we didn’t get buried, too.” I shut my eyes and shook my head slowly from side to side, remembering. My eyes burned with tears as I struggled to maintain control. The 911 dispatcher was asking more questions, giving me instructions.
Yes, I could meet someone at the entrance to the main highway. Yes, I can stay on the line. God, yes!
Can someone please help us wake up from this nightmare?
I checked my watch again. Why hadn’t she called? Hanna’s note said she thought they’d be back from the hike by late afternoon. Let’s go to Pasta Place for dinner, it said. This wasn’t like her. Granted, she probably wouldn’t have cell coverage from the trail, and she likely car-pooled to the trailhead with some of the other hikers from the club. Still, they should have been back to “civilization” a couple of hours ago.
Why hadn’t she called?
When I finally got home last night after a hellish number of flight delays and airport fuck ups, I was too bleary-eyed to even read her note. I had mixed emotions late this morning when I dragged my jet-lagged body out of bed and realized she had left to spend the day with the hiking club. But wasn’t that how things seemed to be these days? My days on business trips outnumbered days at home any more. Hanna couldn’t simply put her life on hold and never do the things she wanted to do just because I might be too wiped out from travel to join her. I sighed, resigned to spending only tonight and tomorrow together before she had to return to work on Monday.
I tried her cell again. This time I didn’t leave a message. There wasn’t anything to add to my previous three messages. It would be dark soon. Hanna would never stay out after dark. Never.
I sat in front of her laptop, reading the hike description again and doing the math. An hour’s drive each way to the trailhead. Eight miles round trip to Topaz Lake and back, with just 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Call it four hours hiking, plus an hour for breaks and hanging out at the lake. Seven hours. And her calendar said to meet at a Park and Ride lot on the west side of Denver at nine o’clock this morning.
So, they should have been back to Denver by four this afternoon. Three fucking hours ago.
Why hadn’t she called?
I studied the hike information again. “OK. Trip leader is Bryan Drumm,” I said out loud, concentrating. I searched for a directory of hiking club members. “Bingo!”
I called Bryan’s number. No answer – just voicemail.
“Bryan. This is Jake Markov. Hanna’s husband. I haven’t heard from her since your hike today and wondered what was going on. I’m getting a little concerned. Give me a call or if Hanna’s with you, have her call or text. Thanks.”
I paced. Flipped on the TV just for some distraction and plopped onto the couch, but was soon on my feet again, pacing.
My cell phone rang. I snatched it up without even glancing at the caller ID.
“No, man, it’s me. What’s going on? You sound kind of gripped.”
“Oh. Mike. Sorry – I’ve been waiting for Hanna to get back from a hike, and thought she was calling.”
“So, how’s it going – how was your trip? I forgot where you went this time.”
“The trip was fine. I did some training for that company in London that I did some work for last year. The schedule was decent. I was able to get out and run most mornings before the classes.”
“Speaking of running, do you want to get out for a trail run tomorrow?”
Something on the TV caught my attention. “…near Topaz Lake. It is believed that several hikers may have been buried by the rockfall.” I snatched the TV remote, turning the volume up high, not noticing that I had dropped the phone. “Rescuers are on their way to the scene. We’ll have more details as soon as they are available. Back to you in the newsroom, Mark.”
“Topaz Lake?” I whispered. I flipped to other stations, hoping to find more about the story. I tossed the remote onto the couch in frustration and headed for the laptop.
“Jake? What’s going on?” Mike’s voice emerged from the dropped cell phone, but was drowned out by the volume of the TV. “Jake? Can you hear me? I’m coming over, buddy. Hang tight.”
I searched frantically for news items on the web, finding just a few sentences on one site. I hit “refresh” repeatedly, hoping to learn more than just the report of a “massive series of rockslides early this afternoon which destroyed a popular trail to Topaz Lake in Chipeta County, Colorado.” I found nothing more about the buried hikers or rescuers.
My heart was pounding, my breath coming faster and harder than it did on the steepest uphill run.
“Hanna,” I whispered. “Please be all right. Please, Hanna.”
I fidgeted in the passenger seat like a defendant waiting for the jury to reach a verdict. My eyes were glued to my cell phone display as I continued hunting for news updates and I constantly reached over to the radio, flipping between two news stations. Mike blasted through yellow lights and I prayed that we wouldn’t be pulled over for aggressive driving. Thunder rumbled above the sounds of the engine and the radio stations. My gut rumbled in response. Rain splattered on the windshield for several minutes, then the thunderstorm passed.
“Arriving at destination, on the left,” the GPS voice announced. The small parking area for the trailhead was nearly filled with vehicles. One group of people was gathered in a tight circle, headlamps illuminating maps and other papers in the dwindling light. A smaller group was sorting gear and shaking rainwater off of tarps.
“Are these the rescuers? What are they doing down here? Why aren’t they up there looking for the hikers?” I reached for the door handle, ready to leap out of Mike’s truck and confront the Search and Rescue volunteers.
“Wait – wait!” Mike grabbed my sleeve and yanked me back into the seat. “These people are here to help. Let’s not antagonize them. We need to figure out who’s in charge and find out what’s going on.”
Mike pointed to a Sheriff’s vehicle parked at the end of the lot. A man in uniform was standing near the back of the car talking to someone. Mike hopped out of the truck and walked briskly toward them, dodging pools of muddy water. I sprinted past him, mud be damned.
“My wife…” I choked, unable to form the words. I gestured weakly toward the trailhead, fighting back tears.
Mike threw an arm around me. “His wife was on a hike with a group here today. Hanna Markov. We heard about the landslide, but don’t know if she was…” He trailed off.
The uniformed officer shifted his flashlight to his left hand, nodded. He must have extended his hand to me, but I wasn’t sure. I was blinking hard to try to fend off tears. Mike stepped forward and shook his hand.
“Mr. Markov?” he said, turning to me. “I’m Sheriff Pete Blackburn, Chipeta County.” He glanced at the man he had been talking to, who took the hint and moved away. I nodded, quickly swiping the back of my hand across my eyes.
“Is she…?” I faltered.
“Sir, we don’t know your wife’s status at this time. We’ve spoken with two people who witnessed the rockslide and they believe she and two others may have been in its path. However, we don’t know anything for certain right now, and we’ll be assessing the area as soon as there’s sufficient light in the morning.”
I found my voice. “In the morning? No. We need to look for her now!” I spun around, heading for the trail.
Mike grabbed one of my arms. Sheriff Blackburn grabbed the other.
“I’ve got to go find her!”
“Mr. Markov, I understand what you must be feeling. We don’t believe the area is safe. The hikers we interviewed reported additional rockfall in the area. We’re sending up a chopper with forward-looking infrared radar tonight, but for an on-ground search, we need to wait until light. At that point we’ll do everything possible to locate your wife and the other two missing hikers. Please, let us do our jobs. I can’t let you go up there. We need to execute a systematic, thorough search. We’ve got a small team camped up there near the site tonight, and they’ll be reporting in at dawn.
“We’ll be looking for footprints. We may send up search dogs. We can’t have people moving around doing their own search. We don’t want to be sidetracked following your tracks instead of the people we’re trying to find.”
I stumbled a few steps and sank down onto a boulder at the edge of the parking area. I took deep breaths, struggling for air.
“We’ll spend the night in the back of my truck,” Mike said. “I’ll look after him. Thanks, Sheriff.”
Even before a hint of light appeared in the eastern sky, I was pacing around the lot, anxiously watching the rescuers eat a quick breakfast and finalize their preparations. At Mike’s insistence, I had remained in my sleeping bag under the topper in back of his truck, but I’m sure I hadn’t slept. Mike was still dozing.
The SAR people kept their conversations muffled, aware that a family member of a possible accident victim was nearby.
A radio crackled. Sheriff Blackburn moved away from a cluster of people wearing jackets marked with “SAR” and turned his back as he spoke with the rescue team camped about a mile up the trail.
“Okay, everyone, listen up. The advance team reports that they heard additional rockfall during the night. As soon as the light gets better, they’re going to start searching between their camp and the slide, and sweep downhill from there. No one’s going out into that open area until we get a look at it from the air.
“The infrared search last night didn’t come up with anything definitive. The only heat signatures they spotted were consistent with small animals and we didn’t get anything from the rockslide area itself.
“We’ve got another chopper coming with a geologist and several aerial searchers in about an hour. We’ll get an assessment from them and make some decisions at that point. Meanwhile, everyone just hang loose.”
“What about starting a grid search below the landslide area? Or circling around to the far side?” a woman asked. Many of the other volunteer rescuers nodded and began chattering about other possibilities.
“Hey, people. Not yet. Not until we’ve got a better picture from the air. You’ve all seen the topo maps. That slide could have continued down another 100 feet – or as much as 500. The terrain for accessing the east side from below is a problem. We’ll stick to the west side only and give this thing a wide berth until we know exactly what we’re dealing with. We don’t need more victims.”
The group was silent. “Thanks, everyone. We’ll let you know as soon as we have more information.” The sheriff headed to his vehicle.
I rushed to his side. “Please!” I said, grasping Sheriff Blackburn’s arm. I pointed uphill, unable to say more, my throat so constricted it felt like it was in a noose.
“I’m sorry. You heard what I told them. I can’t let you go up there. Try to get some rest. We’ll do everything we can to find your wife. I promise you.” The sheriff looked into my eyes until he saw the resignation as I gave up my plan to race up the trail and search for Hanna myself.
Hopes were raised when the people gathered at the trailhead heard the whomp-whomp-whomp of a helicopter an hour later. They fell again when Sheriff Blackburn called them together for an update nearly two hours after that.
“Everyone – here’s where things stand. Our geologist says there are several extensive rock formations above the slide area that are dangerously unstable. With all the rain we had over the past several weeks, those could collapse at any time. There’s loose rock everywhere. Until things stabilize up there, no one is going into that slide zone.”
People moaned. Mike grabbed me when I began to sway.
“That means nobody – no rescuers, no search dogs, no family members,” he emphasized, glancing at me. “No other hikers. Nobody.”
He looked at the circle of eyes staring at him, making sure we understood how serious he was. “Folks, the rockfall that came down yesterday was enormous. Some of you heard that from the eyewitnesses, but they could have overstated due to the trauma of what they’d been through. But our people in the chopper estimated that there were several boulders the size of rail cars that came down. Literally hundreds of smaller boulders came down too. We’re talking Volkswagens.
“We’re closing this trail to all hikers until further notice. There’s no way they’ll be able to rebuild the trail through that slide zone. If it ever opens again, it’ll have to be totally re-routed. The teams already up there have nearly finished their sweep of the west side of the slide zone, down to an elevation of 9,000 feet. When they finish up with that, I’m bringing them down.
“We’ll continue aerial searches for the rest of the day, including the east side of the rockfall. We’ll see what we come up with, then decide if additional searches are warranted.”
He looked directly at Mike and me.
“I’m sorry. Our people are reporting that the slide debris is probably at least twenty, twenty-five feet deep in the region where the trail used to be. We’d need heavy equipment up there to even begin a recovery effort, and that would be impossible.”
My knees started to buckle. Recovery. He didn’t say rescue – he said recovery. As in recovery of bodies, not rescue of survivors. Mike grabbed me before I could collapse to the ground.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Markov.” The sheriff reached out and squeezed my shoulder, then stared at his own boots for a moment before walking away.
Rewind: Saturday afternoon
I glanced over my shoulder as we crossed the talus slope, checking on the rest of the group. It had been a good outing. All five hikers seemed to enjoy one another’s company and our time at the lake had been a hoot. Paul had entertained everyone with stories of his kids’ antics. The three women on the trip seemed to have bonded. I couldn’t remember if any of them had hiked together before today, although I had hiked with Paul several times in the past.
I spotted the last three hikers just emerging from the trees at the east side of the rocky area, about 100 yards behind Laura and me. They seemed to be catching up – good. Everyone was doing well.
“Okay, so, a duck, a zebra, and a boa constrictor walk into a bar,” I began as we made our way onto easier terrain as the rocks became less prominent and the trail smoothed. We continued into a copse of pines.
Laura groaned. “Bryan – no! Not another one!”
She stopped suddenly and held up her hands, signaling quiet. “What was that? Thunder?” She listened, a puzzled look on her face.
A low-pitched rumble grew to a roar. It was above and behind us. Not thunder – the sound had become deafening. I spun around and looked along the rocky slope we had just crossed. I caught the briefest glimpse of people in the middle of the rocky section, their faces turned up slope. The air around the figures was filled with movement, with debris and dirt and rocks and
(oh my god!)
boulders – huge boulders – and…where were they? Where were the hikers I had spotted?
I ran. Before I could process what I was seeing, adrenaline had pumped into my body and I took off, stumbling, away from what seemed like the entire mountain falling, shattering, disintegrating. A pungent smell of cordite permeated the air as enormous rocks crashed into each other.
I found myself huddled beside a large tree, trembling, gasping. I’m the trip leader, I reminded myself. I need to stay calm. Too late for that, but I struggled to compose myself. Where’s Laura?
I unfolded my body and rose to my feet, one hand against the tree to steady myself. Dust filled the air and I realized I was coughing. My eyes were burning, watering heavily to try to wash away the dust. I pulled my red bandana from a pocket and held it over my nose and mouth to try to keep the debris out of my lungs. I spotted the woman I had been telling jokes to just moments ago – or was it minutes? – and managed to call out for her between coughing jags.
Laura’s face was contorted with grief, covered with dust and muddy tears. She wobbled on unsteady legs, deathly pale. She, too, was coughing, lungs trying to eject the dust and dirt that was now starting to settle. I stumbled toward her and offered my bandana.
“Oh my god,” she managed to choke out. “They must have all been killed. Horrible…”
“I’m going to take a look.” I took several unsteady steps, coughed a few more times, then began advancing warily back out of the woods and into the open area, now totally transformed. I hesitated beside the last tree and Laura caught up to me.
“Bryan, what do you think the odds are?” she whispered, awed by the sight in front of us.
I shook my head. One in a million, I thought. “I don’t know.” I began moving forward, soon forced to pick my way carefully through the smaller debris at the edge of the slide.
“Hanna! Paul!” I shouted. “Nancy!”
Laura crept forward as well, shouting out our friends’ names, then pausing – listening, hoping, praying. We stopped, looking in wonder and in horror at the size of some of the boulders – and the number – which now covered the trail we had just walked along. Several were the size of refrigerators. Even the smaller ones probably weighed a ton apiece.
It sounded like a bomb exploding above us. Without thought, without even realizing how we were able to navigate the loose, uneven rubble, we virtually flew back to the relative safety of the trees.
The noise seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. The ground shuddered with the impact of another, even more enormous deluge of rock. The mountains shall crumble to the sea, I thought as I ran and fell and scrambled insanely back to my feet to rush further from the demolition.
Finally, after a period of time neither of us could measure, the commotion ceased. The dust dispersed. It was utterly, deadly silent.
We called to each another and made our way, seeking comfort, seeking safety. When we were physically reunited, we sat close together, holding each other, silent.
Finally, I stirred. “We need to get down the trail. Report this.” I rose to my feet, helping Laura rise. I pulled my GPS from my pack and marked our current location – information to give the 911 dispatcher.
We didn’t speak as we stumbled down the trail. I held my cell phone in my hand, glancing at it every few minutes. No signal. An hour later at the trailhead, we climbed into my Xterra.
I handed my phone to Laura. “Holler as soon as you get any bars and I’ll stop.” I pulled out of the trailhead parking area, my jaw tight.
At 3:45 p.m., we were finally able to make the call to 911.
Rewind: Saturday afternoon
Although I enjoyed chatting with the other hikers this morning as we walked up the trail – particularly the joking when we had lunch at the lake – I found pleasure now in hiking quietly back down. I was basking in the luxury of what might be my last long hike of the summer before returning to the classroom in a couple of weeks. I could see Bryan and Laura about 100 yards ahead. I was in the lead of our slower group of three and we had just emerged from a forested section of trail back into the sunshine. I needed to watch my feet through this next part. Trail workers had done an exceptional job of forming a reasonably flat path through this rocky section, but it would still be easy to trip if I didn’t pay attention.
Just a few feet behind me, I heard the faint, rhythmic clicking of trekking poles on rocks. That would be Paul.
A pika somewhere on the vast array of rocks and boulders above us let out a high-pitched squeak. I paused a moment and looked uphill to try to pick out the cute little mountain rodent amidst the talus, but couldn’t spot it. Paul stopped and searched as well.
The pika called again, but now with a frantic-sounding, rapid series of chirps. It was answered from another location with an echo of the same call. And then another.
“I don’t think they like us here,” Paul said. We turned back to the trail and resumed hiking.
“Don’t worry, little ones. We’re leaving,” I called out.
My words were drowned out by a deep rumble. I looked up to the sky, wondering if it was thunder. Paul looked up slope.
The rumbling, crashing sounds surrounded them; the sky and all light disappeared. A massive blow to her body smashed it into the slope filled with smaller boulders. Nerves began to send signals to her brain, but long before they reached their intended target – mere milliseconds after the barrage hit – there was no conscious, living brain to receive messages of pain.
“Uff…!” Paul’s body attempted to switch into fight or flight mode with a deep gasp of air. Long before that breath was complete, it was forced out of his lungs. Long before his mind formed a conscious thought about what was happening, long before the proverbial life flashing before his eyes, he was gone.
The avalanche of boulders, mud, scree, branches, and dirt continued, entombing everything deep beneath its fury.
Fury? No. The mountain doesn’t feel anything, doesn’t care. Not fury – just force. Gravity.
Want more? Rockfall is available in paperback directly from the author via this website, or from Amazon as a Kindle edition or paperback edition.