Adventures in Wildhorse Canyon
At 7am on July 6th, 2021, my friend Matt and I headed up the Bear Creek trail just south of Ouray. We planned an all day hike up to American Flats, across to Bridge of Heaven, and down the Old Horsethief trail. Neither of us had done this hike before, but I had heard from several local friends that this would be a spectacular day hike and would be well worth the time and effort.
Both Matt and I had considerable experience in the back country and were equipped for a long day of trail hiking on a summer day above tree line. We made it to American Flats just before 11 that morning and savored the panoramic views. We continued across the tundra checking the map casually and occasionally looking at the weather. But we mostly spent the time catching up as old friends do who haven’t seen each other in over a year. There were stories to swap, family members to brag about, and connections to be remade.
It was this lack of attention to navigation that led to a critical error around 1 that afternoon. Just after lunch, on an unnamed saddle, we misjudged our location. The trail and the surroundings didn’t match where we thought we were. We didn’t know if we had hiked off onto a game trail, if the trail signage was missing, or something else. But no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t make the surroundings match our map position.
After several backtracks and head scratches, we decided that we would follow a creek that looked similar to that on the map, and it would take us to another trail with a convenient exit point. We both agreed this was the best way forward. Confident that we had solved our navigation problem, we headed down the creek in search of the new trail.
This is a good time in the story to mention that we were not hiking with a GPS, nor did the local map we were using have GPS markings on it. I had never hiked with a GPS in the past or felt the need. Today’s hike was no different as it was supposed to be ‘on-trail’ the whole day.
After several hours of bushwhacking through steep forest and difficult terrain, we began to wonder if we hadn’t made a huge error. At 5pm we hadn’t located the new trail and we decided it was time to call for help. We hiked up as high as we could and thankfully my phone sprang to life with signal. I called up my GPS app to get my location. I called my wife to let her know we were having a little unexpected trouble and we’d be home later than expected. I then sent her my coordinates so she could plot them on a different map and confirm how much further the new trail was from our current location.
This took some time. We hung up, I got some food and some of my rapidly dwindling water, and waited for her to call back. We connected again in 10 minutes. Her voice was a troubled, “You are in Wildhorse Canyon. There is no trail for miles. What are you doing there?” I was speechless. I had no idea where Wildhorse Canyon was, which meant I had no idea where I was, or how I had gotten there. I had never been lost in my life, and for the first time that day, I began to get worried. After a few minutes of map reading and consultation, we decided we would need some more significant help.
I called a friend on the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, explained my situation, and asked for guidance. We only had two and half hours of daylight left, and we needed a plan. Another 10 minute wait and the call came back, “Get down to the creek and follow it until you hit the road. Its seven or so miles and it will be slow going”. We talked it over and agreed that this was the best option as going back up the canyon would be near impossible along with the risks of navigating in the dark.
“When we go down to the creek we will lose communication”, I said.
“I know”, she replied.
“How long will it take to get to the road?”, I asked.
“I don’t know”, she said.
“Do you know this will work?”
She hesitated, “No”.
“Please call my wife and tell her everything that is going on”. My voice cracked as I said this.
“I already have”.
And with that, the gravity of situation hit me like a truck. We were way out of bounds. Our families were now very scared, and we needed help from trained professionals to get us home.
We began working our way to the creek. It took us nearly an hour to descend the 1500 ft down the steep hillside. We managed to get to the bottom without injury and with about an hour of daylight left. We worked our way along the creek bed, over and around the years of debris that had accumulated. We must have crossed back and forth almost a dozen times following the easiest path. Somehow we managed to stay dry.
About 15 minutes after sundown, with only our one headlamp to guide us, our journey ended. We came to a 15 ft waterfall with a cliff on one side and a rock slide on the other. There was no way to see a path forward and safely proceed. Exhausted and dehydrated, we sat down next to the creek and made our camp for the night. We had no way of making a fire nor was there a place to have one or fuel to burn. We used our empty packs as sleeping mats and donned every piece of clothing we brought. We huddled close and used each other to stay warm.
We spent most of the night talking about our kids, where we met our wives, comparing notes on whose extended family was crazier. We shared stories about our favorite outdoor adventures and places we hadn’t yet been. We talked about anything and everything so long as we could avoid thinking about how underdressed we were for this unplanned night out. We were able to stay calm and focus on the task at hand of safely getting home.
The dawn finally came and with it, much welcome warmth. In the morning light, we could see that we made the correct decision to stop the previous night. There were multiple rockslides on our left that would be dangerous to negotiate, even in daylight, with no assurance of what lay ahead. We decided to pick our way up the hillside and try to find a signal to get another call out. This consumed our morning with no success. We pinned our hopes on the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team knowing where we called from the day before and knowing our route along the creek that we’d be taking. With all our routes blocked, we eventually came back down to the creek.
We sat by the creek the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon. We were tired, out of food, and out of ideas. Mother nature had blocked us in, and we were ill equipped for our situation.
Just before 4pm, the unmistakable sound of helicopter blades came into the valley. We waved and signaled as best we could being two little dots in a sea of millions of other little dots. On their second pass through the area they spotted us. They were able to set a rescue crew down a mile away. The crew reached us and were able to guide us back to a suitable landing zone for the helicopter. However it was too late at this point to fly home, and we would have to spend another night out. This time, however, with proper gear and better food.
The skills and professionalism of the Ouray Mountain Rescue team members that found us and guided us to safety were extraordinary. They were able to help us through terrain that we were unable to safely negotiate on our own. They stayed with us the entire time, watching us for signs of injury and illness. And they coordinated our exit out of the wilderness the next morning. After a short helicopter ride to the outskirts of Ouray, we were reunited with our families.
We spent the next few days going over maps, retelling the story, and trying to figure out how this happened. In the end, it was our fault, and ours alone. The maps were accurate, the trail signs were correct. We simply let our attention lapse and tried to navigate as if we were in one place when we were actually in another. It was a wake-up call: a reminder that the mountains aren’t a theme park, that experienced people can make mistakes, and to be prepared for the unexpected.
I have the utmost gratitude and respect for the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, its mission, and its members. They have incredible knowledge and courage to operate where most can’t. And they do it as volunteers, expecting no compensation or recognition in return. It is truly humbling to know that when you are in serious trouble, these folks will stand up and say, “Not on my watch, not in my back yard”, and they will do whatever it takes to bring you home.
Ouray Resident since 2020