David O. Williams
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October 17, 2007 — Jacob and Joshua Gately acknowledge a series of mistakes that led to their separation high on a boulder field a thousand feet below the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross Oct. 13. In fact, it was a perfect storm of errors that very nearly cost Jacob his life.
A confident, self-described “outdoorsy” sheet-metal worker from Lee’s Summit, Mo., 23-year-old Jacob was traveling lightly Saturday when he and his 24-year-old brother set out from their campsite atop Halfmoon Pass in a bid to conquer the 14,005-foot peak.
While it was both men’s first attempt on a fourteener, Jacob has been to Colorado several times and said he is accustomed to the rigors of high-altitude hiking.
“This is my vacation spot,” Jacob said of the Vail Valley. “I’ve been coming out here for years, hiking and snowboarding, and I’m pretty familiar with it, but the circumstances got the best of me this time.”
Jacob spent two bone-chilling nights in minimal clothing after losing site of Joshua in the boulder field after reaching the peak’s summit. Jacob headed back into the boulders to look for his brother, fearing he’d fallen into a crack and was unable to call out. In his mad scramble to find Joshua, Jacob lost his daypack.
As darkness fell and a snowstorm started moving in Saturday night, Jacob gave up the hunt and opted to get off the mountain, but he became disoriented and tumbled 10 feet into frigid Cross Creek. At that point he decided to camp under a spruce tree and make a fire to dry out his clothing.
That plan worked to some degree, but he inadvertently torched his socks in the fire he started with a cigarette lighter. Meanwhile, Joshua had come out of the boulder field not knowing his brother had headed back in. He waited a while and called out to Jacob but decided to make his way off the mountain and back to their tent and sleeping bags on Halfmoon Pass.
“I was worried about him the whole time because we got about a foot of snow where we camped and I knew he was only wearing sneakers,” said Joshua, who was in Colorado for the first time and has never done much high-altitude hiking.
“It took all the stamina out of us,” Joshua said of the state’s 52nd highest peak and Eagle County’s only fourteener. “On the way down my legs were just posts. I had to just stick them straight out in front of me and that’s probably why I was running so far behind (Jacob in the boulder field). He’s a lot more experienced than me.”
Still, Joshua found the right trail out and used it to get back to their Halfmoon Pass campsite, where he used his cell phone to call rescuers at 7 p.m., Saturday. Vail Mountain Rescue advised him to stay put until they could get there Sunday morning.
But when the sun came up Sunday, Jacob followed a cairn marking a trail going the opposite direction. He didn’t realize his mistake until midday and by then was soaked again from trudging through snow.
Jacob lit another fire, dried out and started back the right way, but by then darkness was falling. Once again he camped under a spruce tree but this time his lighter was out of fuel, he was unable to dry his clothing, and temperatures were plummeting.
Late on Sunday, rescuers did spot Jacob’s size-13 New Balance tennis shoe prints and one of his fire pits, but they had no luck tracking down the lost hiker. The clues, though, gave hope to Joshua, who despite his exhaustion was still awaiting word of his brother on Halfmoon Pass. Finally, though, rescuers decided to break down the Gately’s camp and take Joshua out that night.
Jacob spent another brutal night burrowed into the spruce needles then trudged on in the morning, scrambling up Half Moon Pass only to discover rescuers had broken down his camp and taken Joshua out the night before. Still, he pressed on.
“I wasn’t going to let the mountain have me,” Jacob said. “Considering how long I was out there and what little supplies I had …. a little bit of frostbite, I think I made it out pretty dang good.”
Slogging on, he finally found the trailhead and had started down the access road when rescuers found him. A Vail Mountain Rescue crew was gearing up to go back in when they ran into Jacob on Tigiwon Road. They quickly summoned an ambulance, pumped Jacob full of hot tea and food, got him into warm, dry clothes, then sent him down to the Vail Valley Medical Center.
Doctors at Vail hospital said Jacob was slightly hypothermic but suffered only minor frostbite because he kept hiking and maintained circulation in his feet. It’s unlikely he will lose any toes, but Jacob knows how lucky he was and says he’s learned mightily from his mistakes.
“It was basically the panic of losing my brother in the mountains that got me off my trail,” he said. “My biggest mistake was instead of getting off the mountain as fast as I could under the weather circumstances I should have just gotten out of there and gone for help, even if he was still out there, but he’s my brother. And when it came down to it, I would never pack cotton again, ever, and I would never get out of sight of whoever I was hiking with.”
Similar mistakes have proven fatal on Holy Cross over the years. The mountain maintains the mystique of its high, snowy cross and relative isolation, but just because it serves as a backdrop for so many postcard photos of happy skiers on Vail Mountain doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly.
“We were intrigued because it was a fourteener and we’re both healthy and we both wanted to do a brief two or three day hike and camp but a difficult one maybe for some bragging rights,” Joshua said. “I felt so guilty for choosing the peak and getting split up. I know it’s not my fault but I still felt so guilty and I’m so happy we found him.”
The Gately brother’s mother, Jean, flew out Monday morning with her husband, Jim, to be with Joshua and do what they could during the rescue. They first saw Jacob in the emergency room Monday afternoon. Their emotions ran the gamut during the 72-hour ordeal.
“There were times when we had hope and then when I saw these mountains I was like, ‘There’s no way,’” Jean Gately said. “There were times when I was preparing for a funeral and there were times when I was planning for our granddaughter’s baptism and (Jacob’s) going to be the godfather. We went back and forth.”
For Joshua, the relief of finding his brother alive is palpable, and the lessons learned will stick with him for a lifetime: “Have a backup plan if you do lose visual with your hiking partner, and pack more than you need, even for a day hike.”
Those are words to live by in the high country.
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