By Staff Sgt. Don Branum, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
/ Published July 23, 2010
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- When two cadets from the Air Force Academy decided to hike Pikes Peak July 17, "become heroes" was not on the itinerary. But by the time they reached the 14,110-foot summit -- carrying a hiker who had broken her foot two miles from the top -- they had at least one person's heartfelt gratitude.
Cadets 1st Class Stephen Shaffer from Cadet Squadron 12 and Stephen Newell from CS 32 set out on the Barr Trail early that morning to hike a round trip on the trail, which stretches about 13 miles and climbs 7,000 feet from the trailhead in Manitou Springs.
"I'm big into the outdoors -- biking, hiking, fishing," said Cadet Shaffer, who played for the Falcons football team before two concussions prematurely ended his football career. "I'd hiked a few 'fourteeners,' but I hadn't hiked Pikes Peak, and I look at it every day."
The cadets reached Barr Camp, a third of the way along the trail, about two hours after setting out. Around noon, they encountered Marian Steele and her hiking partner above the tree line. Ms. Steele had broken her foot while the two descended from the summit.
"We decided we'd see what we could do to help her," Cadet Shaffer said.
He and Cadet Newell, a former Falcons linebacker, offered to help the hikers in distress. One of the two jokingly asked if the cadets could carry Ms. Steele to the top, but once they assessed her injuries and the risks of incoming afternoon thunderstorms, they decided that's exactly what they would do.
"We were worried about being above the tree line with storms rolling in," Cadet Shaffer said. "We knew we were on the clock. We knew Barr Camp was a few miles down, but that the summit was a few miles closer, and we knew we had to get her medical attention."
The Barr Trail is at its most grueling above tree line. The atmosphere is already thin at the trailhead, which is about 7,000 feet above sea level. The air pressure at 11,000 feet is two-thirds of air pressure at sea level, and at 14,000 feet, air pressure is roughly half of sea-level pressure. The human body has to work much harder to get oxygen at higher altitudes, and acute altitude sickness becomes a risk. The trail itself also becomes more treacherous, as loose gravel with the consistency of ball bearings can throw off an unwary hiker's footing.
"Heat was a factor along with the altitude and the extra weight of (Ms. Steele's) pack," Cadet Shaffer said.
The cadets took turns carrying Ms. Steele as they approached the summit. They also stopped frequently to rest, refuel and rehydrate, Cadet Shaffer said. Once they reached the summit, they turned the injured hiker over to El Paso County Search and Rescue, which was at the summit for an unrelated emergency call.
Steve Sperry is the spokesperson for EPCSAR, a non-profit agency that does not charge for its services but relies on donations from the local community for its operations. He praised the cadets' action but said that attempting to rescue a stranded or injured hiker is a potentially dangerous undertaking.
"The cadets did a great job getting her to the top! In doing so, they also put themselves in jeopardy," said Mr. Sperry, a retired major who works full-time for the Joint Functional Component Command-Integrated Missile Defense at Schriever Air Force Base. "Safety is always the number-one issue for search and rescue, both for the patient and the rescuers, but if you're going into the military, sometimes you put others' well-being above yours, and that's a good thing."
Mr. Sperry shared some tips for people hiking the Barr Trail: start the hike early, let someone know where you're going and when you plan to return, and have an exit plan.
"If you're doing a round trip, you need to be on the trail by 5 a.m., because that's almost 26 miles," he said. "And if you're just going up, have a plan on how to get back down -- if the (Cog Railway) train is full, they will not let you on. In the past, we've responded to people who were stuck at the top because they didn't have a plan to get back."
Cell phone coverage is generally good most of the way up the trail if a hiker becomes stranded or injured, Mr. Sperry said. The other alternative in an emergency situation is to flag down another hiker, as the Barr Trail is well-populated during hiking season.
"By the time we get a page, if we run up Code 3 -- that's sirens going and lights flashing -- it'll take us an hour to get from the rescue base to the top," he said.
Those preparing for a hike should bring plenty of water, snacks, rain gear, sunscreen and good footwear, he said. But above all, he asked hikers to keep safety in mind from the first planning stages to the last step of the trail and to let trained and equipped SAR professionals handle any rescues.
"We appreciate everything the cadets did," he said. "They did a super job."