Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail

Scout, me and Nan with Jenny and John Shepherd on Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail
Our friends, the Shepherds, were in Colorado last weekend for their annual summer visit. They have a timeshare in Avon that they use twice a year, a week in the winter for skiing and another in the summer for hiking and biking. On Sunday morning, Nan, Scout and I met them at the Dairy Queen in West Glenwood, which is a fair distance compromise between Avon and Grand Junction. From there, we proceeded west on I-70 to Canyon Creek exit 109 and then doubled back on the north-side frontage road to where it dead-ends at the parking lot for the Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail's trailhead.

Adam and Allie at the observation point below Storm King Mountain
On July 6, 1994, fourteen firefighters died while battling the South Canyon Fire when high winds caused the flames to blow up suddenly, trapping them on an isolated slope. The memorial trail was created by friends and family wishing to visit the place where their loved ones lost their lives. It has since been improved by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, but it retains its original characteristics as a steep, rugged climb of a thousand vertical feet in a mile and a half. Hikers can't help but think of the brave young men and women who labored up this same slope, carrying heavy firefighting equipment, for the purpose of controlling a fire which threatened the nearby community of Canyon Creek.

Scout seeking shade at the observation point across from the deadly slope
The temperature was at least 93 degrees when we arrived at the trailhead in the early afternoon. We each carried CamelBaks full of ice and water, which we generously shared with Scout, who hurried quickly between shady spots while dancing over the hot dust of the well-worn trail. We stopped frequently to rest in the shade and to read the many informational signs along the way, which pointed out the sights and explained how forest fires are fought. The trail eventually leveled out and followed a hot, treeless ridge line to an observation point across from the deadly slope.

Nan and John returning to the trailhead of the Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail
In my mind, I had imagined this place many times in the eighteen years since the fire, but it was nothing like I thought it would be. Instead of a canopy of evergreen trees, the steep slopes were covered in chest-high brush and junipers, and I pictured it engulfed in wind-driven flames, racing directly at the firefighters. There would have been nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Twelve of the firefighters died just below the opposite ridge and two others in a wash a few hundred yards away, directly below the peak of Storm King Mountain. If it had not been so hot, we would have continued our hike to those locations, where memorials have been erected, to pay our respects. We will need to return sometime soon to do so. You should too.

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