AT 7 A.M. ON THE MORNING OF June 12, NOLS instructor Jim Roepke and two students, Fred Hamerman and Stuart Miller, set out on an epic journey in search of food.
A rendezvous with the horse packer hired to bring the expedition its next 10-day supply of miso and carob chips had gone awry. The night before at their camp near the confluence of Dot and Ptarmigan creeks, the students had had a supper of "oatmeal with nothing on it."
Snow lay deep in the passes; it was plausible the horse packer might have dropped the food as far up the trail as he could get. The expedition had no radio. The only way to find out what had happened was to go and see.
Into small "summit packs" Fred, Jim and Stuart stuffed extra wool clothes, rain gear, glacier goggles, a first aid kit, some white gasoline, matches and ice axes. They had a bowl of farina and a cup of tea, and strode out of camp in the half-light.
Sometimes the things you remember best are the things you would never have planned, or the things that happen because plans go astray. Only a few hours after the threesome set out, the rest of the group was bagging the missing food down near the mouth of Ptarmigan Creek. They had stumbled upon a sign written in mud by the horsepackers that said "NOLS Food 1 Hour" with an arrow pointing in the direction opposite the way their three scouts had gone. There had been a mix-up somewhere, the X on the map that marked the rendezvous was a few inches off, and because of it, Jim, Stuart and Fred stumbled on 17-mile odyssey in which they climbed two passes, hiked up and down 5,000 feet, toured spectacular scenery, shivered through a long night intensified by hunger and came away with a set of indelible memories.
"When we started out, I figured it would be a good hike and we would get in around 6," Stuart recalled.
The way went up through the snow and stunted forest over Butte Pass. The snowfields of Mount Lago hung in the sky to the west. Then it was a long cruise down the valley of Monument Creek.
They ate a bowl of cold farina at the bottom of the switchbacks of Pistol Pass at 2:30 in the afternoon, and the three of them hugged at 4 p.m. when they reached the top. To calm his anxiety, Stuart read the 23rd Psalm from the Bible he carried in his shirt pocket. All the way Jim had been trying to concentrate on something beside the Grateful Dead song "Ship of Fools" that had run aground in his head. It had become the ironic voice of his suspicions that they were launched on an epic goosechase.
"I was dead going up that last leg of Pistol," Stuart said.
They dropped 500 feet down the far side of Pistol Pass, far enough to make sure that the food wasn't there. The snow was so deep it was obvious the horse packer could never have gotten through. It was perplexing that anyone would think he could. They did not know then that Wayne Ledford the horse packer is chary of crossing Pistol Pass with a pack string even in late August, much less mid-June when the snow is still deep.
"I knew the food wasn't going to be there," Jim recalled.
So back they went, back over Pistol Pass, glissading down the snow fields, retracing their steps. By 5 o'clock they reached the Monument Valley shelter. Heading for Butte Pass they went astray, climbing the wrong side of it, and at 9 o'clock they saw where they should have been. By the time most of the light had been extinguished in the sky, they had gained the pass and thought the worst of their ordeal was over. It was all downhill. In fact, it was steeply downhill, and Roepke chopped steps for the two students. Stuart, in mountain boots, had a better purchase than Fred who had elected to hike in sneakers because his boots were wet; Stuart helped Fred secure his feet in the snow steps.
Suddenly Fred slipped, slid, rolled over and tried to arrest himself with his ice ax but could not. He flipped over backward and wrenched his knee. Jim threw himself in Fred's path and stopped him. "It was different than being in the library," Fred said, with ironic understatement.
Stuart's nose began to bleed, and he threw up. Roepke called a halt, and set about finding a place for the three of them to bivouac until daylight. They donned all their clothes, wrapped Fred's soaking feet in one of the packs and huddled out of the wind in a depression behind some trees.
"It was very hard to tell whether I went to sleep or not," Stuart said. "It was so cold."
They hunkered close and shivered for six hours. Around 4 the snow reflected the first traces of dawn.
"We said we started this together, we're going to finish it together," Jim said.
They staggered into camp at 5:45 a.m. and to their joy saw the group's food satchels bulging with the provisions they'd gone in search of, and pots of spaghetti, fettucine, a pizza and a carrot cake. They ate themselves to satiety, and slept all day and part of the next.