Bum steer leaves physicist lost in Aspen backcountry
August 10, 2010
ASPEN – A physicist visiting Aspen had his plan for an all-day adventure Friday take a quantum leap into a 3 1/2-day exercise in survival after he got lost in the backcountry.
Yuli Nazarov planned a route that he knew was aggressive for a one-day hike but he was confident he could make it because of his prior experience. Nazarov, 50, has attended conferences at the Aspen Center for Physics for the last 10 years and has fallen in love with the hiking around town.
He had previously hiked up the Hunter Creek Valley past a geographic feature known as Thimble Rock – far beyond the usual tourist lap in Hunter Creek. The route into upper Hunter Creek was relatively easy for him, so he devised a way to expand it into a loop using maps he downloaded on his GPS unit.
Nazarov started up the valley from Clark’s Market at 8 a.m. Friday with the aggressive goal of reaching Midway Pass, roughly 15 miles away, then taking a different route back to Warren Lakes before closing the loop with a walk down Smuggler Mountain Road to Aspen.
Nazarov said he was unfamiliar with the terrain between Midway Pass and Warren Lakes but figured from studying the map that it was similar to the Hunter Creek trails, without a lot of vertical gain and loss. He figured he would get back to Aspen by 10 p.m. or so. He was undaunted about completing the hike in the dark.
The Russian-born and raised scientist who now lives in Holland sent an e-mail to his wife in Holland letting her know he would be out all day but would contact her when he got back to the Inn at Aspen, where he was staying.
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Nazarov made his way to Midway Creek with little trouble Friday, then realized the trail that is clearly marked on old U.S. Geological Survey quads between Midway Pass and Warren Lakes isn’t so easy to find any longer. He ended up camping in the Midway Pass area on Friday night. He had a pack and some light gear – rain pants and a jacket as well as a sweater. He also had food and water for one long day.
“If I knew I would spend so much time in the mountains, I could do better,” he said of his preparations.
He took off shortly after daybreak on Saturday determined to find the trail to Warren Lakes. He found only intermittent signs of the old route. He crossed an unnamed pass and camped in a large flat area that maps indicate is at an elevation of 11,715 feet. There were two ponds that he initially mistook for Warren Lakes and later realized were unnamed, smaller bodies of water.
With the route so sketchy, he acknowledged he wondered Saturday at sunset if he should retreat and go to Highway 82 for a ride into Aspen. He opted to try to find his way.
“The sun shines and you think you can do better the next day,” he said with a sheepish grin.
The sun didn’t shine all the time. There were occasional showers Saturday night and Sunday morning. Nazarov had a lighter with him but the wood was too wet for a fire, he said.
On Sunday he started down a drainage that he later learned is No Name Creek, which flows into Hunter Creek near Thimble Rock. He downplayed the hardships he encountered and because of some communication challenges, it was difficult to comprehend everything he had to endure. It was clear that the trip down No Name wasn’t a simple walk along a creek, and by the time he reached upper Hunter Creek Valley he was still uncertain of his location.
“I couldn’t decide which direction to go, so I tried both and neither worked,” he said.
Nazarov said he used to hike in Siberia while growing up. “This was reminiscent of my younger days,” he said.
When asked if he was ever worried, Nazarov said not so much for himself. “I was reasonably sure I could make it but I didn’t know how many days,” he said.
He was more concerned about how his wife would be worried after not hearing from him. She initially thought he might have encountered a computer problem. She contacted and conferred with another physicist over the weekend, and at 2 a.m. Monday she contacted the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
Nazarov was staying alone at the Inn at Aspen so there was no roommate to report him missing. There was no organized event at the physics center over the weekend, and physicists typically do their own thing so there was no alarm about Nazarov’s absence.
Using a map, Nazarov guessed at where he camped Sunday night – roughly 3 miles northeast of Thimble Rock. On Monday, he headed west and picked up trails in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness that led him back to the Hunter Creek Valley. He found a good trail at about noon.
“I know I was not lost,” he said.
He was nearly to the national forest boundary near Tom and Bonnie McCloskey’s house when he encountered members of Mountain Rescue Aspen between 2 and 3 p.m. Nazarov raved about the treatment by rescue members, who took him to the rescue cabin on Main Street for food and water.
Although he had only raspberries after his food ran out early in the ordeal, the fit-looking Nazarov said he surprisingly wasn’t all that hungry. He wasn’t injured during the outing. His feet were sore because his boots didn’t hold up very well after some stream crossings and he had minor scratches on his hands from bushwhacking.
Nazarov said the lesson he learned is to be cautious about information on trails that can be downloaded from various online sites onto GPS units. He never suspected a well-marked trail really didn’t exist.
“I’m terribly disappointed that this information is false,” Nazarov said.
Longtime Aspen residents say there was a well-worn pack trail between Midway Pass and Warren Lakes decades ago. For whatever reason, it fell out of favor and was no longer maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.
Nazarov urged officials from Pitkin County and the Forest Service to start maintaining the route again. It’s beautiful country, he said.