Children OK after night in the woods | AspenTimes.com

Children OK after night in the woods

Joel Stonington

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

After 18 hours in the snow and cold at 12,000 feet, three 9-year-olds and a mother arrived at the aptly named Lost Man parking lot to cheers from dozens of waiting family members and search-and-rescue teams that had worked through the night.Stephanie Sakson, 48, and her daughter, Andra Sakson, 9, along with friends Matt Palomino, 9, and Jillian Wentzel, 9, spent the night huddled under a tarp in their day-hiking clothes at temperatures near freezing. Jillian is from Glenwood Springs; the rest are from Carbondale. They arrived with rescuers at the lower Lost Man trailhead around 1 p.m. Tuesday with rosy cheeks, bundled in oversized clothes and walking a shivering Jack Russell terrier named Nik.The Lost Man Loop Trail, a popular hike just west of Independence Pass, is a partial loop with two trailheads on Highway 82. Rescuers couldn’t confirm exactly how the group got lost, but several members said it was likely the hikers thought they began at the upper trailhead, when they were actually at the lower trailhead, where Lost Man and the Midway Trail begin as one trail before Lost Man diverges toward the pass. The Midway Trail is an 18-mile direct shot into Aspen, and rescuers speculated the hikers accidentally started on that trail.

It was supposed to be a day hike that Stephanie Sakson took with the three kids, all of whom attend Waldorf School of the Roaring Fork in Carbondale, but they were not on a school trip. School administrator George Lilly said teachers were preparing for an assembly when they learned the four had been found.

The snow was knee-deep in places toward the top of Midway Trail near Midway Pass, and they lost the trail at some point, said Mountain Rescue Aspen President Hugh Zuker.Maureen Brennan, Matt’s mother, said she called 911 around 6 p.m. Monday after her son and the others failed to return that afternoon. From there, it was a long night waiting and wondering at the Lost Man trailhead.”We didn’t sleep,” Brennan said. “We had information from Mountain Rescue all night long while their search was going on, mostly about where they searched and when the next team would be going out.”Zuker said rescuers mobilized four teams at 8 p.m. Monday and searched through the night, breaking for two hours just before dawn to switch teams. Rescuers walked Lost Man Loop to ascertain that the hikers weren’t there, and Mountain Rescue narrowed the search down to a 2-square-mile area near the Midway Trail and Coleman Creek. New teams took to the field around 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and began combing Coleman Creek, an area that runs down from Midway Pass.Search teams came upon Sakson along Coleman Creek around 10:15 a.m., but the children were not with her. Rescuers speculated that Sakson had spent the night with the children and left them to find help in the morning, but Sakson was not available to confirm the details.Less than 10 minutes later, searchers found the three 9-year-olds huddled under a tree off the trail about a mile below Midway Pass, near 12,000 feet.Zuker said it was highly unusual, looking for lost children in a blizzard at night with winds up to 40 mph. He also said that rescue teams considered all possibilities, including the recent report of a grizzly bear sighting in the area. The weather further complicated the search as helicopters and search planes waiting at Sardy Field remained grounded during the entire search.

“Visibility was down to 100 feet or less at times,” said Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Jesse Steindler, who was on the scene the morning everyone was brought out safely. “Rescuers were dealing with steep terrain. Some of the mountain rescue guys I spoke with said the conditions were extremely difficult.”The community of people who have children at the Waldorf school and otherwise knew the missing hikers came together around the search, as did various neighboring search and rescue agencies. “We brought up the mobile parent center this morning,” said Tom Stevens, who has a child at the Waldorf School. Stevens brought a Winnebago to the trailhead for the waiting family members to stay warm. “We kept in touch through the parent network of Waldorf folks.”As Tuesday morning dawned with no word from the kids or the elder Sakson, people stood around the parking lot and outside of the motor home with steaming cups of coffee as snow came down in big, wet flakes. When reports came through that everyone was safe and starting down the trail, folks burst out of the mobile home with huge grins and tears in their eyes, hugging and smiling.

“It was a bit of an adventure, but he felt safe,” Matt’s mom said several hours after reuniting with her son. “It was a little cold. They had a tarp, and they had each other. They were under the trees.”The top of Midway Trail is around 1,500 feet above the parking lot and a strenuous hike on a good day. The going was slow on the journey down, which took around two hours, but the emotions were jubilant at the Lost Man trailhead as reports remained good.When the dozen or so rescuers finally appeared along the trail, escorting three cold-but-happy children and a relieved mom, other parents rushed toward them to dissolve into hugs and tears. “Indescribable,” said Brennan, who couldn’t say much more of the moment when she saw Matt safely walking along the trail. “We were thrilled. We pictured that all night long.”The Associated Press contributed to this report.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com

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