Loved to Death

Besieged by crowds and Front Range pollution, Colorado's premier national park is a vanishing wilderness.

Yet Magnuson's rangers are too busy on the roads and in the campgrounds -- and on Longs Peak. Technical climbers may be getting into trouble less often, but the number of search-and-rescue incidents involving general hikers is shooting up. Some are poorly equipped, improperly dressed or overcome with altitude sickness. Some just don't know what the hell they're doing.

"They drive out from sea level in two days, try to summit Longs Peak in a day and overexert themselves," the chief ranger says. "We pull someone off there several times a week. Sometimes it seems like several times a day."

Patrick Merewether
Lone ranger: Gregg Burgess patrols Rocky Mountain's 
front country.
Anthony Camera
Lone ranger: Gregg Burgess patrols Rocky Mountain's front country.

Rain turns to sleet as Gregg Burgess heads up Trail Ridge Road. Near the Alpine Visitor Center, elevation 11,796 feet, a heavy fog grips the ridge. Visibility drops to thirty feet, then ten. Burgess switches on his hazard lights. The dispatcher says the temperature is around 35 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind chill is 15 and falling.

The park usually keeps Trail Ridge open until mid-October, but it's been shut down briefly even in July because of snow, ice or visibility problems. On a clear day, the highest state highway in America can be a journey out of time, a communion with wind and spectacular jagged peaks and the sprawling miles of tundra that make up one-third of the park -- or a miserable slog behind a wide-ass motor home with Arkansas plates that declare ELVIS1. Today it's simply a cautious crawl through gray soup.

Some days Burgess is stuck on Trail Ridge for most of his shift, dealing with vapor locks, failed brakes and accidents. Not long ago, staff had to arrange for a helicopter ride from the Alpine Visitor Center for a food-service employee who was suffering an allergic reaction to the pineapple in her lunch. Like most rangers, Burgess would prefer to spend more time in the backcountry, but it just isn't possible; the backcountry rangers tend to be veterans, and Burgess is still working toward a shot at a permanent position. He didn't even have a chance to climb Longs Peak until a few days ago.

On the way down from the visitor center, the clouds begin to lift and the sun breaks through. Flashes of crimson and gold ripple through the tundra, already primed for winter. Burgess marvels at the scene. "A lot of our rescues," he says, "come from a lack of respect for Mother Nature."

Past Deer Ridge Junction, the pullouts are crammed with people viewing the elk mating rituals in an adjoining meadow. Burgess pulls over and joins a group huddled around volunteer Dave Chambers, who's explaining why the bull elk in the meadow has such a dark chest.

"He's been wallowing for the rut," Chambers explains to a middle-aged man. "A bull will find a good mudhole and pee in it, then rub it all over himself to attract the ladies. When you were a young guy, you probably did the same thing."

Volunteers such as Chambers are a godsend to the rangers. The park has 2,000 of them, putting in around 100,000 hours a year. They can be more places than the sparse ranger staff and are often the wildlife's first line of defense from the overly curious. Chambers has worked 4,000 hours over the past nine years. In the fall he watches over the elk rut at least twice a week. "We used to have to chase people out of the meadow all the time," he says. "People still don't bother to read the signs, but most of them seem to understand why they need to keep their distance."

As Burgess returns to his four-wheeler, a call comes over the radio about an "overdue party" on Longs Peak. The missing hiker set out from the Keyhole for the summit more than five hours ago, leaving two companions behind; he never returned. His two friends headed down to the trailhead, and the rangers have just been notified of the situation.

It's been snowing most of the afternoon on the peak, with strong winds. It's now six o'clock, and night is fast approaching. The overdue party, a 26-year-old Fort Collins man, was wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.

The search team finds his body the next afternoon. According to the Boulder County coroner, the man, identified as Sudheer Averineni, died of exposure. It was the first fatality on Longs Peak since three people died there in 2000.

Born in India, Averineni worked as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard. He had tried twice before to climb the 14,255-foot peak.

This time he reached the summit.

As the science officer for Rocky Mountain National Park, Terry Terrell presides over an essential yet oddly secondhand enterprise. A 1997 law requires the park service to base its management decisions on solid science -- as opposed to, say, the lobbying pressures exerted by snowmobilers or other recreational groups. But an administrative maneuver had purged the parks of their scientific research staffs three years earlier.

The parks have responded to the challenge by establishing centers that provide bunks and other support for outside researchers. The Continental Divide Research Center, established in 2001 at a renovated dude ranch in the park, now hosts 400 people a year, usually researchers from other government agencies or universities.

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