At least that’s what we’d planned.
But a lot had happened in that short span. A thirteen-mile hike brought us to the Needle’s Eye tunnel where we spent a restless night in Al’s tiny two-man pup tent. The next day we trekked seven-miles through armpit-deep snow leaving us dog-tired, and still ten miles from civilization. Plus, because of the 11,000-foot altitude and dehydration due to our extreme exertion and minimal fluids headaches were constant.
Suddenly, we saw a green-shingled roof sticking up through the deep snow. We thought it was a wilderness cabin stocked with food. Instead, it was an outhouse. It was like waking up Christmas morning with no presents under the tree.
While it was only an outhouse, it was the biggest and best outhouse I’d ever seen. It was one of the Forest Service’s finest crappers, complete with a cement floor and stainless-steel throne. It didn’t take long for us to realize that even an outhouse was better than the three of us crammed into Al’s tiny tent.
The outhouse had a men’s and women’s section and, being the polite young men of the sixties that we were, using our hands, cook pot, and whatever else we could muster, we dug out the nearly five feet of snow to the men’s side and tumbled in. I’ve never been as grateful to be in a five-by-six-foot confined area as I was that late afternoon. I know it’s hard to imagine three young men crammed into an outhouse and loving it, but we thought it was heaven.
We laid out our sleeping bags around the “throne” and I suggested to Dennis, we zip our bags together, so we’d be a lot warmer. We did, and it was. It was one of the three smart things we did. Although we were jealous of Al’s goose-down-filled sleeping bag, we kept warm in our Kapok-filled bags (with the pheasant hunting scenes on the liners) by sharing our body heat.
Sunday night was a restless one. Although the temperatures were relatively mild in the teens, Dennis and I tossed around trying to keep warm. Al suffered more from headaches than Dennis and I, and none of us had much of an appetite. We were out of water, so occasionally we dipped our cups into the snow for frozen refreshment.
Monday was spent anticipating rescue. We were hopeful that we’d hear the roar of a snowmobile, our rescuers would pull up to the outhouse, we’d climb aboard, and would zoom merrily out of the wilderness. The reason for this hope was that the second smart thing we did was tell our friends where we were going and when we should return. We told them if we weren’t back by Sunday night, something was wrong. It was Sunday and something was definitely wrong. We were exhausted and stalled in armpit-deep snow with ten miles to go.
In the afternoon, partly out of boredom, partly to generate more space, and partly to cook some food, Dennis took it upon himself to expand our living quarters. It was easy for the muscle-bound guy since he was a wrestling conference champion. He punched his fist through the plywood partition separating the women’s section from the men’s. Then he tore down half the wall, allowing us to peek around the corner into the women’s section. Determined to build a fire in the women’s half of our domain he waded through the deep snow to break branches off the coniferous trees. Then with much coaxing of the toilet paper, small twigs, and lumber from the walls, he finally got the green wood burning enough to perhaps heat a can of baked beans. Unfortunately, in the process it filled our lungs with smoke. Years later I’d be reminded of the experience whenever I visited my chain-smoking in-laws.
Al and I were confident we wouldn’t end our lives in an outhouse, but Dennis wasn’t so sure. At one point while tending the fire, he took a burnt stick and wrote his fiancée Mary’s name on the wall, as if he might never see her again. He maintained his sense of humor, however, when later that night, as we lay huddled in our sleeping bags braced against the cold, he said, “You know, Mary will probably never forgive me. I told her I’d never be in anyone else’s arms.”
Dennis had apparently worked up an appetite from his construction, (or should I say DEstruction) efforts. He tossed a can of baked beans on the fire before returning to the warmth of our sleeping bags. We lay in our bags feeling sorry for ourselves, with Al serenading us with his vision to become president of the Young Democrats of Wyoming, and Dennis telling us of his undying love for Mary. Me, I was thinking, “I could go for a pepperoni pizza about now.”
Suddenly we heard a loud bang as if someone had shot a gun outside the door. But it wasn’t outside the door. It was closer, much closer. It was in the women’s toilet. I peered around the corner and saw a Jackson Pollock-like painting of baked beans decorating the wall.
Not being a connoisseur of outdoor cooking, Dennis didn’t know that when cooking baked beans in the can you must first put a hole in the lid.
That provided one of a few good chuckles, but no, we didn’t scrape the beans off the wall to eat. In hindsight I wonder why, cause it was our only real food and I had gotten sick of chewing on Slim Jims.
Early Tuesday morning Al said, “Isn’t that a plane I hear?
Sure enough, it was. Maybe it was the rescue we were waiting for!
I grabbed Al’s binoculars and scrambled out to see if it was a search plane. Peering up into the sky, I couldn’t tell for sure, but unless rescue planes were Boeing 707s searching from 35,000 feet, it wasn’t a rescue plane. It didn’t take long to figure out it was a commercial airliner heading to Denver’s Stapleton International airport.
At that point I realized, there weren’t no bugles blowing and the cavalry weren’t coming. So, we had to get out of there on our own.
We decided to leave what little food we had with Al (a handful of Slim Jims), who was still suffering from altitude sickness, and Dennis and I would try to hike out. By leaving Al alone, we’d be breaking a cardinal rule of wilderness survival ‒ never split your group. But we felt the time had come to rescue ourselves.
Little did we know that back in Laramie our friends were saying, “Oh, their car probably broke down. They’ll be back tomorrow.” They had found every reason to rationalize our absence and hadn’t reported us missing till Tuesday morning.
So, ultimately leaving Al and heading out was the third smart thing we did