Revisiting ‘Death Rode the High Country’

Posted Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Shown on the northeast corner of Third and Lewis streets are, with the belfry, the first Catholic Church in Pagosa Springs and, next, the first county school built in 1885.

The tourist season has arrived, along with summer activities such as hiking and camping in the wilderness. Unfortunately, unless more rain comes quickly, the San Juan Forest will be closed again because of fire danger.

Nevertheless, this seems an appropriate time to resurrect this column I wrote in October of 1998 describing an event which took place in the high San Juan Mountains Aug. 20, 1976. In August of 1976, I wrote the original column titled “Death Rode the High Country.”

A pristine world, awesomely beautiful and deceptively dangerous perches atop the high mountains encircling Pagosa Springs like a sparkling necklace.

For flatlanders, it is an alien world where trails wind among raw, basaltic monoliths thrusting forever skyward. Rugged, granite formations stab azure blue skies on one side of the rocky trail and plunge thousands of feet downward on the other side. Crystalline streams pour like fountains of youth from Mother Nature’s pitcher. Gem-like lakes, grassy meadows and arctic tundras provide gentle, glaciated reminders of a long-ago ice age. Here and there, dark conifers stunted by endless warfare with belligerent winds and soul-shredding cold huddle down in sharp ravines as if trying to hide.

Summer comes late to the high country, smiles for a few short weeks and then disappears, a docile servant of the dominant winter season. Spring flowers blossom in July, then they, too, disappear. Marsh marigolds peek through icy crusts adding their special radiance to the summer glow. A plentiful population of wild citizens — elk, deer and mountain sheep — takes advantage of the summer respite to fatten on lush grasses. A chorus of song birds greets each sunrise with an anthem of praise. Angry squirrels challenge unwonted intruders, and rock picas whistle from the safety of their granite shelters.

Escape into such an inviting wilderness fuels the dreams of men long trapped in stuffy homes, sterile offices and droning cars. Dreams such as standing on an overlook where they can see forever, marveling at the procession of soaring mountain peaks marching one after the other into misty obscurity.

Into the short-lived Continental Divide summer rode nine men, excited by the vacation of a lifetime, buoyed by the expectation of a real, honest-to-goodness Rocky Mountain high. Ahead were two weeks in which to ride, fish and drink in the nectar of wilderness rejuvenation.

The dream began unfolding on an Aug. 20, a Sunday, on Wolf Creek Pass at the summit, where the Continental Trail crosses U.S.160. Horses and mules were coaxed, stomping and snorting, from horse trailers. Men took turns holding lead ropes while their compañeros threw creaky saddles and saddle bags across antsy backs and tightened cinch straps. Good-natured bantering set the stage for an easy comradeship, the sharing of needs and the need for sharing felt by men about to plunge into the wilderness.

Leading the entourage was Herb Browning, game warden and veteran mountain man from Pagosa Springs.

Joining Browning were two Colorado highway patrolmen, Bill Downey, of Pagosa Springs, and Jack Talbot, of Bayfield; Downey’s dad, Marshall Downey; Johnny Powell, of Pagosa Springs, a Colorado highway department employee; Ray Johnson, a physician’s associate from Pagosa Springs; Fred Patton, Johnson’s stepfather; Bob Hendricks, of Burlington; and Fred Lucero, of Ignacio.

Full of joy and anticipation, the men called “hi-ya,” spurred their mounts’ flanks and set out, unaware that serpents lurked in their San Juan Mountain Garden of Eden that fateful week in August. Just a month earlier, two veteran alpine backpackers narrowly escaped with their lives while walking north on the Continental Divide Trail on South River Peak, a day’s journey up the trail. They were Dean Cox, of South Fork, and Bill Price, of Alamosa. Lightning attacked, but failed to kill the hiking duo.

Intermittent thundershowers dampened moods as the slicker-clad horsemen clopped deeper and deeper into the wilderness. With the rain came the ominous roar of thunder and sharp cracks of nearby lightning bolts. At 11,000 feet and above timberline, lightning bolts are not overhead in the clouds; they are all around on all sides as the thunder reverberates from peak to peak. Landscape, thunder and lightning fuse the ionizing force, the hair on man and beast shivers and stands on end. Burning ozone flavors the thin mountain air with an eerie tang.

Still, the men rode on, certain the weather would change and the sun would soon reclaim its sovereignty. As night shadows lengthened, the adventurers picketed the horses and mules to prevent the frightened animals from escaping. Later, with campfires doused and pitched bed rolls spread out on the damp ground, the men dozed off in uneven sleep.

Up at first light, they rode on, alternately donning and doffing slickers in response to the thunderstorms which rolled across as if controlled by some giant cloud cam. Between storms, birds sang and rock picas whistled and an occasional breathtaking vista opened to the north and east. Once a pair of ptarmigans leaned to the side, granting the horsemen a meager right of way.

Later, tins of sardines plastered on crackers provided lunch. Sore body parts protested the return to wet saddles, but boots found stirrups, legs slung across saddles and the ride continued.

The trail wound around timberline onto South River Peak, a 13,149-foot denizen of the San Juans and motherland for branches of the Piedra, Rio Grande and San Juan rivers. It was 4 p.m. and already thoughts of camp were nudging man and beast. Time would be needed to find dry wood for fires and to rub down the animals. A warm campfire and dry jeans would be welcome. Just 3.5 miles ahead, a small game and fish cabin stood at the headwaters of the East Fork of the Piedra River, a perfect escape, a place to get dry.

Without warning, Mother Nature loosed a bomb, delivering chaos to the column of riders and their pack animals. A powerfully charged lightning bolt enveloped the column and instantly killed Jack Talbot, who was riding in the middle. Six screaming, plunging animals died, their life forces sucked dry by the electrical assassin. Downey, Johnson and Lucero were hurt. Later they could not recall if the damage was done by the lightning or falling animals.

“I just don’t remember what happened,” Downey said. “I can’t remember anything from about 15 minutes before until about 15 minutes after it happened.”

Downey suffered a broken nose and a concussion, a better fate than that suffered by his dead mule. The animals that escaped death from the lightning reared and bolted, escaping into the wilderness with saddles and packs intact.

Beaten and battered, some with the soles burned off of their boots, the stricken party limped ahead to the cabin on the Piedra, where they regrouped overnight. Some nourishment and welcome warmth were enjoyed at the cabin.

Early the next morning, Browning and Powell traversed on foot the rugged trail to Spar City, an old mining camp south and west of Creede. In Spar City, they found someone who drove them to Creede, where arrangements were made to recover Talbot’s body and rescue the remainder of the party.

In the meantime, two Durango youth, Rick Bottoms and Pat Owens, abandoned personal camping plans to minister to the stricken men. Some, but not all, of the scattered horses and mules were recovered. The next day, Wednesday, Browning was flying over the area in a game and fish airplane, still searching for missing stock.

The Continental Divide Trail access at Wolf Creek Pass remains a popular wilderness adventure. But, as travelers cross the flanks of South River Peak, a few scattered, ivory-hued bones glisten among the rocks. Picked clean by mountain varmints and bleached by summer sun, the bones are a grim reminder that within that wonderful, pristine mountain wilderness, death still rides.