Updated: April 17, 2012 at 12:00 am
Sometime this winter, a small herd of cows ventured to an alpine cabin near Aspen, broke in and froze to death when, apparently, they couldn’t escape.
On Tuesday, the two Air Force Academy cadets who found the frozen carcasses said they nearly suffered the same chilly fate.
“It was hard to comprehend but it was right in front of us,” said Cameron Harris, a junior, of his discovery in late March. “We just couldn’t understand how they got there.
“And then we were immediately concerned with where we were going to stay.”
It may take explosives to dislodge the cows that wandered into an old ranger cabin high in the Rocky Mountains, then died and froze solid. Rangers believe the animals sought shelter during a snowstorm and got stuck and weren’t smart enough to find their way out.
The cabin is near the Conundrum Hot Springs, a nine-mile hike from the Aspen area in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area.
Harris said they spent the day at the hot springs and headed for the cabin as dusk approached.
That’s when Harris saw a head.
Then the bodies of six cows — four adults, two calves.
Astonished, he prodded one with a pole.
“It was just hard as wood,” Harris said. “There was no snow. They looked probably exactly as they were when they were alive. One of them even had it’s eyes open.”
Then the irony hit.
Unable to hike out because of poor conditions, Harris and Marshall Kay, a junior, set up their tent about seven miles from their car and hunkered down for the evening.
“I was shivering the entire night,” Harris said. “I would wake up absolutely shaking.
“I was thinking man, Marshall’s going to wake up and I’m jut going to be laying there just like the cows. And he’s going to have to find a way to get me out.”
They hiked down the next day and notified forest rangers, who later found more dead cows lying around the building, said Brian Porter, a forest service spokesman.
Cattle are often allowed to wander on federal wilderness lands as long as ranchers get a permit from the Forest Service, and sometimes the animals get separated from their herd, said Michael Carroll, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society in Colorado.
The animals appear to have come from a herd of 29 cows that went missing last fall from the nearby Gunnison National Forest where the rancher had a permit, according to the Forest Service.
With temperatures rising, officials now must answer the question: What next?
The options: use explosives to break up the cows, burn down the cabin, or use helicopters or trucks to haul out the carcasses.
But using helicopters is too expensive and rangers are worried about using trucks in a wilderness area, where the government bars permanent improvements and tries to preserve the natural habitat, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin.
Officials must decide quickly. The carcasses could contaminate the nearby hot springs if they start decomposing during the thaw.
“Obviously, time is of the essence because we don’t want them defrosting,” Segin said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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