Teens Rebecca Clark, Jordan Wilson and Tristina Altman began preparing for their Aug. 23 hike to the summit of Pikes Peak long before the first step.
As Girl Scouts, they knew never to take nature - especially Colorado nature, at altitude - for granted. Weather on high is stormy and mercurial, and the slog to the top up Barr Trail, with its 7,400-foot elevation gain over about 13 miles, is physically punishing.
What might seem like a minor misstep - forgotten compass, sandwich, spilled water - can prove mortal on the mountain.
"I don't want to be morbid, but there have been people who died, who weren't prepared and they got caught up in bad weather, lightning or the elements," said Teresa Burgess of El Paso County Search and Rescue. "Accidents happen, but they're less likely to happen if you're prepared."
The three 15-year-old girls, members of Colorado Springs Troop 931, saw how dangerous a lack of preparation can be on their way back down the mountain, when they met a couple of young Kansas hikers holed up at a campsite without the food, water or knowledge to make it through a night in the wilderness.
One of the two high school aged boys had obvious signs of altitude sickness. The other had spilled his water, was wearing wet clothes in 40 degree temps and struggling to start a fire of damp branches. He was clearly disoriented from hypothermia.
"They almost didn't have anything they needed. They were very happy, but every time one of the boys walked up, it was something else. They didn't have knowledge, and you really need knowledge for a hike like this," said Laura Clark, Rebecca's mom and troop leader. "I was actually looking for a hidden camera. I kept saying to myself, there's no way things can keep happening. There's no way someone could be that unprepared."
Clark's Scouts had mastered outdoor skills like campsite setup and emergency first aid and had researched their path before they set out, noting where it got steep, where it flattened out and where it passed the timberline into rarefied, lower-oxygen atmosphere. They even carried extra food, just in case.
"Even though we researched the hike, we were wrong. We had information that told us the A-frame was closer and that the hike was easier than it was. So even if you do the research, you can be wrong," she said.
The Girl Scouts helped the hikers start a fire, then shared their food and water with the group - three teen boys and two adults - once everyone had trickled in to the Timberline A-Frame shelter about 3 miles shy of the summit.
"They certainly were not expecting it to be this bad. They just figured they'd go for the weekend and have a good time. But they didn't look far enough into it to know what to expect," Rebecca Clark said.
That evening was an impromptu, crash course on outdoor survival as the Scouts shared what they knew: Don't drink unfiltered creek water, don't stay in wet clothes, and expect things to be more intense than you'd like them to be.
"We mainly told them to be more prepared next time, to make sure they have enough food and water and make sure you know what you're up against," said Rebecca Clark, who took away her lessons from the experience. "I learned it's nice to be prepared whether you get in trouble or not because somebody else might get in trouble and you can actually help them - not just have to sit there wishing you could help."
The next day, both groups - Girl Scouts and the grateful Kansas hikers they'd helped save - made it down safely to the trailhead.
"They were saying over and over again on the way down, 'We'll buy tons of cookies. We promise,' " Rebecca said.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364