Their rescue atop a fourteener Wednesday led Colorado Springs teen Matt Smith to wonder aloud to his climbing partner Tommy Hendricks, "Holy Cross counts, right?"
"Yeah, man," Hendricks answered without hesitation from his hospital bed Friday in Denver, where he and Smith are recovering from frostbite on their feet and Smith's right thumb. "We may not have got down the same way we got up, but we did get down."
The Coronado High School friends have maintained good humor about their frightening, unplanned two-night stay on Mount of the Holy Cross in frigid temperatures and a snowstorm that left them lost and fighting for their lives. They were rescued Wednesday.
Preparation, friendship and trust in a higher power got them through, they said.
It was supposed to be a two-day trip involving an overnight stay Sunday, a successful summit Monday and a quick exit off the mountain before an impending storm Tuesday, the teens said. But Mother Nature raged a day early.
At the summit, the snow was deep and the wind chill was in the negative range as they scrambled to find their way down via the elusive ridge that has given the mountain a reputation as "the Bermuda Triangle of Colorado."
Hendricks, 18, and Smith, 17, did get a call out to family but weren't panicking then as they said they were coming down. They decided waiting out the storm was better.
They didn't have the camping gear they'd used the night before, having stashed it before the arduous and technical climb to the top, but they had knowledge from survival courses and Boy Scout basics. They huddled together under a hanging rock with their feet in each other's armpits for warmth.
"We'd squeeze our armpits together to keep each other warm," Smith said. "That was genius, bro," he said to Hendricks, acknowledging it was his older friend's idea.
At dawn, they tried to find the path down again, but nothing was lining up with their map, they said. They had to spend another night.
Attempts to make a fire using batteries from Smith's headlamp and bits of tinfoil were unsuccessful, but they did create one spark, the friends said. They rationed their food, thankful they'd packed fish, dried berries and extra granola bars, though only two bars remained by the third day.
Smith still hadn't fully recovered from his hunger as he swiped fries from Hendricks' plate and sidetracked to talk about the places he wanted to eat Friday after he was discharged.
"We said we gave up, but really we gave up our pride and handed it over to God," Smith said.
Day three, the two waved wildly to catch the attention of the rescue helicopter that made four sweeps of the area before spotting them on the top of a wooded hill.
Hendricks was hoisted up to the helicopter first.
"I remember him saying something like, 'I'm gonna fly, peace' as he just went off and the sun was setting and everything, and I'm just like, I need to pull my camera out," Smith said, half joking.
Both teens suffered frostbite on their toes, but University of Colorado Hospital Burn Center Director Dr. Anne Wagner said they'll recover, thanks to the teens' smart thinking and the burn unit's use of blood-clot busters to open damaged blood vessels and keep blood flowing to the extremities.
The toes will be sensitive to temperature for a year, though, she said, and the damaged nerves will be more susceptible to frostbite.
Friday, the teens were being fitted with special boots that will allow them to walk without putting pressure on their toes while they heal. Recovery feels "weird," Hendricks said.
"It's like when your arm falls asleep and there's that tingling, but constantly," Hendricks said.
But the scary ordeal won't keep them away from the mountains, the friends agreed.
They plan to get additional survival training and hope their story serves as a reminder to other hikers to "always be prepared," Hendricks said.
Their tips for survival:
- Learn basic first aid.
- When it comes to buying gear, "Don't be cheap if this stuff is going to save your life," Smith said.
- Trust yourself and abandon fear. "Fear is the epitome of doubt, and if you doubt yourself in the mountains, you're screwed," Smith said.
- Respect the mountain, Hendricks said, mirroring his advice in his 2015 Facebook post.
"There are no wrong choices, just things that work and don't work, and somehow . doing all that crazy stuff, it worked," Smith said.
Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362