American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado: Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1950

Colorado: Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park. On 10 October 1949 another unsolved mystery of the mountains developed when two young hikers from the Colorado A. and M. Hikers’ Club disappeared on the top of 12,300-foot Flat Top Mountain. David Devitt (20) and Bruce Gerling (21) became separated from nine other students with whom they were hiking from Grand Lake to Bear Lake. Their absence was not observed until the party returned to the college the following morning. Both men were adequately dressed for cold weather, and they carried food; but cold and high winds battered the area for several days after they disappeared. It appears that in the confusion of the meeting of groups of hikers at Bear Lake their absence was not detected. A rescue party went into the field next afternoon, but raw, stinging snow squalls and heavy overcast impeded the search and drove rescuers with frostbitten fingers back to the base camp. Thirteen men from the Army’s 14th Regimental Combat Team at Camp Carson, 22 A. and M. students, six members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group of Colorado University, and Park Rangers took part in the search, which eventually proved futile.

Source of information: newspaper accounts, correspondence from the Colorado Mountain Club and official report of the Chief Ranger’s Office, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Analysis. What appears to be a fair description and appraisal of this tragedy and its causes has been written by Mr. Jack Gaskie, who covered the details of the event for the Rocky Mountain News. His statement is quoted below:

Failure of student leaders to live up to their responsibilities yesterday was blamed for the possible fatal delay in sending search parties out for David Devitt and Bruce Gerling, lost in near-zero weather for three days in the mountains between Grand Lake and Bear Lake.

Dr. Robert Bock, faculty sponsor of the Aggie Hikers Club, was unable to go on the Sunday expedition. He authorized a senior member of the club.

When the party of 40 boys and girls split up at Estes Park, leaders were appointed for the groups respectively going to Grand Lake and Bear Lake. It is one of the rules of the club that such leaders take roll calls at rest stops and trail’s end.

The group of 22 with which Devitt and Gerling were hiking drove to Grand Lake; then walked 12 miles to a shelter cabin. There they split up again, 11 to continue on to Bear Lake and join the group that had stayed there, 9 to retrace their steps and drive to Bear Lake.

Leaders were again appointed for these sub-groups, and took lists of those in their party — but nobody took note that Devitt and Gerling were not signed up with either contingent.

This was due to a change of plan on their part. At first they planned to return to Grand Lake. After the Bear Lake group left the cabin they stayed behind, resting before following the climbing party.

Thus as both parties descended to their goals, their leaders believed the missing two students were with the other.

Bad weather at this point took a hand. Those at Grand Lake were told the Trail Ridge road was blocked by snow, and that they could not rejoin the Bear Lake group over it. They had to return to Fort Collins via Berthoud Pass.

They reached the campus at 2 a.m. Monday morning, four hours after the Bear Lake party had returned. The first returnees were already abed — hence the leaders of various groups and subgroups did not get together to make their final check till after classes had started that morning.

Because of class schedules, it was not till noon that it was discovered that Devitt was missing. A more thorough check was made, and Gerling’s absence was discovered.

By this time it was late Monday afternoon, with but a few hours of light remaining. Thus the search was not mounted till Tuesday morning — 40 hours after the two students became lost, and possibly the difference between life and death.

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