DENVER – The 66-year-old Denver man who spent two nights alone in the Elk Mountains Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness this week says he believes he hiked about 30 miles – sometimes in the wrong direction – before he was found by two hunters whom he describes as “the best people on the face of the earth.”
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Neil Brosseau, the 66-year-old handyman from Denver and avid hiker, described his harrowing ordeal – which included summiting one of Colorado’s more-difficult 14ers, being followed around by mountain goats for days, and losing the trail before he happened upon the hunters and search-and-rescue crewmembers.
“It was a very valuable lesson, that’s all I can tell you,” Brosseau said.
He had hiked to near the top of Pyramid Peak, a Class 4 14er in Pitkin County, with his nephew and his niece-in-law Sunday morning when he decided to separate from the group to summit the craggy peak around 2 p.m. Sunday. But after summiting, he took the wrong route down and “got completely turned around,” he told deputies.
He slowly started to work his way down the steep mountain – often sliding down on his backside. Brosseau spent the first night on a mountain ledge at high altitude, enduring snow, sleet, hail and rain with little more than a sweatshirt and poncho, he said.
The next day, he said he forgot to zip his pack all the way and a sweatshirt fell out of his bag. So that second night, he took shelter under a tree and covered himself with a poncho and his t-shirt for warmth.
He ran out of the three bottles of water and single bottle of Gatorade he had brought with him and was beginning to suffer from dehydration, so he filled up the bottles with river water and drank that – saying he didn’t want to get sick but that drinking the unfiltered water was “better than the alternative.”
He said there were mountain goats that followed him almost all the way down the mountain. “I thought it was strange, but they were following me everywhere,” he said.
He said he did not see any mountain lions or bears while he was on his own, but said he was wary of them and had a scare on one of the nights. He said he saw a pair of eyes coming closer and closer to him in the dark, so he grabbed a rock thinking it was a lion he would have to try and fight off.
It turned out to be another curious mountain goat who “came to check it out,” he said.
Brosseau said he got back to hiking Tuesday afternoon and thought he was headed back in the right direction – toward the route’s parking lot – but said he lost the trail, which had been damaged by several avalanches last winter. It turned out he was hiking up the East Maroon Creek valley in the wrong direction.
“I think Pyramid is only three miles to get up there, and probably, by the looks of what the hunters said, I must have hiked 30-something [miles], because I was totally on the other side of the mountain when they found me,” Brosseau said.
On Tuesday afternoon, he ran into a hiker, who gave him water and a warm coat. They then ran into two hunters who joined him in hiking out.
“They were the best people on the face of the earth,” he said of the hiker and hunters, describing how they gave him more food and water, as he was dehydrated. They also told him about how lucky he was not to have encountered any mountain lions, as they confirmed there were several in that area. They also saw six bears as they hiked, he said.
“I was fortunate there,” Brosseau recounted.
After hiking “another two or three hours,” Brosseau said, they ran into the Mountain Rescue Aspen, Pitkin County deputies, Aspen Ambulance paramedics and Colorado National Guard High-Altitude Training helicopter crews around 3:45 p.m. Tuesday.
“Yes, I’m the guy,” he told them. He walked out with only minor cuts and bruising and said Wednesday, "I don't feel bad at all."
He was brought back to be reunited with his wife and the two stayed in the area Tuesday night. Brosseau said his wife was “pretty upset” at first about the ordeal.
“I shouldn’t have done what I did. I will still hike; I won’t ever stop hiking. It’s just my nature,” he said. “But that’s what I feel bad about, is getting everybody upset because they thought the worst. And I wouldn’t do that again. I’ll never hike alone and take off from the people I’m hiking with.”
After moving to Colorado from Michigan 13 years ago, Brosseau says he’s hiked 16 or 17 of the state’s 14ers and that he will “continue doing it until [he] can’t anymore.” But he said he has learned his lesson.
“I wanted to go to the top, so I did. I shouldn’t have done it,” he added. “Like I said, that was the biggest lesson. I knew that you never, ever leave the people you’re hiking with.”
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office adamantly echoed those sentiments in a news release Wednesday.
“It cannot be stressed enough by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Mountain Rescue Aspen, and Neil Brosseau himself the importance of staying with your climbing and hiking party,” the sheriff’s office said. “One of the most frequent contributors to backcountry rescues is voluntary separation.”
Brosseau stressed that he wants his ordeal to serve as a learning experience for others. But he also was overtly thankful to the random Coloradans who helped guide him out of the backcountry and toward rescue crews.
“I’ll be honest with you: In my older age, I’ve gotten real cynical about people because in this day and age, a lot of people are not willing to help anybody, which it really bothers me. And this kind of restored my faith in humanity, right here,” he said. “And that’s the best part about the whole thing. I just can’t believe how good these people were. The policemen, everybody that was involved in all of it. Just super people.”