A gigantic thunderstorm (Limon radar put its top at over 80,000 feet) stalled out near Estes Park over the head of the Big Thompson Canyon, and according to every estimate I've seen dumped between 11 and 18 inches of rain in 90 minutes (!), sending a wall of water 20 feet high down the canyon, completely obliterating the road (actually, in places it looked like no road had ever existed), and killing 139 people. Immediately following the catastrophe, Colorado's highway department put "In Case of Flooding Climb to Safety" signs along any mountain highway of note in the state, and it was in that circumstanceeven eight years later, the signs all around us, the loss of life never far from our mindsthat we climbed throughout a summer of considerably more than normal monsoonal activity.
It is not really possible to describe the feeling of racing down Mount Yale ahead of a rapidly descending black cloud, knowing from the beginning the race was futile, then when the downpour began, realizing this wasn't just another routine storm to endure, but had developed into something substantially worse than expected. This was serious stuff indeed, and worst was watching the normally small creek become more than it should be, then as the rain didn't let up but became something elementalbringing with it an all too real imagining of a cloudburst, and the recent tragedy in the Big Thompsonthe realization of what a wall of water tearing down a gully would do to anything in its way became a terrifying part of our headlong descent. The canyon walls were steep enough, soggy enough, that "Climb to Safety" would very likely not have been a realityso we ran, as best we could, down a muddy, slippery trail, praying we wouldn't become the latest additions to the tragic side of Colorado mountain lore.
Well and obviously, we made it, although I'm pretty sure Aaron's description of us upon reaching Johnson's Corner, as "soaked rats," is a bit mild. I remember looking at Mount Yale, or where the mountain should have been, seeing only that black cloud, and wondering if by the following day there would be anything left, or the whole thing would wash away during the night! Now, of course, that particular event has become neither more nor less than a reminiscence from the pastaccompanied by a chuckle at what we no doubt looked like upon our staggering entrance into the restaurantthe sort of thing common to any lifetime memories of serious mountain hiking. But, at times it is a bit humbling to realize we've actually survived it allsurvived, sometimes, through no fault of our own, while others, like those in Big Thompson Canyon, did nothing whatsoever wrong except to be in a fateful placeone giving them no chanceat the wrong time.