The Saratoga Sun -

By Mike Dunn 

Trail of trials

 

Courtesy of Curt Campbell

Jack Riddick traverses treacherous boulders on Medicine Bow peak.

"We both lost our wives. And life without your partner - it isn't great. It isn't even close to good," 83-year-old Curt Campbell said, pausing to take a sip of his coffee.

Next to him was 79-year-old Jack Riddick, who nodded in agreement.

The two men couldn't be more contrasting. Riddick was a long-time educator from Ohio. Campbell was a criminal investigator from California. Riddick stays year round in Saratoga. Campbell heads south for the winter. Riddick is soft-spoken. Campbell enjoys chatting.

Campbell and Riddick share two significant traits: they love to hike, and they loved their wives even more.

"We have some commonalities, we kind of share the same political views, we both like to read, and the arts and outdoors. We both had good marriages. He was childless, I had too many," Campbell said."

It was that bond that kept them together and alive during a perilous journey to the majestic Medicine Bow Peak which sits at 12,013 feet above sea level. The trip would nearly claim their lives.

But it was far from the toughest experience Riddick and Campbell had ever been through.

***

Riddick and Campbell made it to the trail head at 7:45 a.m. on Aug. 30. It looked like the start of a beautiful day. Even the weather reports said it there was nothing but sunshine and warm weather.

They were the first to be up there, pulling into an empty parking lot. And they would end up being the last ones down.

Both men admit they are slow hikers. Not only does their age slow them down, but they also like to chat with others along the way.

"Sometimes, our conversations with other hikers are extended," Campbell said. "And we lost a lot of time."

The men hiked to a pre-determined decision point - they could either keep on the trail to the summit of Medicine Bow Peak, or head back. The weather was fine. There was still enough time left in the day. They decided to keep hiking.

***

On April 23, 2014, Riddick and his wife Ginny were at the Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow. They were coming back from Laramie, where Ginny had an eye doctor appointment. She was finally seeing 20/20 out of one of her eyes.

Their quiet meal had ended. Ginny walked out of the restaurant to go to the car, while Jack finished paying the bill.

As he reflects, Jack said he was relieved he was looking down at the receipt at that moment.

"I am just thankful I didn't have to see her fall," he said.

A wind gust had caught the door Ginny was holding on to outside of the restaurant. Ginny lost her balance, and hit her head. She immediately went unconscious.

She was taken to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie. Jack said Ginny was soon transferred to a hospital in Loveland, Colo. to see neurologist.

Even after surgeries to release the pressure in her head, she would not wake up. She passed away the next day.

Within 24 hours, Jack had lost the love of his life. His partner, his best friend of 59 years was gone.

***

The men continued towards the summit of Medicine Bow Peak. The closer they got to the summit, the faster the weather started to change. Clouds had arrived and brought with it a storm of biblical proportion.

Rain, wind and hail - all of it soaked the men. Campbell was carrying a light windbreaker. Riddick only had a sweatshirt. They were unprepared, and it was getting late.

"It was pretty late in the day," Campbell said. "And by the time we had arrived at the peak, it was well after 5:30 [p.m.]."

They were drenched, literally from head to toe. There is no shelter on top of a mountain. The sun was starting to set.

They were in trouble.

***

Campbell loves his wife, Judy. He talks to her all day long - when he's driving in the car, while he's doing work in his yard. He writes her notes in his journal; letting Judy know how his day went and how he can't wait to see her again.

"I write every day," he said. "I talk to her and I talk to God every day in the morning. The main thing I say is 'don't let me hurt anybody or do anything stupid'."

Hiking was their passion. There wasn't a single trail in the Snowies Campbell and Judy hadn't hiked together. Campbell and his wife had walked to the top of Medicine Bow Peak many times before. It was a yearly tradition for them to reach the summit.

But in 2012, the Campbell's didn't make the trek to Medicine Bow Peak.

Judy was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma on Oct. 7, 2011. They were told by doctors it would be fine to head down to their summer home in Arizona for the winter. All she had to do is get a blood test every few weeks.

Judy was prepared for it, Campbell said he was not.

Judy started leaving notes for her husband. She left small artifacts for him, including a ceramic sign with the words "live one day at a time".

Upon their return to the Rocky Mountain West, she was admitted to the hospital to undergo treatment. Judy never recovered .

The doctors did what they could, Campbell said. After an 18-month battle, Judy passed away on March 18, 2013.

"She was a brilliant woman. She was very intelligent," Campbell said about Judy.

Campbell was without his partner - on the trails of Medicine Bow Peak and in his life.

***

At 12,000 feet, cell phone reception is nearly non-existent.

The quickest way down the mountain was not an easy hike - it was filled with "boulders the size of cars," Campbell said. It consisted of constant stumbles and falls, inching their way slowly down the mountain with the rains pouring down on top of them. The Wyoming sky was getting darker.

They didn't think they would make it off the mountain alive.

"I thought we are going to die on this mountain tonight," Campbell said.

It was not a feeling of panic, but a feeling of resolution, both men agreed. If they didn't get help, they were going to die.

Giving up was not an option. They continued to traverse down the boulders until Campbell found a signal on Judy's old cell phone. Campbell dialed 911. On the other line, it was the Albany County Sheriff's office.

"The dispatcher told me, 'the cavalry was on its way'." Campbell said.

***

After Ginny's death, everything went so fast for Riddick. Between planning the funeral, and understanding the personal finances and the cooking (which was all done by Ginny), Jack's life had been turned upside down.

"I don't even remember the first month after her death," Riddick said.

Riddick said he is still dealing with her death off and on. He enjoys walks through the town, trying to keep his mind and body active after his wife's passing.

It was an adjustment for Campbell as well. Their vacation house in Arizona no longer interested him, and he sold it with all the furniture in it. He wanted to continue to hike in the Medicine Bows, but he knew hiking alone was dangerous.

Campbell met Riddick at church. After hearing Riddick was looking for a hiking partner, Campbell jumped at the opportunity.

They walked for miles at a time, in high-altitude, twice a week. Neither Riddick or Campbell saw their age as a disadvantage.

"Sometimes people are surprised to see guys our age up there," Campbell said.

***

By the time Campbell saw the lights of the search and rescue trucks, they knew they were saved. But there was still a treacherous trail in front of them, and their body temperature was dropping.

They were exhausted; mentally and physically. It pained the men to turn on their headlamps to give their position. Even though they wanted to keep going, they physically couldn't go any further.

"We were already hypothermic," Riddick said. "We were both shaking like a leaf."

Search and rescue teams reached the men just in time. However, Riddick and Campbell didn't want the crews to endanger their lives just to save them.

"I told them, I don't want any desperate moves made just to keep me alive," Campbell said. "I told them 'it's easier to carry a body off this damn hill than some old bastard that is complaining'." But the search and rescue teams wouldn't take no for an answer.

Both men had to be carried down the mountain. By the time they were placed into the ambulance, Riddick's body temperature was at 94 degrees and Campbell's was at 97.

But they were alive. Nearly 24 hours later, they made it off the mountain.

***

The endeavor on Medicine Bow Peak had changed both Riddick and Campbell. They built up an appreciation for life - even with their life partners gone. The men have grown closer together.

"The bond I think has been pretty instantaneous," Campbell said.

Both Riddick and Campbell agreed their wives would have been great friends- just as good as Riddick and Campbell are today.

Campbell will be soon be heading to California for the winter, and Riddick will be staying in Saratoga. Even after their life-threatening trip, the two men are planning on more hikes up the mountain together next year.

Why would they continue to hike?

Without hesitation, both men said, "Because we love it."

 

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