Triumph from Tragedy

Exposed - A Colorado couple's harrowing hiking experience becomes book that's raising money for outdoor organizations

Photos courtesy of Brad & Melissa McQueen

Melissa and Brad McQueen on an African safari.

Melissa and Brad McQueen on an African safari.

     It was supposed to be a leisurely hike for Coloradan Brad McQueen that day, May 20, 2001. The experienced climber, hiker and backcountry enthusiast, along with his wife, Melissa, dad and golden retriever, began that morning the climb to the top of Mt. Evans (elev. 14,265), the closest one to Denver of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners—peaks exceeding 14,000 feet—and one that’s tame enough to be considered “kid-friendly.”

     Unfortunately, a storm forecast for the next day arrived that very afternoon. And the hike ended up being far from leisurely.

     “Because of a series of errors on my part, we were not down the mountain in time and ended up stranded overnight,” McQueen says. “My wife and father both punched through a snowbank into a creek underneath and got very wet.”

     Although all four hikers survived, the result was a harrowing night of cold and frostbite that ended with Melissa losing eight of her toes. Fourteen years later, the couple recounts their ordeal in their new book, “Exposed: Tragedy & Triumph in Mountain Climbing” (Big Earth Publishing, March 2015). Still an avid hiker and outdoorsman—and now a parent with Melissa of two kids—Connor, 10, and Megan, 8—McQueen answers questions here about that life-changing ordeal.

1. How long did it take after your accident to want to hike again? What finally made you get back to it, especially Melissa?

I wanted a "redo" on the Mt. Evans hike immediately to prove that I could do it right and not get lost. My mom convinced me I couldn't change what had happened though by "redoing" it, though, so I let go of that idea. But my dad and I did hike again later that summer of 2001, once Melissa was out of the hospital. We were each others' support group for the survivor's guilt that we both felt; our hikes were therapeutic for us.

Then a few months after Melissa’s amputation surgery, December 2001, I stupidly convinced her to go on a winter attempt of Mt. Bierstadt (elev. 14,065), her first time out after the accident. After floundering around in the snow in the willows again for a short while and getting cold, she called the hike off and we went home. But in summer of 2002, she climbed Humboldt Peak (elev. 14,065) just to prove she could still hike 14ers with only two toes.

2. What's the biggest lesson you've learned from the incident?

We learned the importance of going into the mountains with the appropriate amount of respect and preparation. We looked past Mt. Evans the day of the accident, referring to it merely as a "training hike." Boy, were we wrong. 

We now go into every hike, however short or "easy," with respect for the hills and the things that can so easily go wrong up there. And since we were missing three of the "10 Essentials" the day of the accident—fire starter, navigation tools and emergency shelter—we now religiously carry all 10 on every hike. (Check out a complete list here.)

3. What have you taught your kids about the accident? How has it affected your parenting style?

We have taught them the same lessons of respect and preparation. We have also used the accident to help them understand the importance of sticking together (in the mountains and in a marriage), perseverance and not giving up in life. 

Our parenting style is one of exposing our kids to the outdoors as much as we possibly can, but being very careful to keep it fun for them and not push our hobbies/interests on them. We want them to enjoy the outdoors like we do when they are adults, so we are really trying to allow them positive experiences there as children.

4. What are some of your family's favorite backcountry trips/hikes?

We love Arches National Park and the Crags by Pikes Peak, which our kids love climbing/scrambling. We also really enjoy Chautauqua (Boulder, Colo.) for shorter family hikes. As well, Connor has done two 14ers now (Grays Peak and Mt. Bierstadt) and he has been very proud of himself when he's finished because it is a challenge for him. But for him, it’s definitely "Type II Fun,” i.e., fun when it's over!

5. Why did you want to write a book?

We wrote it for three reasons: 1) to share lessons learned in hopes that it will help others avoid our mistakes; 2) to memorialize the story for our kids; and 3) to raise money for outdoor non-profits in Colorado. 

We have donated every dime we've gotten from the book, more than $9,000 so far, to Alpine Rescue Team—the Search and Rescue (SAR) team that came to our aid—Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and Big City Mountaineers.

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