The memorial trail up Storm King Mountain is rough, rocky and mountain-goat steep. It’s a tough and sacred hike that leads to the spot where 14 wildland firefighters died July 6, 1994.
This past weekend, their friends and family made their pilgrimage along the same route the fire crews took in honor of the 25th anniversary of their deaths.
“It was a big heartbreak,” said 83-year-old Carol Roth as she took a break on the side of the path, with her 86-year-old husband, Walter, beside her.
The Roths were there in honor of their youngest son, Roger, who loved the outdoors and his crew. He was 30 when he was overrun by flames. They’d done the climb before, maybe a half dozen times, and keep feeling called to make the trip to Glenwood Springs from their home in Michigan.
“We remember,” Walter Roth said, his voice catching in this throat, “and if we’re here and talking with the people, they see people coming and going, they will probably also remember.”
Locals old enough may remember how the South Canyon Fire unfolded, how it started small July 2, sparked by lightning, and smoldered for a few days before firefighters hiked up this very route to attack it. July 6 brought more crews, as well as a dry cold front that whipped the wind and sent the fire racing up the mountainside.
A group of 12 smokejumpers and hotshots couldn’t outrun it. Neither could two helitack firefighters fleeing nearby.
A lot of young people probably don’t even know this fire ever happened, Carol said, so it’s a comfort to be around families who all experienced the same loss.
“I was really happy to see how many people were at the dinner last night because all of us are getting older,” she said.
Down at the trailhead, Ralph and Jeannie Holtby, both in their 70s, spent the morning sitting in shade and talking to the parade of hikers. Jeannie broke her foot, so they couldn’t head up the trail. But they still knew they needed to come, to fly in from Oregon to honor their daughter, Bonnie, the youngest victim. She was only 21 when she died. Jeannie described her as a “real team player.”
“The crew was a 20-man team and they were so close,” Jeannie said. “They were like brothers and sisters. They were so connected.”
Since they lost Bonnie, the Holtbys have grown connected to the other affected families and to this rugged part of western Colorado. Ralph doesn’t seem prone to outward shows of emotion over this daughter’s death. But the day before while walking around one of the memorials to the firefighters, he heard himself start talking.
“To myself, I said, ‘I’m sorry, Bonnie. I wish it could have been different. You did what you could,” he said
Ralph and his wife take some solace in the fact that what happened to Bonnie has been informing wildland firefighting ever since. Former hotshot Alex Robertson was on the mountain the day of the deaths and now works in fire management in Oregon. He said that after South Canyon, fire fighting agencies took a hard look at how they trained their crews.
“Are we providing them the right tools to go lead, make decisions and be responsible for people’s kids?” he said.
Robertson himself trains people in this spot every year. Often, someone will ask him how it feels to return. “And they assume that it would be hard to be up there,” he said, smiling. “It’s one of my favorite places to be.”
He always looks forward to the trek up that narrow trail to see the 14 small, stone crosses.
“Because I’m going to be with my brothers and sisters,” he said.