After the fall

Page 3 of 8

Just to make sure, he warned his son before he left to follow the rules and listen to his adult leader, Steven Jean, father of another freshman going on the trip. Then he slipped Colt an extra $50, in case some of the other students ran short of money.

Perryman had arranged for authorities to call him in the air if searchers found Colt. When he heard nothing, he figured no news was bad news. By the time he touched down in Lajitas around 4 p.m., his son had been missing for more than 24 hours. He had already spent one night in sub-freezing temperatures. If he was alive, his chances of surviving another night were slim.

The rangers took Perryman straight to park headquarters. They showed him a map of the area where Colt was last seen, and it reinforced his fears. He quickly gleaned that had his son gotten lost in the woods after wandering off the trail, he would have easily been able to find another trail -- and would have been smart enough to stay on it. He looked at the map markings indicating the drastic changes in elevation around the area Colt had been in -- the area of Emory Peak -- and he knew that his son was either severely injured or dead.

Perryman wanted to start looking for Colt immediately, but the rangers told him that it would be too dangerous. Night had fallen, and the search had been called off for the day. A team of rangers had spent the day rappelling down the gully on the mountain's south side -- where students thought they heard a rockslide around the time Colt was last seen -- but they found nothing. More than a dozen rangers and volunteers would again camp out along the trails that night in the hope that Colt would somehow find them. The park service also had called in a helicopter with an infrared device that was to arrive before midnight and could be used to search at night.

Bloomfield met Perryman at ranger headquarters. He told him several times how sorry he was. Then Bloomfield and the rangers took Perryman to his son's tent to retrieve some clothes to be used by dogs that were being brought in for the search in the morning.

As he sat alone in his room in a lodge at the base of the mountains, Perryman stared out at the mountains, watching clouds collect around the peaks. Around midnight the rangers called to say that the helicopter had been canceled because of mechanical difficulties and that no others were available. Perryman was frantic, because he thought the helicopter was his son's last best chance of being found before dying of exposure.

"It just dashed my heart, I was counting on it so much," he recalls.

At 1 a.m., Perryman dressed and headed out alone for the trailhead, but he turned back when he realized he had no idea which way to go. He went to the room and waited by the phone for the rest of the night.

Perryman and ranger Valerie Naylor, a public information officer for the park service, headed out at 7:30 the next morning. They took the Pinnacles Trail -- a direct but steep route -- up to Emory Peak, a 4.5-mile trek that took almost three hours.

The trail ended at the base of a looming rock wall at the summit -- 30 feet straight up and about 70 feet wide. Naylor asked Perryman whether he wanted to climb up to the peak, but he said no.

"I looked up, and a shudder went through me," Perryman recalls. "I told her I didn't want that nightmare." Naylor told him that she also was afraid to climb it.

Suddenly a voice crackled over Naylor's radio. "There he is, 50 feet below the ledge," the voice said. Naylor grabbed the radio, quickly turned the volume down, and put it up to her ear. Perryman saw a helicopter hovering over the north face of the peak. A park ranger hooked ropes to a tree on the right side of the rock face and began to climb down. A man in the helicopter was pointing.

Perryman worked his way to the right edge of the trail, grabbed a tree, and looked down. He saw a sheer drop of some 400 feet. Three helicopters were hovering nearby. Perryman asked Naylor what was going on, and she said they had declared radio silence.

"I'm not stupid, lady," he told her. "They know I'm here with you. That's why they declared radio silence. Please tell me what's going on."

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Ann Zimmerman