After the fall

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Perryman was anxious to get some answers of his own. He called some of the students on the trip. One girl told him that she was scared on the peak and needed help climbing down. She said that Colt had not wanted to make the final assault on Emory Peak but was encouraged to do so by Steve Jean, the parent in charge of his group and the only adult who climbed the peak. Perryman called Steve Jean, but he said he would talk only if Perryman promised not to sue him. He added that he did nothing wrong and had nothing to hide. Perryman asked a teacher to have Bloomfield call him, but he never did.

The ranger report was completed in March 1998. It contradicted the district's public assurances that the students had been adequately supervised. Perryman took a copy to acting Superintendent James Hughey and director of employee relations Robbie Collins and demanded that the district conduct its own investigation. Collins promised Perryman that the district's investigative team would get to the truth.

Above all, Perryman wanted to know why the district had no policies or procedures regarding the proper supervision of students on field trips. The investigation took the rest of the year and was not concluded until the summer. It pieced together a fairly detailed and alarming account of Colt's death.

Saturday, January 17, 1998, was to be the most grueling day of the Big Bend trip. Thirty-nine students and five adults opted to hike the Laguna Meadow Trail, a 14-mile loop that culminated with the assault on Emory Peak. The other 12 students and three parents chose to accompany teacher Marsha Evans on the Lost Mine Trail, a shorter and less rigorous hike.

The group headed to Emory Peak awoke early and reached the Chisos Basin by 7:30 a.m. to begin the hike. One of the students got sick and a parent accompanied her back to camp. Bloomfield encouraged them to walk at their own speed, and the group quickly spread out. Thin and long-legged, Colt was in one of the fastest groups and made it to South Rim, where the group was meeting for lunch, before the others. Bloomfield talked to Colt during lunch, and he seemed to be in good spirits.

About 10 students who had arrived at lunch early were eager to continue with the hike before everyone was done eating. So the group, with Colt and Steve Jean among them, headed down Boot Canyon toward the trail up to Emory Peak. Colt was one of the first students to reach the notch at the summit, where the trail ends at the rock wall leading up to the very top of the mountain. Several students who got there about the same time asked him whether he was going to climb it, but he refused. He put his pack down and waited for the rest of the group.

Bloomfield, who was walking with his adult son, was at the back of the pack. When he arrived at the intersection of Boot Canyon Trail and Emory Peak Trail, a mile below the peak, he found a student asleep on a food-storage-container bin. Bloomfield would later tell investigators that the girl was the unofficial counter, the person who would tell him who had gone up and who stayed behind. She told him that everyone she had been with had gone up to the peak. Bloomfield and his son decided they were too tired to climb the steep 1-mile peak trail and waited at the intersection with a dozen or so of the students who chose not to go up.

Bloomfield would tell investigators that a few things about this hike were different from the ones he had made in the past. In previous years, another teacher, an experienced climber, would be the first to make it to the summit notch. He would assist all the students up and down the perilous peak. The teacher had transferred school districts the year before. This was Bloomfield's second year leading the trip without him. Another difference: This year many more students were interested in climbing the peak than in the past.

To Colt and many of the other students, the summit of Emory Peak must have looked as daunting as Mt. Everest. The mountaintop is capped with a sheer, 30-foot rock wall with 600-foot falls on two sides. There are two ways to get to the top from the notch. One is to rock-climb straight up the middle, gingerly feeling your way for hand- and footholds. Although terrifying at first, it is actually the safest route. The second way is to follow a path that curves to the right and up the summit. Once the path disappears around the rock, it becomes a foot-wide precipice with a 600-foot rock chute below.

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Ann Zimmerman