After the fall

Page 6 of 8

Colt sat at the base of the peak while about 10 students climbed up. An upperclassman who had been on the trip before showed a few students how to ascend in the middle of the rock face.

Several of the students asked Colt to join them, but he shook his head. Soon Steve Jean arrived with his son, Eric, and several other members of Colt's group. Steve Jean wasn't sure how to climb up either and waited to see how some of the kids were doing it. Then he encouraged Colt to go with him. "You've come this far; you might as well go all the way to the top," several students recalled Jean telling Colt. "I hear it's beautiful up there."

Colt continued to sit there. So Jean was surprised that a few minutes later he felt someone climbing up behind him. He turned to see Colt. A girl turned around and said, "Colt, aren't you afraid of heights?"

"Let's not talk about it," Colt replied.

When they reached the top, Colt crouched down in the middle of the boulder-strewn summit and held his ashen face in his hands. Eric Jean walked over to talk to him. He asked him whether he was afraid of heights, and he said yes. Steve Jean went to Colt.

"You made it, Colt," he said. "Good job."

No one knows for certain what happened next. Steve Jean told the park rangers two stories. At first he said he turned around and Colt was gone. Another time, he told the rangers he saw Colt descend the peak. Steve Jean and several other students said that about 10 minutes after anyone remembers last seeing Colt, they heard what they thought was a rockslide far down the south side of the mountain. They didn't think anything of it. Steve Jean told DISD investigators that he saw a friend of Colt's go down the mountain and assumed Colt was with him. He also told the investigators that he went along to be with his son and wasn't there to supervise anyone.

Bloomfield waited about a mile below the summit for the last students to climb down from the peak. Two girls told him they were the last ones on the peak. No one noticed Colt's backpack left at the summit notch. Bloomfield and the rest of the group headed back to the Chisos Basin, where they had left the vans. It was almost 6 p.m. Not until the students had loaded into the vans did anyone notice that Colt was missing -- a full three hours after he was last seen crouched and petrified on Emory Peak.

Bloomfield checked the restrooms and a nearby store. When Colt failed to show up, Bloomfield sent the vans back to camp. He remained behind in hopes that Colt would appear. One of the vans was speeding on the way back and was pulled over by a park ranger. That's when the rangers learned that, in the parlance of the park service, "there was an overdue hiker."

The DISD investigators went to Big Bend and climbed Emory Peak. They discovered how easy it was to get disoriented on top of the peak and be uncertain of the correct way to get down. Based on where Colt was found and what the rangers told them, they surmised that Colt had attempted to descend the mountain on the seemingly easier route off the right side. Coming down this way, climbers reach a point where they're forced to feel for footholds with their feet near a sheer drop-off. This would be a surprise to anyone who hadn't gone up that way.

"It is believed that Colt, probably disoriented, dizzy, fatigued, and suffering from a fear of heights, attempted to locate the route down and went to the wrong side and accidentally fell to his death," according to the DISD report.

The report concluded that several factors contributed to Colt's death: There were no specific safety procedures for climbing Emory Peak and a lack of adult supervision. Parents weren't fully informed of the hazardous nature of the rock climb, and the trip's organizers did not understand the hazards of the climb. The procedures for keeping track of students on the trail were inadequate, and organizers did nothing to evaluate or accommodate physical or psychological impairments of the students.

The report chastised the teacher sponsors for misjudging the maturity level of the TAG students, which led them to believe they did not need safety supervision. It also found several policy violations, including failure to notify the board and superintendent of the overnight field trip.

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Ann Zimmerman