Visitors pay respects at Storm King memorial outside of Glenwood Springs
SOUTH CANYON, Colorado – A cool shower kept the lush underbrush very green, and very damp, atop Storm King Mountain Sunday morning.Countless twisted charcoal sculptures poke through the healthy Gambel oak and junipers, ghostly reminders of the 14 brave souls that were overcome by the Storm King Fire on the mountain 14 years ago.9 a.m. – A hike to the top of the mountain, past the observation area where the trail forks to the memorials, revealed a lone external-frame backpack, stuffed to the hilt. There was a jacket, shirt and a little sleeping gear. Enough for 61-year-old Gunner Dambro from Cheyenne, Wyo., to once again make his annual trip to the infamous mountain.Some years he’s made the trip more than once. And he does it for one reason – to remember.
“I was worried that no one would come,” Dambro said.Then he shrugged his shoulders and continued.”But, someone will come,” he said.Someone will always come.Someone will comeKen and Kathy Brinkley dread the Fourth of July holiday anymore.At one time, the Brinkleys had four sons in the fire service in one fashion or another. Two still are.Currently the Brinkleys’ son Joe, who’s a smoke jumper out of McCall, Idaho, is fighting the wildfires in California. And it brings the fears of Storm King close to home once again.”We dread this weekend for obvious reasons,” Ken stated.
It’s easy to understand Ken’s heartache. This is the first year since his son, 22-year-old Levi Brinkley, died on Storm King that Ken hasn’t made it back to the mountain.It was hard.”I feel like I am not showing them the respect they deserve,” Brinkley responded in an e-mail message. He wanted to be here, to show his son that he hadn’t forgotten, that people still remember. But the situation with Joe and the high cost of fuel, he said, made up his mind for him. He still plans to return next year for the 15th anniversary.”We do plan on being in Glenwood Springs next year. I wanted to be there this year,” Ken stated.But he just wanted to feel the comfort of knowing that someone was on the mountain Sunday. Brinkley asked that if someone were making the hike if they’d take the time to say a prayer for Levi, in his place.Dambro was there. Someone always will be.Honoring the fallenDambro drove from Cheyenne Saturday after his shift ended at the Post Office in Laramie. He camped near the spot where the Storm King 14 perished.
Never having known any of the fallen personally, Dambro, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam, was called to the mountain on the first anniversary. He’s made it every year since but doesn’t like to make the hike up and back in a single day anymore. He’s growing a little older and doesn’t want to cheat those on the mountain out of any deserved honor.”That’s the real reason I stay the night,” he said. “It’s getting harder to come up and down in the same day.”That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.As he cleared some of the overgrowth from around one of the memorials, Dambro noticed seven yellow helmets – bobbing in unison – making their way down to the observation area on the other side of the drainage.The group, from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit out of Rifle, break for a moment, but quickly resume their single-file formation and continue into the gulch below.A pilgrimage for those who have yet to know the awesome power of a rogue fire such as the one that engulfed South Canyon in 1994.”It’s been a sort of tradition to make the hike,” said Todd Johnson with the fire management unit. “If the fire season allows it, we like to come up here on the anniversary if there aren’t a lot of other fires. It worked out well this year.”Johnson works out of Boise, Idaho, and is filling in at the fire management unit while other area crews are helping in California. It’s his third hike up the steep terrain over the years. He doesn’t mind making the hike, even if it is in full wildland fire gear.”A lot of these guys haven’t been up here before, so we thought we would bring them up here while it’s quiet,” Johnson said. “So they could look at it and get something from it.”
As they made their way to Storm King’s ridge, they were met by the lone stranger who thought he might not see any visitors. He and Johnson made quick acquaintances and even shared a friend in Eric Hipke – one of the survivors of the Storm King Fire that Dambro met during one of his trips to the mountain.”It’s kind of one big family,” Johnson said of being a firefighter. “When there is an accident like that, it hits everybody if it’s an individual close to someone or not.”Just as with Dambro, Johnson didn’t know any of the Storm King 14. But he’s become close friends with Eric Hipke in the years since.For Johnson and Dambro, it’s not about knowing any of the names on the mountain. It’s more about showing that someone still remembers. That some will never forget.”First of all, I do it out of respect,” Johnson said. “But it’s been 14 years now, and it’s nice to see people come up here and know that the 14 have not been forgotten.”Someone will always come.Contact John Gardner: firstname.lastname@example.orgPost Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
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