Summit County Rescue Group saves missing hikers on Quandary and Buffalo Mountain
Summit County Rescue Group volunteers this weekend successfully rescued a pair of missing hikers, both of whom were unprepared for the treacherous winter conditions in Summit County’s backcountry.
At about 1:15 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23, the rescue group received a call from a hiker who was making his way up Quandary Peak when he became disoriented and lost the trail. About a dozen rescuers arrived on the mountain to help find him, but it was ultimately the group’s mission coordinator, who had a strong familiarity with the trail, who was able to guide the man back to safety over the phone.
“He had gotten off the trail and was quite despondent about his situation,” rescue group spokesperson Charles Pitman said. “He originally called and said he was about 800 feet from the summit. He was actually more like a mile and a half from the summit and had a long way to go. … As it turned out, one of our mission coordinators ended up talking to the guy several times on the phone and was able to talk him back to the trail.”
Pitman said the man was 700-800 feet off of the trail when they first made contact with him. A couple of rescuers went out to meet him and ensure he made it back safely. He was later able to walk down the mountain under his own power. The mission ended at around 3:45 p.m.
The man was from out of state and attempting to climb his first 14er.
“Trying to do your first 14er in the wintertime probably wasn’t the best decision,” Pitman said.
Then at around 3 p.m., the rescue group received another call about a missing hiker in the valley between Buffalo Mountain and Red Peak west of Silverthorne. The man got lost and wound up about 800 feet from the trail, postholing his way through waist-deep snow until he eventually called for help.
Emergency dispatchers were able to ping the man’s location and provide rescue members with coordinates for the search. Pitman, who served as the mission coordinator on the operation, said he called and texted the man to try to make contact but with no success.
The group sent two rescue teams on different routes in hopes of converging on the hiker at his last known location. About two hours into the operation, Pitman said he received a single text message from the man: “I’m almost in shock.”
“I got one very cryptic text from him, which I didn’t like the sound of,” Pitman said. “It gave me the impression that he was in a tough spot both emotionally and physically. We really needed to get to this guy as quick as we could.”
The coordinates gathered by the 911 center turned out to be accurate, which is not always the case in “black holes” for cell coverage like the valley, Pitman said. Once they found him, the team put down a tarp to get him out of the snow and helped him change into dry, warm clothes.
“He was heading toward hypothermia,” Pitman said. “He was not well-dressed, he had no pack and no extra food or water. He had absolutely nothing with him. His pants were essentially like a pair of cycling shorts, and his hiking shoes weren’t laced up very well, so when he started sinking down, snow was getting down into his boots. … Somebody handed me his socks so I could give them back to him at the end of the mission. They were literally like a block of concrete. They were soaked and just frozen solid.”
With the help of rescuers, the hiker was able to walk back to the road after being evaluated by an EMT to ensure he could safely move on his own. Pitman said it was nearly 2 miles back to the road. The mission ended at about 8 p.m.
The man told the group he was from the Front Range and that he’d hiked in the area before but never in winter.
“People need to understand that just because you’ve done something in the summer, or read a hiking book about a peak, winter conditions are vastly different,” Pitman said. “It doesn’t take much more than 2-3 inches of snow to completely cover a trail. … We can get some nasty snowstorms and some nasty winds. When that happens, the trail disappears in a heartbeat. I think that’s what people have to take into consideration, that doing something in the winter is a totally different situation.”
Pitman said that if a hiker begins to posthole — plunging knee or waist deep into snow — it’s likely that they’ve left the trail, and they should follow their footprints back to more packed-in snow to try to find it again. Pitman also said lost hikers often aren’t too far from a trail and that downloading a GPS app on a phone could help many individuals make their way back to a trail instead of having to call for a rescue.
As always, it’s important to have a plan and be prepared before heading into the backcountry.
“All is well that ends well,” Pitman said. “However, both of those incidents could have very easily turned into something much more tragic. I’m not sure either one of those individuals would have survived the night. The mental state of both of them wasn’t great, and they weren’t well-equipped.”
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