Father and sons rescued from 14er Quandary Peak after cliffing out
August 2, 2016
A family of four had to be saved overnight from Quandary Peak just south of Breckenridge on Monday when an improvised descent route proved more difficult than anticipated.
The inexperienced group visiting from Kansas included a father and three children ranging in age from 11 to 19. Summit County's Search & Rescue Group officials said the hikers made an all too common mistake of either ad-libbing the descent or not fully understanding the real difficulty of Quandary's West Ridge.
"Some of the older hiking books talk about that as a fairly easy trail," said Charles Pitman, Search & Rescue's public information officer. "It is not an easy trail. There are cliff bands, it's steep, it's fractured rocks and the rock is very loose."
These day-trippers ascended the popular 14,265-foot peak along its standard East Ridge, which is considered a relatively straightforward 7-mile round-trip hike with approaching 3,500 feet of elevation gain. The West Ridge, though shorter at just 4 miles around, is rated a Class 3 (out of 5) with significant exposure. Pitman said that if you don't know what you're doing, you shouldn't be taking this route, up or down.
“It seems like it happens all the time. It’s always the same
— it’s the west cliffs, it’s the Blue Lakes trailhead. It’s unfortunate.”Jamie FitzSimonsinterim Summit County sheriff
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But in the hopes of turning the trek into a loop, the family opted to head back to the Blue Lakes trailhead by the more demanding path before becoming marooned. In an area with limited cellphone coverage, their shouts for help were heard by another hiker. The good Samaritan got nearly all the way back to Breckenridge before being able to successfully place a call to emergency dispatch at about 6:30 p.m. Search & Rescue was put on standby and on scene by 7:30 p.m. as dusk approached.
"A lot of these people, we don't find out about them until they don't come back, and it's after dark," Pitman continued. "That just compounds the danger to us and the danger to the individuals trying to get them down, and it's a very lengthy process."
After using a Flight For Life helicopter to make several passes to spot the family's location, the chopper dropped four rescuers as close to the route as possible, at about tree line, just as the natural light dimmed. Six other team members hiked in, and, together, the search party reached the stranded foursome at around midnight. Each hiker was harnessed, helmeted, lowered down individually and then hiked out, which took about 4-1/2 hours, and 24 hours after the initial 911 call, everyone was safe again.
Rescue calls to Quandary for people who end "cliffed out" — where an individual doesn't feel comfortable going any direction to free themselves — have become an increasing problem. And consistently the narrative is the same, with hikers getting caught on either the ridge between nearby Fletcher Mountain and Quandary's summit or on the south side of the 14er where the descent is both technical and tricky.
"It seems like it happens all the time," said interim Sheriff Jamie FitzSimons, whose office oversees Search & Rescue. "It's always the same — it's the west cliffs, it's the Blue Lakes trailhead. It's unfortunate."
Jim Koegel — a member of the volunteer Search & Rescue group since 1996 and mission coordinator for this operation — estimates Quandary visits at as many as 10 a year. Even with signage placed along the route in the last few years insisting hikers be both prepared and avoid deviating from their known route and ability level, people often get enticed into the idea of a shorter return to their vehicle or simply an alternate path down that has the appearance of being pretty painless. The West Ridge is one that can quickly take people off course, however, and they run into some significant bluffs.
"They get a little too far to the east, which is easy to do," said Pitman, "and they all end up in about the same place. They get down to these cliff bands, and now they can't go anywhere, so there they sit."
Though Search & Rescue did not have any specific data over the last decade or so, officials said that the regular detour has even led to a handful of fatalities. Individuals try to route-find their way out of danger and end up taking a spill 200-to-300 feet down.
"If you take a fall of one of those cliff bands," added Pitman, "the rocks down below are very jagged boulders. If you hit one those, you're probably not going to survive."
The premature deaths and annual rescue calls are just those incidents of which Search & Rescue is aware. As more and more "peak baggers" head up this oft-traversed route, the thought exists that there are certainly more occurrences where hikers are either injured or get stuck and one of the many other people on Quandary help them down or come to the rescue.
Education remains the point of emphasis from officials, as in, basically, know before you go and recognize your own experience level. In addition, don't strictly rely on technology while out on the hike or to rescue yourself once in a pickle.
"If something is not rated Easy," said Koegel, "do your research before you tackle it. Understand your terrain, stay on trail as best you can and dress appropriately."