Flight For Life assists with rescue of injured skier on Quandary, sparing Summit County Rescue group a longer, more technical response

The skier hit rocks hidden under fresh snow, tumbled down part of the mountain and cracked his helmet — prompting reminders that storms can cover rocks exposed by springtime melt

Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo
A Flight for Life helicopter touches down near Quandary Peak to assist with the rescue of an injured skier on Sunday, April 23, 2023.
Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Zach Wade’s name.

A Flight For Life helicopter spared Summit County Rescue Group volunteers an hours-long rescue Sunday, April 23, when it changed course to assist with the rescue of an injured skier on Quandary Peak.

The helicopter was on its way to Colorado Springs to run an errand when the 911 call for a skier with a possible head injury came in around 10:30 a.m., Summit County Rescue Group member and spokesperson Anna DeBattiste said. The skier was airlifted to a hospital in Denver to be treated for his injuries.

“If Flight For Life had not been available, it would have taken significant time for our ground teams to get in there and ski him out,” DeBattiste said.

The helicopter helped avoid what would have been a technical rescue — requiring a toboggan that would have had to have been belayed through steep sections of the 14er on ropes — and got the injured man faster treatment, she said.

Instead, Summit County Rescue Group volunteer Zach Wade — the first of the rescuers on scene — was able to locate the injured man by 11:18 a.m., less than an hour after the call came in.

The man had been skiing from the summit down the main face of the mountain with a partner — as is always recommended, Wade said — when he hit a rock hidden under the snow and tumbled several times, cracking his helmet.

If he had not been flown in by the helicopter, Wade estimated it would have taken the four rescue teams that had been approaching on foot at least an hour to locate the man and four to five more hours to get him safely to the parking area at the base of the mountain.

“It turned out to be a relatively quick mission because of Flight For Life,” Wade said. “We were exposed for quite a short time, and what would have been the most complex part of the rescue — we didn’t have to do because he got flown off.”

The man was coherent when rescuers arrived and was able to skin up the few hundred meters to the ridge where the helicopter could land, Wade said. The skier and his partner, a splitboarder, did several things right, he added.

Both had an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe, and the injured man’s partner called 911 right away, rather than potentially waste time trying to self-rescue, resulting in rescue volunteers being called later in the day when avalanche danger is higher, Wade said. Especially in the spring, snowpack can be fairly stable in the morning but become less stable as the day warms up and the sun softens the snow, he said.

There was avalanche terrain nearby. Had rescuers been on scene one to two hours later, Wade said he would have been more concerned about potential avalanches in the area where they located the skier.

Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo
Summit County Rescue Group volunteers were spared a long and technical rescue when a Flight For Life helicopter changed course to help rescue an injured skier on Quandary Peak on Sunday, April 23, 2023.
Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo

Many other skiers and snowboarders were out on Quandary that day, Wade noted. With spring weather melting away the snowpack, skiers should be aware that more rocks can be exposed this time of year but may be covered up with fresh snow, he said, noting that storms dropped several inches of snow throughout Summit County between Friday and Sunday.

“Don’t ski as aggressively in the backcountry as you would in a ski area,” Wade added. “You don’t know what the hazards are underfoot, and the response could take longer. You don’t have ski patrol there to take you down to the bottom.”

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