From an overnight rescue to an airlifted skier, spring break has kept Summit County Rescue Group busy
In the dead of night last Wednesday, a rescue team located and escorted a lost skier back to safety — one of many calls since the start of spring break
Spring break has kept the Summit County Rescue Group busy this year.
Over just the last 11 days, members responded to an overnight rescue of a backcountry skier, a snowmobile accident in Heeney, an airlift for an injured skier at Mayflower Gulch and several calls to Quandary Peak.
“We had an unusually quiet January and February,” Summit County Rescue Group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste said.
Lower-than-usual call volumes and less-complex rescues that only required a mission coordinator, rather than fielding a team, made for a slow start to the year for the all-volunteer rescue group, DeBattiste said.
“Spring break changed that pretty quickly,” she said. “Now we’re talking a call or two a day.”
While it may be spring break season, it is still winter in Summit County — especially on the 14,271 foot tall Quandary Peak, the highest summit in the Tenmile Range. While it’s often listed online as one of the state’s easiest 14ers, that does not mean Quandary is an easy hike, especially in the winter.
“There’s been a trend of folks that are just really unprepared, not carrying what they need to be carrying, overestimating their abilities, or underestimating the terrain, underestimating the weather conditions,” DeBattiste said.
The essentials of adventure save lives
With spring break now in full swing, Summit County Rescue Group members are asking locals and visitors alike to remember to practice backcountry safety.
“I’m going to be the broken record,” DeBattiste said. “We always have the same message: it’s the three T’s.”
The three T’s are trip plan, training and take the 10 essentials.
- Navigation — Map, compass and GPS system
- Signaling — Whistle, mirror, cell phone, surveyor tape
- Light source (two) — Headlamp, flashlight, extra batteries
- Nourishment — Water and high-energy food
- Shelter — Lightweight waterproof tarp, bivvy sack, parachute cord
- Fire building — Matches, fire starter, heat tabs, knife, saw
- Personal protection — Medications, first-aid kit, sunscreen, dark glasses, bug repellent
- Weather protection — Extra clothes, rain gear, hat, gloves, heavy duty plastic bag
- Winter add-ons — Beacon, probe, shovel
- Rules to always follow — Never go alone, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return, stay on the trail, stay where you are when waiting for rescue, know how to use equipment
Before departing, people should leave a trip plan with someone back home that includes where they’re going, the trailhead they’re parking at, their route and what time to expect them back, DeBattiste said.
People should also consider their training and ensure that they have the proper skills and endurance to complete the task at hand she said.
Finally, everyone heading into the backcountry should take the 10 essentials — and a few extra winter-specific items, DeBattiste said. On top of the more typical items like navigation tools, signaling devices like a whistle and cell phone, a light source, food, water, shelter, fire-starting materials, and a first-aid kit, she said winter conditions likely require packing extra layers, an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel.
On Quandary, the rescue group often finds itself assisting hikers who went up the mountain — sometimes on skis or snowshoes, but sometimes just bootpacking — and lost the trail on the way back down after the wind wiped out their tracks, DeBattiste said.
Those who lose the trail without snowshoes or skis on may find themselves postholing fast, sometimes even in snowshoes, DeBattiste said. Postholing is when hikers break through the top layer of snow and often find themselves knee deep.
People’s tendency to follow the fall line — the most direct downhill slope down the mountain — when lost can lead to trouble, she said, as they often wind up north of the trail where there can be “some pretty serious avalanche terrain.”
An all-night search ends well
The most time-consuming call that Summit County Rescue Group responded to over the past few weeks involved a lost skier on Mount Royal. An out-of-town skier had intended to skin alone from Mount Royal to Peak 4 and started on the trail at 7 a.m. the morning of Wednesday, March 15.
Summit County Rescue Group received the mission call a few minutes after 11 p.m., DeBattiste said. The rescue team did not return back from the field until 5:30 a.m. the next morning.
The skier had lost the trail and became disoriented. When he called for help, his cell phone had low battery. He thought he was on the lower-elevation Peaks Trail, but really he was much higher up the mountain, near the ridgeline, DeBattiste said.
“If his cell phone had died or if he didn’t have reception, how long would it have been before somebody knew he was missing?” she said.
The call went out for six strong skiers. Doug Lesch, a member of the rescue group and the Summit County Avalanche Deployment Team, was among those who responded. The mission coordinator told the lost skier to stay put until a team could reach him. Lesch said their approach from the parking lot took more than two hours.
The team followed a skin track up the mountain and made voice contact with the skier sometime around 2 a.m. He was about 200-300 yards off trail, Lesch said. The skier had dug himself a hole to shelter himself in as he waited for the team to arrive, he said.
“He was cold and tired,” Lesch said. “He was definitely self-motivated to get out of there.”
For at least another two hours in dark and snowy weather, the team slipped and slid down the skin path, which in many places was too steep for the exhausted skier to ski down, Lesch said, before finally making it back to the bottom.
“He was definitely relieved,” Lesch said. “I can’t speak to how much of a reality check it was for him. I don’t know if he fully grasped the consequences he was in.”
For an all-night mission, everything went about as smoothly as it could have, Lesch said. The skier was able to find a ski he had lost, so the rescuers didn’t need to bring snowshoes or a toboggan. While there was avalanche terrain in the area, the route to and from the skier avoided the worst of it.
All in all, Lesch said the skier probably should have been carrying an avalanche transceiver — even though his plan had been only to skin the ridgeline, not to ski any steeps — and Lesch said he probably should have had a partner.
“I understand that people really enjoy the solitude of getting out by yourself,” he said, “but I think there is a lot to be said about having a partner.”
A partner can help talk through decisions when a party is lost or just provide company during an hours-long wait for rescue, said Lesch. Moreover, if there is an avalanche, a person who becomes buried is most likely to be saved by a partner who can quickly arrive to help with a transceiver, probe and shovel.
“Anytime we’re traveling in winter conditions in the backcountry, we carry that gear,” Lesch said. ”And we always go into the field as partners — to have that safety net that if something happens.”
Back-to-back calls result in rescues
After that overnight rescue, the calls continued to come, according to DeBattiste. On Thursday, March 16, the rescue group as well as the Summit County Sheriff’s Office responded to a call for a snowmobile accident near Heeney in northern Summit County.
Then, on Friday, a skier apparently crashed while skiing a couloir above the old mining cabins at Mayflower Gulch, a popular backcountry area, DeBattiste said. With head and facial injuries, rescuers called Flight for Life, and he was airlifted to the hospital.
After a quieter weekend, DeBattiste said the calls resumed Monday. There was a cross-country skier with an injury at Gold Run Nordic Area, as well as other calls in between that the mission coordinator was able to handle remotely. She said weekday calls seem to have increased over the past few years.
“It’s a typical spring break,” DeBattiste said. “More people in the county equates to more accidents.”
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