Rescue goes from ‘grim’ to glad in Gore Range as missing member of hunting party found
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Glen Kraatz’s name.
A five-hour-long search ensued Wednesday, Sept. 7, after a member of a hunting party failed to return to camp Tuesday night.
A call went out to rescuers Wednesday morning, and the man was found alive and uninjured later that evening.
“We were quite surprised by the outcome,” Summit County Search and Rescue Group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste said Thursday.
She expected rescuers to be out well into the night Wednesday and that they would likely find that the missing man had been injured since he was gone without contact for so long.
“It was looking kind of grim,” Mission Coordinator Glen Kraatz said.
Kraatz said the National Guard had already been asked about its search availability in the coming days. He said rescuers were expecting a second search period on Thursday. Fortunately, that was not the case.
The hunting party ventured out Tuesday from their camp near Upper Cataract Lake near the northern end of the county. They split up, and the soon-to-be missing man went off alone. When the other party members returned to camp Tuesday night, the man didn’t return.
The man was reported missing by his brother Wednesday morning, DeBattiste said. The call to rescuers went out at 12:18 p.m., she said. Summit County Rescue Group and the Sheriff’s Department Special Operations Section responded.
Upon realizing the location of the missing party — at the end of a six-hour hike into the mountains — calls went out for aerial support from Flight for Life and the Colorado National Guard, which sent a Black Hawk helicopter. One rescuer was dropped in with Flight for Life and seven others flew in with the Black Hawk. Four more searchers hiked in from the the Surprise Lake trailhead.
The use of a Black Hawk helicopter was somewhat unique. They’re used infrequently for rescue missions, they require a lengthy request process and the safety of the rescuers needs to be factored in, DeBattiste said. The helicopter can be used for evacuating an injured party or dropping rescuers into the search area, like it was Wednesday.
“I was spent by the time I got up to the search area,” DeBattiste said Thursday after the rescue.
The Upper Cataract Lake Trail going from the Surprise Lake trailhead is more than 10 miles long.
“They’re so far back, it would’ve been over a six-hour hike to reach them,” Summit County Sheriff Jaimie FitzSimons said soon after the helicopter was launched Wednesday.
In cases like this one, when no medivac is needed, the missing person is not billed for the use of the Black Hawk, DeBattiste said.
At about 5:30 p.m., teams found the missing man in an area of dense foliage and downed trees not far from his camp, the rescue group reported. He was dehydrated and tired but otherwise unharmed, and rescuers escorted him back to camp, which was less than a quarter-mile away.
“He just got turned around,” DeBattiste said.
In general, Kraatz said most missing persons are found less than a half-mile from their last known location. Wednesday’s missing man was found in a square area hemmed in by the treeline above, significant trails to either side and a drop into a creek bed below.
As the light faded Tuesday, he hunkered down and stayed put, as people should, DeBattiste said. If it’s getting dark and navigation is difficult and dangerous, it’s better for the lost person to stay put, she said.
Missing party calls don’t happen often and usually occur when someone is reported overdue, DeBattiste said. The few missing person calls the rescue group does receive tend to come from the uneven terrain of the Gore Range to the whiteout landscape above Quandary Peak’s treeline.
Folks trekking through the Gore Range can get lost or injured among the unpredictable terrain and in an area without cellphone signal. On Quandary, wind will erase backcountry skiers’ tracks, leaving them with no breadcrumbs to lead them back the way they came, and so they may end up skiing down into an unknown part of the forests below, DeBattiste said.
For the most part, people are easy to locate thanks to the modern geolocation technology sitting in most people’s pockets. One cellphone call grants searchers the ability to find their location, although spotty service among the mountains can nix that option.
In Wednesday’s search, the missing man did not have a phone capable of geolocation, DeBattiste said.
Recreationists can purchase satellite phones that offer a degree of protection when venturing into the backcountry, too.
The rescue also serves as a lesson in how to signal a helicopter, DeBattiste said. The man saw helicopters above him and correctly moved to an open area so they could see him. However, he failed to properly signal his distress to the pilots. He waved in a “very slight” gesture akin to simply saying hello, according to the rescue group’s post.
An effective way to signal a helicopter is with big gestures like waving both arms vigorously over one’s head, or waving a bright-colored piece of clothing, according to the rescue group.
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