Trail runner who tumbled off Tenmile Range ridge and survived grateful for ‘mountain angels’
August 9, 2018
Michal Ovsjannikov was expecting to summit mountain after mountain in the coming days. Getting ferried off the Tenmile Range in a Black Hawk helicopter last Sunday — that wasn't supposed to happen.
The 52-year-old was preparing for the TransRockies Run, a six-day race next week covering over 120 miles from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek along the Continental Divide, when he suffered the fall of his life from a ridge along the Tenmile Range.
A seasoned trail runner and experienced endurance athlete, Ovsjannikov is no backcountry greenhorn. For more than 30 years, the man originally from the Czech Republic has been scaling mountains across the world.
"I've climbed many mountains in Europe, and some in the winter conditions, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland," he said. "I've climbed in the Himalayas so I think I know what I am doing."
Even with that kind of experience, he understands full well, "Sometimes s— happens."
'A bad situation'
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Training with his partner and brother, Martin, on Sunday, the pair were planning to head out early in the morning but an early rain delayed their plans.
They parked at Mount Royal in Frisco, intent on continuing on to the Crystal Lakes after reaching Peak 10 before finishing up at the Crystal Lake trailhead by Breckenridge.
They summited Tenmile Peak, commonly called "Peak 2," without problem, reaching the top in less than two hours, and headed down the ridgeline to the next peak.
As Ovsjannikov made his way, he grabbed hold of a rock. As he did, the stone came loose, causing the experienced ridge runner to lose his balance and tumble nearly 60 feet down the mountainside.
Lucky, he came to a stop just before going off another long drop.
"I immediately knew it was a bad situation," he said.
One way out
Bruised, bloodied and broken, Ovsjannikov struggled to get to his feet.
His elbow was snapped; so was his forearm. He broke the tip of his shoulder as well, had four cracked vertebrae and suffered deep cuts and scrapes on his head and back. His brother assessed the situation and called 911.
According to the Summit County Rescue Group, the call came in at 11:32 a.m.
Ovsjannikov saw the first chopper fly overhead — a Flight For Life helicopter — maybe an hour-and-a-half after he fell.
Unfortunately, there was nowhere close by to land. Because Ovsjannikov's injuries were severe enough, rescuers opted to see if a Black Hawk helicopter from the Air National Guard's High-Altitude Aviation Training Site in Eagle County, or HAATS, might be available.
A Black Hawk arrived on scene at 2:42 p.m., lowered a crewmember to Ovsjannikov and hoisted him aboard before ferrying the injured runner to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, where he was treated and released the same day.
"Everything that happened, it's OK right now," Ovsjannikov said over the phone Tuesday on his my way back home to Michigan.
More than anything, Ovsjannikov wants to show gratitude for the people who came to his aid.
"I would like to express a big thanks to everyone who participated in the mission to rescue me after I took the hardest fall in my life navigating the Tenmile ridge traverse," he said in a texted statement. "I have a big respect for 'mountain angels' who save people's lives when things go wrong."
In this case, it was personnel from the Summit County Rescue Group, Vail Mountain Rescue, Flight For Life, the Air National Guard, and the doctors and nurses at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center.
Ovsjannikov's arm will need surgery to heal and there are 10 stitches in his head, but he's happy to be back on his feet and looking forward to the next climb.
"Of course, I will continue," he said. "It's my life to be in the mountains so now I need to heal fast."
On Thursday, Ovsjannikov added that he and Martin are already planning to come back next summer and "complete the unfinished job" on the Tenmile Range.
Calls high in July
Some days the Summit County Rescue Group gets no calls at all. Sometimes the lull even lasts for several days.
"But then all hell breaks loose," said Charles Pitman, spokesman for the group. "And we get slammed over three or four or five days with multiple calls a day."
The Summit County Rescue Group responded to 28 calls in July. Records show that's eight more than they had in July 2017 and the most for any single month for at least the last five years.
In the past, minor calls, like "lights on Mount Royal," haven't been written down. Often described as "someone in distress" by passing motorists, rescuers know those lights are usually nothing more than hikers enjoying the night.
The rescue group still checks them out though. The team has to, Pitman said, because the rescuers never truly know where a call might lead.
'All' for one
Sometimes, they can answer a call sitting at the dining room table, plotting someone's GPS coordinates and directing them back onto the trail over the phone. Simple as it sounds, even that can take an hour or more.
On a "limited call," mission control might ask two or three teammates to go out into the field. Someone might have gotten stuck four-wheeling, Pitman recalled. The rescuers won't pull the truck out, he said, but they have extradited the vehicles' owners from the backcountry, be it for age, weather or medical reasons.
Another common call involves hikers lost in the forest, "freaking out" because it's almost midnight, they're without a flashlight and directions over the phone have failed. At that point, Pitman said, the mission controller might ask a rescuer who lives nearby to unsnag the lost, worried party.
"There are a thousand permutations on these scenarios," Pitman said.
The dreaded "all call" is the one the mission coordinator puts out to the entire rescue group, letting members know to respond to a specific location for a new mission.
So far, the Summit County Rescue Group has responded to three calls in August, all on the same day, last Sunday. Two didn't need a rescue, but the other might have saved Ovsjannikov's life.