With 193 calls and 10 body recoveries, Summit County Rescue Group remained as busy as ever in 2022
Last year, the all-volunteer rescue group received the second most calls for service in its history and assisted with most body recoveries since 2009
Avalanche burials. A speed glider crash. Injured rock climbers and mountain bikers. Lost and hypothermic hikers. Drownings.
For Summit County Rescue Group, 2022 proved to be a busy — and deadly — year as the all-volunteer team received 193 calls for service and assisted with 10 body recoveries. That is the second highest call volume on record for the rescue group and the most body recoveries in over a decade, according to Anna DeBattiste, a spokesperson for the group.
In the early 2010s, Summit County Rescue Group could expect just over 100 calls per year, DeBattiste said. But for years that number has ticked upward: from 123 calls in 2018, to 144 in 2019, to 185 in 2020, to a peak of 217 calls in 2021.
“We were kind of feeling like, ‘Was this going to plateau, or what?’” DeBattiste said. “Because it can’t keep coming like this.”
After two years marked by the pandemic, where Colorado — and much of the country — saw a spike in outdoor and backcountry activities, DeBattiste said she is not surprised to see a small dip this year. But she doesn’t expect annual call volumes to slow down.
“I think we had a pretty big Covid-driven spike in 2020 and 2021, and now it’s getting back to more of just a normal, upward trend,” she said.
A deadly year
When a Flight for Life helicopter spotted an avalanche on Hoosier Pass on Jan. 9, 2022, Summit County Rescue Group already knew that two snowshoers were missing.
The 2022 calendar started off busy — with four calls in the first three days — and this was just the first of several major responses the team would stage throughout the year. It was also the start to a grim year — one that would see Summit County Rescue Group assist with 10 body recoveries, the most since 2009.
“That really started off our year in a big way,” Ben Butler, the president of Summit County Rescue Group, said of the avalanche fatalities on Hoosier Pass. “It was a big call with a lot of folks on scene.”
The snowshoers’ friends had reported them missing earlier in the day when they didn’t show up for a planned gathering, and, after some searching, rescuers had discovered their car near the top of the pass.
In the hours that followed, some 25 volunteers would make their way into the field to extract the couples’ bodies from the snow and assist with documenting the scene, Butler said. Overnight snow and wind meant there were no tracks to follow. Travel was difficult and snowmobiles became stuck, he said, describing the eight-hour response as a “real team effort.”
“It was challenging for us to get ourselves in and get ourselves out in an efficient manner,” Butler said.
In a year when Colorado set a record for the number of drowning deaths, three of those 41 drownings happened in the Dillon Reservoir, according to DeBattiste. And, on the tail end of Summit County Rescue Group’s busy summer season, another highly technical response had to be staged when a speed flier died on Aug. 27.
Around 9:30 a.m. that day, members of Summit County Rescue Group were paged for a missing man who had been attempting to speed-fly — an advanced form of paragliding — from Peak 6 toward Copper Mountain.
A Flight for Life helicopter soon discovered the man’s body in the “Sky Chutes” along the western face of the Tenmile Range. But it took several more hours to get a team into the area to recover his body, according to Charles Pitman, a team coordinator for the rescue group, who recalled the “long, arduous” process of lowering a titanium litter down the 80- to 100-foot-tall ledge to where the man’s body was.
Then, 2022 ended much the way it started for Summit County Rescue Group: with a tragic avalanche death. On Dec. 31, the group responded — along with Breckenridge Ski Patrol — when an adult son died while skiing with his father in the backcountry of Peak 10.
“Those take their toll on the team,” Pitman said. “Fatalities are something that emotionally can be tough for a lot of our members.”
In addition to the field time required to recover bodies from hard-to-reach places and for an investigation to be completed, corresponding with the family of the deceased and actually removing the person’s body from the field can weigh on members, Pitman said.
“We’ll go for many years and one or two fatalities is sort of the norm,” he said. “So to have 10 is an increase — and one we hope will not be repeated for years.”
While the death toll in 2022 was high, many more rescues had positive endings.
For example, things could have ended much differently if Summit County Rescue Group hadn’t been ready to help when a skier sustained apparent neurological injuries in a fall in the backcountry near Janet’s Cabin last February, according to Butler.
Serious snow squalls meant Flight for Life couldn’t fly and deteriorating weather conditions made for a difficult rescue. But, nonetheless, the rescue group responded, sending four teams several miles out into the field for an approximately five-hour rescue.
“Given the snow conditions and what we had to go through to get there — deep, unconsolidated snow — we were really happy to get him out,” Butler said, describing the situation as “the best outcome for the patient.”
While coordinating with an emergency-room doctor on the phone, Summit County Rescue Group members organized a response of 13 search and rescuers and one paramedic from Red, White & Blue Fire District for the mission.
Copper Mountain Resort allowed the rescuers to cross over their trails on snowmobiles and off-road vehicles, but it was still 3 to 4 miles to the cabin where the injured skier was holed up, Butler said.
On skis, the rescuers followed the creek bed up to the cabin, carving a path through the steep snow and willow brush as they went. After the team loaded the injured man into the toboggan, that path they had forged earlier made their exit much easier, Butler said.
“I’m very proud to be a part of this team,” he said of Summit County Rescue Group. “It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, what the weather is — when someone calls in requesting help, we always jump into action for somebody that is probably having the worst day of their life.”
From lost and cold hikers who get out of their comfort zone in the winter to injured mountain bikers or rock climbers in the summer, Summit County Rescue Group receives a wide variety of calls throughout the year, according to DeBattiste. Last year, the rescue group fielded members 67 times, including on five mutual aid calls, she said.
In the past few years, Quandary Peak has been one of the most common places in the county for rescue missions. That mountain is often listed in guide books and online as one of the easiest 14ers in Colorado — but that doesn’t mean it is easy, DeBattiste said, especially in the winter when visibility near the top can make it easy to lose the trail.
In 2019, there were 10 calls stemming from incidents at Quandary, she said. In 2020, that rose to 23 calls — then to 40 in 2021. Last year, Summit County Rescue Group responded to 25 calls at the mountain.
“It a little bit mirrors the general call volume,” DeBattiste said, “steadily rising and then down the last year. But that is hands down our most frequent response area.”
Other types of calls are less common. For example, in early July the rescue group responded to a call reporting that a Jeep driving Red Cone Pass in Montezuma had a mechanical breakdown and the driver was stuck on a steep section with his foot on the brake. If he let go, the vehicle would have rolled about 1,500 feet downhill into a ravine, Butler said.
Summit County Rescue Group deployed a small team of members who ended up stacking rocks under the wheels of the vehicle so it didn’t roll away and the driver could exit safely.
And, while not every call results in members being sent out into the field, Pitman said as a mission coordinator he has helped guide many a lost hiker out of the field over the phone from his dining room.
“If a person is 100 yards off a trail and they don’t see the trail, as far as they’re concerned, they’re doomed,” he said. “… It’s always gratifying to get people to safety.”
Many times law enforcement can track a person’s coordinates when they call 911 and from there Summit County Rescue Group members who are familiar with the area can help guide them to safety.
“The successes are what we like,” Pitman said. “And fortunately the vast majority (of rescues) are successes.”
A new year
Relative to 2022, when Summit County Rescue Group received four calls in the first three days of the new year, 2023 started slowly. But that didn’t last long.
On Jan. 9, the second Monday of the year, the group received four calls in less than 24 hours, according to DeBattiste — including one for two hikers on Quandary Peak who were ill prepared for the winter conditions and had to be rescued.
“I feel like it’s getting to the point where Monday is almost as busy as the weekends,” DeBattiste said, while noting that Saturday is still by far the most common day for the group to receive calls.
Butler, the rescue group’s president, said as the call volume has increased over the past few years, so has the skill set of the team — whether that be the technical skills of those who head out into the field, the technological skills of those using mapping software to help guide rescues or the administrative and fundraising skills of members who help keep the organization — which does not charge for its rescue missions — afloat.
“It really runs the gamut,” Butler said of the members’ skillsets. He noted that the all-volunteer team consists of people from “every walk of life,” including teachers, realtors, career ski patrollers, retail workers and property managers. Members range from their early-20s to mid-70s.
In the new year, Summit County Rescue Group plans to break ground on a new headquarters, which will be located in the Frisco County Commons. That new building will replace its current headquarters, a deteriorating metal garage constructed in the 1960s and sometimes referred to as “the Barn.”
The new space will provide more room for training, vehicle and equipment storage, as well as serve as a command center for the rescue group.
While Butler said he doesn’t expect the organization’s call volume to taper off anytime soon, being prepared while heading out into Summit County’s backcountry — whether to hike, ski, mountain bike or paraglide — can help.
“You’re not only putting yourself at risk, you’re putting rescuers at risk as well,” he said.
For those heading out to do backcountry skiing or snowboarding, Butler suggested attending an avalanche training course. Backcountry goers should always travel with others who they trust as competent and should also always carry an avalanche transceiver, probe pole and shovel, he said.
And anyone heading out for a hike or mountain-top excursion should check the forecast before leaving, carry the 10 essentials, and communicate their travel plans with a trusted person who is staying behind and knows when to expect them back, according to Butler.
“I do think it’s going to be another busy year,” he said. “Our numbers are ticking up already.”
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