• Nov 15, 2023

CCSAR Nov 8 2023 Rescue

A hiker who set out towards the summit of a thirteener earlier this month with just a cotton hoodie to protect against winter weather was safely extracted by Chaffee County Search and Rescue after being caught in a snowstorm.

About 25 rescuers from CCSAR North and South were deployed to the thirteener on the evening of Nov. 8, with more than five assisting with incident command from the CCSAR-N bay.

The hiker had no food or water or way to warm themselves aside from the hoodie, a CCSAR-N Facebook post said.

“With darkness approaching and hypothermia setting in,” CCSAR-N wrote, “the individual decided, rather than take the same way down the best plan was to bail down an avalanche chute to try to get to a road.”

The hiker had a phone, but SAR could not obtain GPS data from it. The hiker told SAR dispatch that they were in an avalanche chute east of Cottonwood Lake. Rescuers advised them to continue moving down the couloir.

CCSAR-N began its mission at 7 p.m. amid a severe snowstorm, searching several avalanche chutes on the mountain from bottom to top.

At about 12:42 a.m., one team descended into a gully and found footprints in 6-8 inches of new snow. Following the footprints, the team found “an unusual-looking rock” at 2 a.m.

“Upon further investigation it was determined it was not a rock but the subject sitting upright in a fetal position covered in snow,” CCSAR-N wrote. The hiker was alive, “but very hypothermic.”

Rescue teams next spent three hours warming the hiker before beginning their descent, a “long, steep, arduous extraction over deadfall down the steep gully.”

Beginning the descent at approximately 5:00 a.m., ropes were used to bring the hiker down one section at a time. At around 6:15, the hiker said that they could walk. By 7 a.m., 12 hours after the mission had begun, the hiker walked with assistance to an ambulance for evaluation.

Rescue risks

Rescues in winter conditions are not only dangerous for the subject. Without proper protection or in poor enough conditions, rescuers may find themselves the rescuees.

“When temperatures drop as much as they did (on Nov. 8), and we’ve had rescues in the -teens, that’s when we start implementing cold weather protocols,” said CCSAR-NO public information officer Kiki Lathrop. “We check in all of the teams at certain increments, depending on weather, so we can make sure everyone is doing their best to keep warm.

“If a rescuer isn’t prepared for a sudden temperature drop, we want to know to be able to get htem out of there,” she said. “We always have extra gear at the bay, just in case. Microspikes, crampons for icy conditions like this. … The weather is always a consideration for us, and it really depends on the terrain. If someone is in an area that’s going to be really dangerous to our guys, we don’t want to send them into danger, either.”

There have also been incidents where SAR couldn’t respond immediately due to the conditions.

“Someone was cliffed out above the Chalk Cliffs, and when it starts raining, there’s too much risk up there. We don’t want to send more people into danger,” she said. After confirming the subject had the ability to overnight, SAR rescued them in the morning.

“That was the only way we were able to do it and do it safely,” Lathrop said.

Lathrop also emphasized that even the most experienced hiker can make a mistake or be caught off-guard by a sudden weather shift.

“This weekend, the weather just blew in really fast,” she said. “If you don’t prepare properly, don’t check the weather or have extra layers and go up into the mountains, things can happen quite quickly.

“We are in the 14ers. Weather can change on a dime. We very much advocate for the 10 essentials,” she said.

The 10 Essentials are: hydration, nutrition, navigation, emergency shelter, extra layers, illumination, a fire starter, first aid supplies, sun protection and a repair kit. Visit https://www.nps.gov/articles/10essentials.htm for more details on the 10 essentials.

“One thing not on the list I would add is a whistle,” Lathrop said. “Being able to make yourself found is wonderful. It goes with illumination – you can signal to rescuers you’re there. … Snow does dampen sound, so if you have a nice loud whistle, there’s really no other sound we are going to confuse it with.”

Year-round preparation

During the Search and Rescue Debrief on Nov. 2, SAR member Josh Schwenzfeier pointed out that winter rescues aren’t exclusive to typical winter months.

“We’ve had those types of missions clearing summer, because once there’s snow and ice on top of those mountains, all it takes is a misstep,” Lathrop said. “If you still have snow and ice, that’s going to be a winter mission, where you need to make sure you have gear appropriate to handle the ice.”

“CCSAR-N and CCSAR-S would like to remind everyone that the 10 essentials are ‘Essential’ for a reason. While you may not plan to be out in inclement weather the 10 essentials are essential in helping to keep you alive,” the Facebook post concluded. “SAR would also like to address communication devices, as they are not all the same. Please verify with your carrier if the device you plan to use as your emergency back up is GPS-capable and if this information can be provided quickly to first responders.”

While SAR does not endorse any particular GPS-capable device, they do not recommend you relying on a cell phone, as coverage does not exist everywher. CCSAR-N does recommend a GPS device with an SOS function and two-way communication abilities.

CCSAR-N member and former training director Gina Lucrezi also created a list of backcountry awareness resources for her company Trail Sisters, available at https://trailsisters.net/backcountry-awareness/

Lahtrop also suggested backcountry recreators consider getting a SAR card.

“It’s not insurance,” she said. “Just on this last mission, some of the guys lost their microspikes up on the hill. … The card gives SAR teams a chance to request funds from the Colorado SAR Card pool. If our subject has a SAR card, we can ask the state to be reimbursed for equipment that has been damaged or lost, fuel that was needed for planes and cars. We can have that reimbursed, and it does help our teams.”

For more information on Chaffee County SAR, SAR cards and backcountry tips, visit http://chaffeecountysarnorth.org/