It’s been a particularly challenging summer season for Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA), with eight deaths in the Elk Mountain Range, including five on Capitol Peak.
More backcountry travelers mean more missions every year, and MRA has pulled dozens of stranded climbers to safety. So what exactly does this entail? Reporter Elizabeth Stewart-Severy walks through the anatomy of a rescue mission.
Joe Seeds summited Capitol Peak on a Wednesday morning early in September. He had teamed up with two other climbers he met on the way up, but they separated as Seeds started down. He was across the Knife Edge and headed down a steep gully when he realized he was off route.
"The two people, they were yelling to me, but they were far enough away that I didn't know what they were saying,” he said. “It was probably, 'You're going the wrong way.'"
He stopped, sat down, pulled his thoughts together and started to move carefully through the steep scree field, trying to climb back up to the route.
"There was just too much slick rock,” he said. “I was too afraid to take a chance, and I knew I had to get back up. That’s when I texted a friend."
His friend jumped right into action by calling 911 and explaining to the dispatcher on duty that his friend needed urgent help.
This kicked off the first step of the rescue. An acronym that search and rescue teams use to direct missions is LAST: Locate. Access. Stabilize. Transport.
Regardless of the specific mission, it starts with locating the subject. This can come in from a call, a second hand report, someone spotting the person, a text to 911, or any type of personal locator beacon.
In Colorado, sheriff’s departments are responsible for search and rescue operations. But as Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo explains: "My deputies are not trained mountaineers on technical 14,000-foot peaks," he said.
A dispatcher, who works for the county, gathers basic information like the subject’s name, experience level and plans for the day. They then call a “501”, which is a mountain rescue leader.
Once MRA has a location, they need to figure out how to access the person. There’s a lot to consider in this, such as how the rescue team will get there, how much time it will take, the weather forecast, the level of urgency and the risk for the rescuers, among other considerations. They also have to look at the person who needs to be rescued. Does he or she have medical problems? What’s their experience level? What is their appropriate level of response?
MRA has to decide how to access the person and who are the right people to do it. In the case of Seeds, who was stranded on Capitol in the late afternoon, access needed to be quick and safe.
For the most demanding missions, MRA works with the Colorado Army National Guard. They have Blackhawk and Lakota choppers at their High Altitude Aviation Training Site in Gypsum. A request for a helicopter needs to be approved by the military and is sent through DiSalvo.
“So they are the best of the best,” he said. “So when you’re talking about picking somebody off a 14,000-foot peak and getting a rotor blade within 10 feet of a big hunk of rock, those are the guys you want doing it.”
A rescue leader is then tasked with finding the right volunteers to send into the field. This can mean anything from a couple of highly trained team members in a helicopter to a dozen on foot.
At this point in the mission, things are picking up fast at the rescue cabin, as teams get organized and assembled with the appropriate gear. Up on Capitol, Seeds is carefully making his way to a place where the helicopter can spot him.
"I think panic hit me for about a second, and then somehow I just turned it around,” Seeds said. “Like, I knew if I panicked, I’m going to end up dead. So basically I start back up.”
Maneuvering a helicopter through 14,000-foot peaks is not an easy task. Landing one is even trickier because there aren’t a lot of places where a helicopter can really land. Often, the pilot has to try and put one wheel or one skid down. Many times, that means lowering an MRA team member into the field, like in the case of Seeds’ rescue.
Once a rescuer is on the ground, the next step is to stabilize, or as one MRA volunteer dubbed it, “don’t make anything worse.”
Up on Capitol, the rescuer reached Seeds, clipped him into a harness and walked him out of the treacherous spot he was in, back to the trail. If he had been hurt, MRA team members can help with pain, work to stop bleeding, or splint injured limbs and get the patient ready for transport.
The team in a blackhawk reached Seeds in the late afternoon. He had been on Capitol since about 5:30 a.m. It had been hours since he had seen another person. He was exhausted and it was late, plus, it has been a deadly season on that peak.
“Five people had died and they didn’t want me to be the sixth,” Seeds said.
Next step in the rescue mission: How to get the climber out.
In this case, Seeds was harnessed to a rescue team member, hoisted up into a helicopter and flown out to safety.
But for MRA and Sheriff DiSalvo, it doesn’t end there. The number of incidents are going up, and rescuers are seeing some patterns. There are simple things that hikers and climbers can do to avoid dangerous situations.
First, Sheriff DiSalvo said it’s important to realize what these endeavors are.
"These are not hikes, these are technical climbs," he said.
DiSalvo and rescue leaders said it’s critical that people in the backcountry stick to only those challenges that are within their knowledge, skill and ability levels.
"Half the rescues and recoveries that we do are just ... stuff happens, people slip, a rock moves. The other half are people who are exceeding that knowledge, skill and ability level," an MRA volunteer said.
Rescue leaders are also trying to get word out about basic backcountry awareness, such as don’t rely on cell phones, stick with the group, be prepared for the worst if you’re traveling alone and stay on route.
“If that gully that you’re looking down was the better, safer, more efficient way, it'd be the standard route but it's not for a reason,” said another MRA volunteer. “You can't see that cliff at the bottom.”
Seeds remembers the spot where he lost the route, and he knows what he’s taking away from the experience.
“If I had it to do over again, I would’ve waited for the person behind me. And then both of us could have looked at it,” he said. “You know, two sets of eyes, two sets of minds, going alone, that’s not the right way.”
He said he’ll back to try again.
MRA is planning a kick off to their new education initiative. There will be a community forum next week.
Editor’s note: MRA is an all-volunteer organization that shies away from personal recognition, which is why Aspen Public Radio did not give credit to the volunteers in this story.