An injured climber was rescued from El Diente peak Sunday in a complex operation that involved multiple agencies, two helicopters, torrential rain, a mudslide and a few doses of good luck.
The technical rescue plan was executed perfectly, but within a narrow window of opportunity, said Dolores Search and Rescue Capt. Keith Keesling.
“The timing was close on many fronts. Skill was paramount, but luck was also on our side,” he said.
An experienced climber in his 30s was on his way down from the 14,020-foot summit about 10 a.m. when a boulder he stood on broke free, and he plummeted 20 feet down the northwest face.
He landed on a small ledge and fractured his lower leg.
“A few feet either way, and this would have been a recovery,” Keesling said.
The climber’s identity was not released.
His pack with extra clothing, water, food and gear flew off during the fall and was lost down the mountainside.
Keesling said the man had called his wife at the summit and had pocketed his cell phone and Garmin satellite communication device rather than store them in the pack. He was able to call for help.
Several rescue teams staged at the Kilpacker Trailhead, and the Mesa Verde Helitack was called in for a short-haul rescue operation.
First, a federal rescue technician was hauled up by a fixed line and dropped off to the injured party on the mountain.
The climber was packaged onto a litter connected to the line under the helicopter and flown 5.5 miles to a Southwest Health System ambulance waiting at the Kilpacker Trailhead. He was transported to Southwest Memorial Hospital.
Using the fixed line, the helicopter returned to pick up the rescuer still on the mountain side. He was flown off the mountain in a torrential downpour as he hung attached to the line.
“He said it was a wet ride,” Keesling said.
The mission was completed by 2:30 p.m.
A team effort led to the successful rescue, and the stars lined up as well.
For example, Keesling said the Mesa Verde Helitack was scheduled to leave the next day. Without the certified short-haul helicopter, climbers would have had to have spent time climbing to the victim, who was in a vulnerable medical state.
Just 15 minutes of delay for the short-haul would have caused it to be canceled because of inclement weather. It was also fortunate that during the helicopter rescue next to the mountain there was no wind or lightning.
Then, just minutes after the SHS ambulance left, the road down the mountain was washed out from heavy flooding, but the ambulance had already gone past that point.
The patient is recovering, and very grateful, Keesling said. He was in direct communication with the man during the rescue, and said he was in and out of shock, but kept in good spirits.
“I kept talking to him, getting him to laugh, when he saw the helicopter flying in it was a big relief,” Keesling said.
Satellite rescue devices should be essential gear for any backcountry traveler, Keesling said.
“We spend that much on our jackets and boots. It is standard gear that will save your life and others,” he said.
Without it, the climber would have been stranded on the peak with minimal clothing in a heavy rainstorm and no way to contact anyone.
Agencies that responded to the rescue included DOCSAR, Rico Volunteer Fire Department, West Fork Volunteer Fire Department, Mesa Verde Helitack, San Miguel Search and Rescue, Southwest Health System ambulance, Dolores County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado Search and Rescue Association and Durango Interagency Dispatch.
The San Miguel Sheriff Office’s new helicopter was also on scene spotting the climber’s location and reporting weather updates.
Keesling said Dolores County Search and Rescue responded to seven calls in July. The calls were for hikers and climbers who where overdue or not prepared for mountain weather such as rain, hail and cold. They all got out safely.
More education is needed on how to safely prepare for trips into the backcountry. Pack as if you would have survive an unexpected night, with extra clothing, water, purification tablets, food, flashlight, first aid kit, rain gear, lighter and a satellite communication device.