It was a beautiful sunny morning on Saturday, and a local man was out for a hike on the popular 14,023-foot Wilson Peak. The 30-year-old was out by himself for the day, which was not unusual for the experienced hiker, when something went wrong. Shortly before 11 a.m., the sound of rockfall caused a nearby party to turn their gaze towards the sound. Though the beginning of the accident was not witnessed, the reporting party was able to get word to emergency dispatch that assistance was urgently needed for the hiker, who sustained serious head and orthopedic injuries in the fall.
Authorities believe the man, who has not been publicly identified by authorities, may have been en route to the summit of Wilson Peak, possibly traversing just off the trail in loose rock and scree when for unknown reasons he slipped and fell, coming to a stop on the angled rocky flanks of the peak’s east face at approximately 13,300 feet of altitude.
“When you fall down a steep scree field there’s nothing to protect you in that kind of fall,” noted Susan Lilly, public information officer for San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office. “There's a lot of blunt force trauma that the body’s going to suffer as a result of that kind of fall.”
A search and rescue response was immediately activated, and a coordinated effort of nearly two dozen volunteers, deputies, emergency medical services personnel and bystanders assisted in the “multiple layers of ground, air and contingency operations planning” to extract the patient from the remote terrain.
Search and rescue members are trained to carry out complex rescues that account for the many contingencies that may occur when rescue teams move into scenarios replete with unknowns or quickly changing environments. The teams make a “Plan A” based on the information available, but create back-up plans in case circumstances arise that nullify the initial plans. During Saturday’s mission, a helicopter from Mountain Blade Runner, a Montrose-based helicopter services company, was able to assist in airlifting rescue teams into the field, with a back-up team sent on the ground to the nearest point accessible by vehicle.
The search and rescue team made contact with the patient at 1:42 p.m. and initiated a low-angle rope rescue to lower the patient down the slope.
“Really what you’re doing is trying to figure out, ‘What is the safest, most efficient way to get this person out given his condition?’” Lilly explained. “In this case, we needed a medic skilled with rigging and packing, who happened to be on duty, and a low angle rope rescue, which requires a lot of skill.”
Jon Miller, a longtime search and rescue volunteer, acted as technical team leader for Saturday’s mission. Using ropes and climbing equipment, his team ascended to the nearest rock above the patient that was solid enough to anchor a ropes system to safely lower the patient on a litter to an area conducive to transferring him into the helicopter.
“The biggest problem is the San Juans are notoriously loose and chossy rock,” said Miller. “We had to spend time hunting down places we could put protection in; you need to make sure everything is nice and solid. But everything went pretty efficiently and we were ready to go when they were ready to move the patient, which is always the goal.”
The expertise of the pilot also saved valuable minutes by deftly maneuvering the helicopter closer to the patient for loading. The patient was then flown to the Telluride Regional Airport and transferred to a waiting CareFlight helicopter for the flight to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
“Operationally speaking, we did everything we could to get to him as quickly and safely as possible, and get him out of the wilderness and to definitive care,” said Lilly. “All the different people who participated are thinking of him and his family with hopes for a positive outcome.”