There is never a good time to get lost in the Telluride backcountry, but conditions were challenging Thursday even for experts — which is to say, more than 20 members of the San Miguel County Sheriff’s search and rescue team.
SAR members were deployed following a phone call at around 5 p.m. requesting assistance for an injured member of a party of three. A trio of hikers was stranded at around 11,000 feet in Bilk Creek Basin (in the vicinity of Lizard Head, Wilson Peak and Sunshine).
The injured member of that party — a 75-year-old man — was complaining of leg pain and felt as if he could proceed no further.
A number of scenarios were possible, and because they didn’t know exactly what they would find — or when they would find it — rescuers needed to have contingency plans for almost anything.
Darkness was falling, and so were temperatures. “We had good weather on our side,” said Susan Lilly, public information officer for the San Miguel Sheriff’s Office. Even so, the terrain was forbidding, and bushwhacking-by-nightfall was likely to be required.
One possibility was that rescuers wouldn’t be able to access the hikers at all that night.
Another possibility was that they would, but that they would have to camp there until the injured party could be extracted by daylight, “either by ground transport or helicopter,” Lilly said.
Yet another scenario, “our number one choice, is what we were able to execute.”
The injured hiker, along with his companions, was able to walk out with the assistance of rescuers.
The hikers were lucky rescuers arrived that evening. The group was located approximately five miles from the Dairy Farm trailhead. But “They went off-trail, and so we had to, too,” Lily said. “We tracked them via a cellphone ping and through GPS coordinates.”
It took about five hours, “across snow-covered terrain covered with pine needles and logs,” to access the stranded party. The time was about 9:45 p.m.
“Once we realized how far out they were, it required quite a lot of hiking, for a lot of people, through a lot of unfriendly conditions,” as Lily put it.
“We knew they had inadequate food, water and clothing for spending the night out,” she added. One hiker was wearing shorts, and all were cold by the time rescuers reached then (by then, temperatures had dropped into the 30s.). SAR personnel built a fire, heated fluids (to offer the trekkers something hot to drink) and gave them warm clothes to wear. It took nearly seven hours to get back to the trailhead. In addition to the food, water, clothes and camping gear the rescuers had carried in, they ferried back out an unwieldly litter — thankfully unused, yet particularly tricky to transport at night, by headlamp, through forbidding terrain.
“Sheriff Masters would like to remind people traveling through the backcountry that they should be prepared for the unexpected,” Lilly said (a so-called Colorado Outdoor Search and Rescue, or CORSAR, card available at local outdoor shops or online at dola.colorado.gov helps defray the costs of a backcountry rescue).
By 4:45 a.m., the extraction was complete, but not before employees of La Cocina de Luz performed a form of rescue of their own — call it culinary resuscitation — by providing a belated dinner of burritos for SAR members and hikers alike.
“No one was in danger of not having enough to eat,” Lilly said.
The hikers made their way home unassisted. As for the rescuers, “They got home around the time a lot of people were waking up,” Lilly said.
Indeed, given the lateness of the hour and the adrenaline of the mission, some may not have slept at all. With the exception of San Miguel County employees, the SAR team is comprised entirely of volunteers. For many of them, another workday was about to begin.