Heroic Colorado search and rescue teams took on a daunting mission last Friday after a hiker took a tumbling fall of 500 feet on 14,200-foot Mount Yale, near Buena Vista, in frigid conditions.
According to a Chaffee County Search and Rescue North report, a party of two was attempting to descend Mount Yale via the less-trafficked East Ridge route when one of the mountain climbers fell from a ridge. As she tumbled 500 feet into an adjacent mountain bowl, she sustained several serious injuries, eventually coming to a stop on top of rocks, face down and not moving.
At approximately 4 PM that afternoon, the climber with her activated an emergency GPS device – a Garmin inReach – sending out the call for help.
With temperatures throughout the night forecasted to reach five degrees on the peak with winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour bringing the chill to negative 15, a team of 18 rescuers entered the field.
According to Chaffee County Search and Rescue North, the mission was set to be a difficult one due to the life-threatening temperatures and the rugged position of the rescue subject. Even with proper gear for the weather, search and rescue crews were checked on every 15 minutes to ensure that they were staying warm.
With no aerial assets available due to the dangerous weather, it was expected that crews would need to litter carry the subject more than four miles out of the wilderness through rugged terrain.
Crews climbed up to the ridge above where the fallen climber was positioned at about 12,400 feet of elevation. Part of the team then entered the mountain bowl with the use of ice axes and crampons, reaching the subject at about 11 PM.
Amid treacherous terrain, crews conducted a medical assessment of the subject and tried their best to warm her. Continued requests for aerial assets were made, eventually answered by Classic Air Medical.
While Classic Air Medical was able to drop an additional rescuer around 1 AM, they were unable to fully land – something that was required in order to load the subject. After multiple attempts, the helicopter was forced to turn back. While Classic Air Medical did return at 2 AM to drop additional supplies, evacuation was not possible and wouldn't be until dawn.
At this point it was determined that a litter carry evacuation or other evacuation conducted on foot would not be possible either due to the weather and terrain. Crews would be forced to wait in the field overnight with the subject amid life-threatening conditions.
The team was able to move the subject to treeline and built a fire that would help them survive the night.
Eventually, a Colorado National Guard helicopter with hoisting capabilities was able to respond to the mission and at daylight, two members of Mountain Rescue Aspen were able to hoist the subject off the mountain, with the subject on the way to the hospital at 8:30 AM after being transferred to a REACH Air Medical Helicopter.
All parties were out of the field by 12:30 PM on Saturday afternoon. The injured woman's climbing partner was transported from the scene via Cañon Helitack.
The condition of the injured climber is unknown, though search and rescue did include that she had broken bones and a head injury from the fall, also eventually sustaining hypothermia and frostbite due to the extreme conditions.
It is unclear what led to the fall of the climber, though conditions on the mountain would have been quite treacherous. Not only would frigid temperatures have been cause for concern, snow conditions and ice are present on the peak. This can make navigation difficult, especially without proper traction equipment. It is unclear what type of equipment was being used by the climbers during their descent, though falls can occur even in a situation when proper techniques and safety gear are being used.
The East Ridge of Mount Yale is rated as Class Two, though this becomes much more difficult with snow. Due to the less-trafficked nature of the route and snow coverage, climbers may have been forced to navigate without a clear path. The round-trip distance is 10.5 miles, with 5,000 feet of vertical gain – again, made much more difficult and slow-moving when snow is present.
When venturing into Colorado's backcountry during winter conditions, following best practices in terms of safety is absolutely crucial. Always bring plenty of gear to stay warm overnight if needed (as well as the 10 essentials), even if it means lugging along a few extra pounds. In this case, the party had an emergency GPS device, which proved to be potentially life-saving. Outside of carrying a device, it's also crucial to let people know where you're headed and when you're expecting to be back.
Winter exploration also opens the door for avalanche risk. Do not enter terrain where avalanches may occur without proper avalanche safety training. Always check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website before leaving the trailhead for the most up-to-date report on avalanche risk.
Thanks goes out to the heroic teams that played a role in this response. This rescue mission involved many organizations, including Chaffee County Search and Rescue North and South, Lake County Search and Rescue, Custer County Search and Rescue, Classic Air Medical, Colorado Army National Guard HAATS, Mountain Rescue Aspen, Colorado Search & Rescue Association, REACH Air Medical, Canon City Helitack, Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office, and Chaffee County Dispatch.
If you're interested in supporting Colorado's volunteer-powered search and rescue operation, one way to do so is through the purchase of a CORSAR card. It's cheap, at only $3 per year.
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