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From Issue #16 May 9, 2013

Peak Experience

A mountain rescue still reverberates a decade later.

By Rich Mogull Twitter icon 

The analog pager on my belt went off in a screech of DTMF tones and static, followed by the tinny voice of the county dispatcher.1 As I started the hour-long drive to the trailhead, the details came in. Two hikers in a peak-filled area near the Continental Divide heard a couple of shouts for help in the distance as they started their descent. They didn’t see anything, couldn’t say from which direction the voices came, and heard no response when they called out.

As with much of the high country, there wasn’t any cell phone coverage 10 years ago — it’s still sparse today — and they couldn’t call 911 until returning to the parking lot. While that was more information than we had to go on than the time we were called to find someone “lost in Colorado,” it seemed like slim odds that it would turn out to be more than an excuse to go hiking.2

Instead it turned into one of the most physically challenging experiences of my life.

Hasty search

I belonged to the all-volunteer, nonprofit Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG). Founded in 1947, it’s one of the oldest and most active mountain rescue teams in the country. With close ties to the University of Colorado, the team’s members are a fairly even mix of engineers, mountaineers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. This combination is at the core of RMRG’s history, as the team had to develop not only its own procedures, but its own equipment to handle the rigors of rescue decades before off-the-shelf gear was available.

In an average year RMRG responds to about 130 calls, although in 2012 they handled 163 calls with 93 field missions throughout Boulder County, Colorado, and on assists for other teams throughout the state. While most people think of Boulder as a small city where it’s easy (and legal) to score some good bud, Boulder County encompasses 751 square miles and stretches from the edge of the eastern plains of Colorado, through the foothills, and up to the Continental Divide. It’s a haven for those who love the outdoors, and a place where you are as likely to wait in line for a good climbing spot as for an organic microbrew. Thousands of residents and visitors crawl through the mountains on any given weekend, no matter the season or weather, engaged in every imaginable activity.3

After bouncing down the unpaved road in my dusty black Ford Explorer, I pulled into the parking lot, grabbed my pack out of the back, and dropped my keys on my front seat in case someone needed to move it out of the way or drive it back to Boulder if I ended up returning with an ambulance or in another vehicle.

A few team members were already congregating around the mobile command center. Managing resources on a call like this can be tricky: you have no idea how many victims there are, where they are, whether they’re hurt, or whether there even are any victims. You don’t know if you need technical rescue equipment, first aid gear, or merely someone to guide a few lost hikers home. Worst yet, with hiking times stretching to hours, you can’t afford to send too many people or any significant gear until you know exactly where you are going.

As a former paramedic, I was quickly paired up with another experienced team member and sent in the field for a hasty search, armed with our personal gear, extra warm clothing, and a moderately stocked first-aid kit. It was fairly toasty in the mountain sun, with a slight chill in the shadows. Being Colorado, the temperature would drop precipitously once the sun slid behind the peaks to the west, even in August. We didn’t expect to find anything serious, and our conversation was little different than that during any other afternoon hike.

Contact

One of our retired members who lived in the area deployed straight into the field before anyone else was even close to being on scene. Much to our surprise, as my partner and I quickly hiked along the wildflower-lined trail, the radio call came in that he found two injured men hobbling below a scree field at the base of one of the peaks. They had been glissading down a snowfield, poorly, and slammed into the rocks below.4

Glissading is a descent technique that is better described as pretending to ski down steep hard snow or ice — without skis. It’s a heck of a ride as you slide down the slope with your boots (and sometimes butt), especially if said snowfield ends in a pile of rocks. Our two victims lost control, resulting in an unexpected and somewhat painful ending to their run.

We started speed-hiking now that we knew where to go. By then the trail was relatively flat, wandering along the edge of a high mountain lake around 11,000 feet in elevation. The trail weaved in and out of boulders — sometimes the size of cars — that had likely fallen many thousands of years before. We arrived at the climbers at sunset.

The first patient was in better shape, complaining only of ankle pain. I felt his ankle and it was clear he was hurt, but I decided it was better to leave his boot on to keep it stable. He was the one who had helped his friend down the slope to the level ground where we found them. I quickly turned to the second victim, who hadn’t fared so well. Aside from even more severe leg pain, most likely a fracture, he had banged up his chest and was having trouble breathing. I suspected rib fractures, and possibly a minor pneumothorax or even flail chest.5

There are three kinds of patients in mountain rescue: dinged-up, relatively stable, and dead. With multi-hour response times factoring into how long it takes someone to call for help, unstable patients don’t last long unless they’ve fallen right next to the road. (That’s actually very common in Boulder.)

I took in the sky, the small group of other rescuers coming up behind us, and the first, walking patient.

“Can you walk?”

“I think so.”

The clouds were rolling in, a light drizzle of rain started, and the sun had started to disappear over the visible horizon. Although it was August, it might start snowing at our altitude, and we knew we were about to get cold and wet — we just didn’t yet know how cold and how wet. Walking someone out seemed like a safer alternative, and required fewer people and resources, than an evacuation by litter at night, in bad weather, at altitude, over rough terrain.

“Good, go down with this guy,” I said, as I passed him off to another team member.

In retrospect, having him hike miles on a minor broken ankle was safer and likely more comfortable than the alternative his friend experienced.

Evacuation

As we saw off our ambulatory patient, the first wave of equipment arrived, starting with our litter. An RMRG litter isn’t the chicken-wire framed construct you often see on TV; it is a custom-built feat of engineering that splits in half for transport on a pack frame, with solid-aluminum sides. Plastic or wireframe litters can’t survive the rough Colorado terrain, especially with RMRG’s high call volume.

Strapped to a pack frame with your personal gear tied on, it can weigh close to 100 pounds, extends a foot or more above your head, and is about as manageable as tying a drunk toddler to your back. After snapping the two halves of the litter together, we placed a full-body vacuum splint in the bottom to hold him steady.6

I bandaged up the patient as best I could and put him on supplemental oxygen that another responder had carried up. He hurt when he breathed, but he wasn’t showing any signs of oxygen deficiency yet. We quickly loaded him into the litter to avoid burning too much of the remaining sunlight, as the sun sets quickly in the mountains, and we had already switched to headlights.7 The senior team members started planning our evacuation route, and it wasn’t looking good.

Any rescue takes a fair bit of physical effort, but with level ground you don’t have gravity or ropes to help. Every gram of mass is borne by the arms and legs of the rescuers. If there’s enough of a trail, you can clamp a wheel onto the bottom of the litter (another technique pioneered by RMRG with a custom-welded frame). Even uphill you can just build a pulley system and work the mechanical advantage; downhill evacuations are merely a more complex form of group rappelling.

But we didn’t have much of a trail, or the kind of slope where gravity would help. We stared across a level evacuation route littered with large boulders we would have to lift over, and there was no shortage of ankle-breaking rocks under our feet. You can’t fall more than the distance from your head to your toes on level ground, but that doesn’t mean it’s your friend.

Trail carry

After layering the top half of a sub-zero sleeping bag on top of the patient, we roped off one end of the litter and carefully dragged him along a snow field as the rain picked up.8

It never snowed that night, denying us that extra bit of insulation. The chill seeped through my exhausted muscles at the precise combination of temperature and moisture capable of defeating all known technical clothing. The rain was just soft enough that it bordered between mist and precipitation, worming its way through sealed seams, cuffs, and zippers in a way far more insidious than a straight-up downpour.

At that altitude, the temperature was no more than a few degrees above freezing, staving off any possibility of converting those cold tendrils into an insulating snow, yet more than capable of sucking out every Kelvin our bodies could generate.

After the snowfield ended, the real work started. There were only about eight of us at that point, as other rescuers were still streaming in from Boulder. While it probably wasn’t more than an hour or two, we were soaked to the bone, freezing cold, and physically exhausted after hauling our patient across level ground and Volkswagen-sized boulders. As we paused for a moment I couldn’t help but be amused at all the times in my life I had deliberately avoiding putting myself anywhere near the kind of conditions we were now operating under.

My patient was still stable, but as a medic I was never happy with someone with diminished breathing capacity at altitude, especially since my nonexistent X-ray vision couldn’t tell me what was going on inside. All I could do was keep checking on him at our stops, keep the oxygen flowing, and make sure I figured out quickly if he started to go south.

Then, as we started hitting the first downhill portion of the route, we saw the glimmer of headlamps ahead. Our relief. Strangely they didn’t appear to be moving. With the cold and rain, the uphill trip for them was nearly as exhausting as our evacuation, and not knowing how close we were, they had stopped to cram some nutrition bars and fuel up.9

When the relief team took over, I assumed I’d merely walk behind the litter and keep checking on my patient, but within minutes the first litter-bearers started changing out as we set a rotation. The conditions were getting worse, and even the fresher team members were struggling with the physical toll of a mostly level trail-carry over rough ground in the freezing cold.

The decision

It’s hard to convey the full power of the conditions that so rapidly exhausted an experienced and fit team of individuals who were more than used to operating in extreme environments. The combination of geography and weather hit as hard as anything I remember. Rescuers had quickly become exhausted, and the only thing staving off hypothermia was the heat generated by our physical exertion. It couldn’t last long.

We stopped.

I tended to my patient, who was doing surprisingly well despite being a little short of breath. His vitals were strong, his condition stable, and his temperature completely fine under our layers of protection. I was jealous.

The senior on-scene leaders grouped together, debated the options, and called down to command, which now included representatives from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. If we kept going, the odds increased that someone would get hurt. While you can still trudge along with hypothermia, the brain stops processing well. Especially once we hit the downhill trail, we would need to make more technical decisions, and the chances for error would grow dramatically.

We decided to leave two of our most experienced members with the patient under improvised shelter for the rest of the night, and send everyone else down until morning. I handed over medical responsibility and started the long hike back to the parking lot. This was by far safer than trying to push through the night. Long into the rescue, with no worsening of his medical condition, I knew the client could make it safely through the hours until we could continue in the daylight.

Vertical liftoff

The weather remained stable yet bad. The cloud ceiling was above the rescue altitude, so a helicopter wasn’t out of the question, but helicopters and the high mountains mix like alcohol and gasoline next to a burning candle. The safety margins thin with the air, and a simple rescue even at 5,000 feet can’t compare to one at 11,000. Besides, the local Flight for Life team and their high-altitude bird weren’t available.

But then, after we had tried and discarded other options and had prepared for a long ground evacuation, word came down that a military rescue chopper from a nearby (as the chopper flies) base was headed our way. Thanks to that backbreaking level ground, there were ample flat landing areas, and this was a dedicated rescue crew. The chopper would get the patient to medical care many hours faster than we could otherwise, and the crew would evaluate the site and could always turn back if they felt unsafe.

Some helicopters are designed for the mountains. This Huey wasn’t, even though it was still within operating parameters. The pilot kept the blades spinning as two team members hot-loaded the patient into the chopper. They backed off as the helicopter hovered to burn off excess fuel before it slipped downhill slightly, nosed around, and crept through the hills to clear air.

The first patient had a broken ankle, which wasn’t adversely affected by his guided hike out. The second patient had multiple broken bones and ribs, causing his breathing issues. Considering the weather that night and their distance from help, the story wouldn’t have ended so well had those hikers not heard our patients’ calls in the distance.

That morning, after the helicopter carried the patients away, I finished packing up my gear and started the bleary-eyed drive back to town. I worked as an independent application developer, so no manager was waiting for me in an office, wondering when I’d show up.

Margin call

Working in the extreme margins of risk can fool you about your own safety. Our training and expertise let us know precisely how close to shave the margins without veering into danger. But we routinely went out in conditions that would have been challenging or fatal for those without specialized skills. A combination of drilled-in safety lessons and teammates to rely on kept us safe in the face of anything but an accident impossible to plan for, even as my physical limits were stretched beyond anything I’ve endured in the 20 years since — from SWAT standoffs to Hurricane Katrina. I re-evaluated my own limits.

A few months after this challenging call, my team was called out to help with another rescue. We checked in with military police guarding a trailhead, assigned there to keep out the general public. We hiked past them down the trail to our assigned search area. It didn’t take long to start seeing little flags marking the debris from an accident related to our mission, but not our purpose in being there. Then we turned a corner and saw the frame of the helicopter, and the large gashes and pieces of trees the blades had shredded during its uncontrolled descent.

We weren’t there for the chopper. It had fallen the day before, injuring four onboard, when it had hit a downdraft in the half-canyon and lost lift. Their goal and ours was to find a lost three year old who a few days before had disappeared along a clear trail that had no branching paths. The military had sealed off the trail to investigate the crash.

We didn’t find the child; his clothes were discovered years later. The helicopter, I was told, was from the same unit that had helped us back in Boulder.


  1. The pager itself was likely 20 years old, relying on a two-tone audible sequence to trigger, after which it flipped into monitoring mode, but without a feature to pull out the static. I later upgraded to a digital pager, but then had to buy a radio scanner to keep up on call details as I responded. A lot changes during even short responses, and at that time very few members were authorized for personal two-way radios. 

  2. We actually found that individual by checking all the trailhead parking lots for a car with his license plate, then searching the surrounding area. 

  3. And some you likely never imagined, such as climbing naked at night, or with rollerblades. I never tried the rollerblades. 

  4. Scree is the pile of broken rocks that forms (probably) as ice cracks pieces off the mountain. In some places it gets quite steep, and may form a large portion of the surface material once the slope angle is shallow enough to hold it together. 

  5. A pneumothorax is a puncture in the lung that allows air to leak out and form pressure in the chest cavity, making it harder to breathe. I once had two after a 30-foot climbing fall in my less cautious days. If they’re small enough, they heal on their own. A flail chest is the fracture of multiple ribs that creates a free-floating segment of your chest wall, again reducing your ability to take a full breath. 

  6. RMRG was, to the best of team members’ knowledge, the first mountain rescue team in the United States to adopt the full-body vacuum splint. It’s called the beanbag since it is literally a beanbag that hardens up to whatever shape you configure once you suck out all the air. Using a wooden backboard can cause more pain and back damage during long evacuations. Even if someone’s back isn’t injured, the beanbag holds them steady as the litter moves over rough ground. 

  7. The unofficial motto of RMRG is, “Seeing Colorado by headlamp for over 60 years.” 

  8. RMRG uses a custom sleeping bag that splits into top (face) and bottom (back) halves that Velcro together. Since the litter and beanbag insulate the patient’s back, usually just the top of the sleeping bag is used. There is a round hole for the face so the patient is completely covered. 

  9. Probably not PowerBars, since those get so rigid in the cold you can use them as a splint. If you’ve ever watched the Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger, the least realistic part is when he bites into a frozen PowerBar. I may be exaggerating, but not by much. 

Rich Mogull is an analyst and the CEO of security research firm Securosis. He's also an occasional freelance writer and an itinerant former rescue professional.

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