Night was already closing in by the time 26 trained rescuers began the long climb up to the knife-edge ridge connecting two of Colorado's most notorious fourteeners on July 27, 2009.
Earlier in the day, a couple of climbers were traversing from the summit of Crestone Peak (14,298 feet) toward the summit of Crestone Needle (14,201 feet) when one fell, breaking his leg in one of the most inaccessible locations in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, if not all of Colorado. Even a helicopter was not able to hover, much less land, in the area where the climber lay stranded.
What followed was an all-night mission that required search and rescue members -- including seven from the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder -- to summit the Crestone Needle by headlamp, rappel to the injured climber and set up 10 successive lowering stations through vertical cliff bands to bring the patient to a place where the helicopter could land.
Once the patient was boarded onto the helicopter, rescue team members climbed another 1,500 feet out of the valley so that they could descend again to their waiting vehicles -- all before afternoon thunderstorms pummeled the peaks.
Next Thursday, the five Colorado search and rescue teams that sent members to the Crestone accident last summer will be honored with the National Association for Search and Rescue's Valor Award, which has been given out only two other times in the association's 33-year history.
"When the board of directors reviewed the nomination, they voted unanimously to give the award," said NASAR board member Howard Paul. "It was given out to a couple of helicopter pilots in the past; both of them were for helicopter rescues in very difficult conditions."
The rescue last summer -- which also included people from the Alpine Rescue Team, the Custer County Search and Rescue Team, Douglas Search and Rescue Team and El Paso County Search and Rescue Team -- stood out to NASAR because it took place in the dark, because the elevation was so high and because it required exceptional technical skills, with rescue members improvising anchor after anchor on the cliff side.
But for Rocky Mountain Rescue Group -- which responded to 143 calls last year, many of which required using complex rope systems to rescue rock climbers off of vertical walls in Eldorado Canyon State Park and Boulder Canyon -- the rescue was primarily different because of the accident's isolated position, not its technical demands.
"It was a really amazing rescue with great teamwork between multiple groups and a remote location," said Les Sikos, assistant group leader and training director for Rocky Mountain Rescue. "The big deal for us is the fact that it's further out from the trailhead. Most of our calls are within an hour of the trailhead."
Even working in the dark didn't phase the all-volunteer Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, which frequently works at night. The group's old slogan, according to Sikos, was "See Colorado by Headlamp." And in fact, Sikos and his colleagues -- who didn't see the Crestone rescue as too far above and beyond their normal work -- were taken by surprise when they learned they'd won the Valor Award.
This kind of modesty is common among professional rescuers, said NASAR's Paul, who also serves as a member of the Alpine Rescue Team in Evergreen.
"Search and rescue folks don't go out looking for congratulations and a pat on the back. It's just the nature of the people, but they really deserve the recognition," he said. "An award like this helps the public understand the caliber of people doing this. These are some of the top people out there."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Laura Snider at 303-473-1327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.