GET BREAKING NEWS IN YOUR BROWSER. CLICK HERE TO TURN ON NOTIFICATIONS.

X

This mountain rescue shows what can go wrong when hiking during the coronavirus crisis

It took a team of roughly 20 volunteers to rescue one person who camped at St. Mary’s Glacier

Members of the Alpine Rescue Team tend to a 26-year-old man injured on St. Mary’s Glacier last week. The unidentified man suffered lower body fractures after a fall. (Provided by Dawn Wilson, Alpine Rescue Team)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Since the coronavirus began spreading in Colorado, volunteer search and rescue teams have been sounding alarms about what a dangerous mountain mission might look like with a potentially lethal contagion complicating the operation. It was only a matter of time before one Front Range team found out.

About 20 volunteer members of the Alpine Rescue Team — which operates in Jefferson, Clear Creek and Gilpin counties — last week rescued a 26-year-old man who had camped at St. Mary’s Glacier the night before and apparently fell while hiking on steep snow and ice without an ice ax or crampons. Seven members of the team came in close contact with the victim, according to Dawn Wilson, ART’s public information officer.

The victim slid into a tree and suffered “fractures along his lower body,” Wilson said, adding that it could have been much worse. ”He was lucky he didn’t hit his head.”

Wilson said she did not have permission to identify the man, a Denver-area resident who was later hospitalized, adding that he is unwilling to discuss his experience with the media.

Here’s how the mission went down, as Wilson described it:

At 10:15 a.m. on April 3, the ART got a call from Clear Creek County Sheriff’s dispatch about a man who was injured on the St. Mary’s Glacier snowfield about 10 miles northwest of Idaho Springs. Because of his injuries, they responded Code 3. That, Wilson explained, means “If your personal vehicle is equipped with lights and sirens, or you’re driving a team truck, use them.”

Thus members of the all-volunteer team were at risk the minute they left their homes.

“Driving is one of the most dangerous things any responder does, whether you are in an ambulance, fire truck or mountain rescue,” said Wilson, who participated in the mission. “You’re going really fast.”

The first ART member arrived ahead of the rest because he lives near St. Mary’s Glacier, so he began searching for the victim before the others arrived. When they did, two of them joined him to assist in lowering the victim from where he was located, perched on a potentially dangerous cornice, to a spot where they could tend to him more safely.

Eventually, four more members joined those assisting the victim, who was loaded onto a litter (a rescue basket or stretcher) and provided with a sleeping bag for warmth. Another two rescuers on skis then lowered him to the road, where a friend took him to the hospital.

In addition to the hazards of the steep snowfield, coronavirus considerations gave everyone involved a lot to think about. Rescuers unavoidably came in close contact with the victim and with each other.

“Even with us taking as many precautions as we could, at least seven of us came in contact with him because of getting him down,” Wilson said. “It was really tricky because he was on this cornice. Our first person in, who is an RN and knows St. Mary’s quite well, just didn’t want a lot of people up there because he thought the cornice was going to fall down.

“We just had to adapt what we would normally do, until we could get him to a safe spot to get him in the litter and transport him to a vehicle. It was crazy. It was steep and we had crampons. Beautiful weather, but it was steep and icy. Just very surreal.”

Wilson said the victim wasn’t communicative with rescuers.

“The guy wouldn’t answer our questions right away, so it was kind of hard to assess what his major issues were,” Wilson said. “Was he scared of getting in trouble? Did he have some issues going on? Was he a little altitude sick from spending the night up there? That can mess with your cognitive skills.”

There were other risks, too. Someone could have triggered an avalanche during the rescue. Someone recreating above could have fallen and come down on top of them.

RELATED: Human-triggered avalanches rise as more people go into backcountry to exercise

These are the kinds of things search and rescue teams are worrying about these days. So far, ART’s counterparts with the Summit County Rescue Group have been able to avoid the kind of rescue the ART had to conduct, but public information officer Charles Pitman said just thinking about the possibilities keeps him on edge.

“I don’t know how we are getting so lucky, considering how packed the trailheads are, but we have had no calls at all,” Pitman said. “Your mind is constantly thinking about what you will do on a mission … exactly what are you dealing with; how many rescuers do you need; what resources are necessary; how do you stage your personnel; how do you deal with the patient … is there a need to decontaminate a lot of gear, both medical and technical, when the mission is done? We have a different level of challenges these days.”

Meanwhile, members of the Alpine Rescue Team don’t know if they were exposed to coronavirus on the St. Mary’s Glacier mission, and Wilson is going to have to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment that was ruined during the rescue.

“We used our ATV tracks to get as close as possible,” Wilson said. “My pack fell off on the bumpy road, burned a hole (in it) and burned a hole through a bunch of my gear — including my pack that I can no longer use. So I’m trying to find a new pack. As volunteers, we pay for that.”

That wouldn’t be the case, by the way, if the victim had a Colorado Search and Rescue card. CORSAR cards cost only $3 a year ($12 for five years). The purchase of CORSAR cards contributes to a search and rescue fund that reimburses SAR teams and sheriff’s offices for the costs they incur on rescues.

“He didn’t have a CORSAR card, which would have reimbursed me through the state for the things I lost — a down jacket, down mittens and my pack,” Wilson said. “That’s several hundred dollars right there that I have to pay for now.”

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Adventurist, to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus