Monday, December 18, 2006

A rescue on Pikes Peak

Here's a letter we just got from Barr Camp care-taker Neil Taylor about a rescue of a man high on Pikes Peak last week. Riveting stuff:

Pikes Peak can bite

As caretakers of Barr Camp we are located approximately half-way up Pikes Peak on Barr Trail. If hiking to the summit of Pikes Peak is the goal then hiking to Barr Camp is a relatively easy part of the journey. When most hikers arrive here on their way to the top they still have a good energy reserve and the summit “looks so close.” Teresa and I do our best to let people know how difficult it is from here to the top. But we do not have the responsibility or authority to keep hikers from going up. That decision rests firmly on their shoulders. Even so, we routinely worry about these souls up there on the trail. In almost every case they somehow find a safe way off the mountain. Barr Trail is only one of many options in getting off the mountain even in the winter. So when people say they will be back through the camp on their way down – they may, or may not. Hikers are very resourceful and when they start getting uncomfortable with their situation they are likely to change their plans. This happens routinely and we eventually go to bed and try not to worry.

December 12, 2006 would not fall into the routine category. At about 1:00 pm a hiker named “Joe” arrived at the camp and stated he was going to the summit. Considering the late hour and his lack of proper clothing I tried my best to dissuade him from this attempt. I was a little more firm than is typical for me. Teresa was not in camp this day so it was up to me and another hiker to give it our best shot. To no avail Joe headed up the trail. But we have been through this same scenario a hundred times before – he’ll be fine. I noticed that rather than the typical backpack Joe had a small blue duffle bag slung over his shoulder.

A couple of hours later two hikers came back down from their hike to timberline. Timberline is at about 11,500 foot elevation, it is three miles up from Barr Camp, and there is an A-Frame style shelter. They mentioned seeing Joe and said he had stashed his bag on the trail about a half mile up from Barr Camp. Since I knew Joe was the only person up the trail at this point I threw fresh snow on the trail just up from Barr Camp. I have since learned that Search and Rescue refers to this as a track trap. It would allow me to see his tracks if he descended on Barr Trail.

After a day of activities I tried to settle in for the night and not worry about Joe. As in many cases he would likely find a better way off the mountain than coming back down Barr Trail. I could not resist going out to check the track trap every so often, no tracks.

I attempted to call it a night but I could not sleep. Still no tracks out front and I could not help but wonder if that blue pack was still in the trail. If it was gone then Joe presumably picked it up on his way down and slipped past Barr Camp. If it was still there then maybe I would look farther up the trail to the Bottomless Pit intersection and maybe on to A-Frame. If I was going to start a trek up the trail looking for someone then it was time to let the Search and Rescue (SAR) coordinator know about my concern. Skee Hipsky, the on duty coordinator, has been through this a thousand times. He operates in a calm, matter-of-fact, but still very caring, manner. Skee agreed that since the bag was not far from the cabin it was worth checking. At about 10:30 pm I set out to see if the bag was still in the trail. But I had prepared myself to go higher if needed.

As the two hikers had said earlier, the bag was about a half mile up from camp. This fueled my concern so I kept going higher. At the Bottomless Pit intersection I could identify Joe’s tracks going out on that trail then his return tracks on top. He had investigated the Bottomless Pit trail but returned and continued up Barr Trail. I was a little concerned but many times before we have hiked up looking for hikers only to find them happily coming down the trail. On up Barr Trail I continued.

Upon reaching the A-Frame shelter at 11:45 pm I found Joe. He was shivering inside the shelter under as many tarps as he could find. He was in advanced stages of hypothermia. He also had pain from multiple falls against rocks while hiking; these injuries seemed to be bruises. It became obvious that Joe was not going to be walking down to Barr Camp with me. Kevin Classen with SAR arrived at Rescue Base and initiated a page for all available members to respond for a rescue from A-Frame. Kevin and Skee also decided to check on Flight for Life (FFL) availability. At this point in time I did not think FFL would be required but Kevin and Skee knew to at least check on their availability.

Joe told me he had lost consciousness before I got there. About a half-hour after I arrived he lost consciousness again which lasted 3-4 minutes. Even when he was awake he was not very alert. He mentioned that he would not have made it through the night alive and I had to agree. After his loss of consciousness and all the other symptoms he was showing I reconsidered my opinion of FFL. Now I was ready for them. FFL turned out to be the option we all needed. If not for them I am not sure how Joe would have faired with a carry-out rescue. Having FFL respond saved hundreds of SAR man-hours and the associated risks to all.

I could see the helicopter coming up from Colorado Springs down below. There was an awesome crescent moon-rise which I took a moment to appreciate. I asked Kevin and Skee where the closest Landing Zone (LZ) was to the A-Frame. To my surprise they told me it was about 75 yards downhill from the structure. I am pretty familiar with the area and I could not picture an area large enough to land a helicopter. I took a walk down to make sure it was clear of debris which it was but I still could not imagine a landing on that spot. I looked around and saw a level spot 50 yards north (horizontal) of the A-Frame structure. This spot looked equally as dangerous to me. I knew that I was the rookie in this situation. I was told they have landed here many times in the past.

The pilot was given our SAR frequency and since I was the on-site contact the pilot and I communicated direct with each other. He mainly asked about wind direction and Joe’s condition. I alternated between checking on Joe and watching the helicopter get closer. He came in from high above and dropped in toward the lower LZ. I took up a spot in front of the shelter where I could keep an eye on both Joe and the helicopter. I was excited and relieved that help was so close. The pilot had turned on all his search lights so he had no problem seeing the rocks, trees, and shelter. He approached the lower LZ, and to my surprise, he kept on going past it and started heading uphill toward the shelter. As the noise got louder and the snow started to whip around me I was amazed at how precise and slow he moved his craft. I realized he was going for the upper, and smaller, LZ adjacent to the shelter. My initial excitement started turning into mayhem as the noise and wind became overwhelming. Rather than watching in fascination, I started looking for protection! Suddenly I felt like I could not get enough big things between me and the helicopter. I checked on Joe real quick, he was fine so I ducked in behind the shelter while peeking around and try to keep those rotors in sight. They seemed to be very close to the edge of the shelter. When the helicopter was about 15 feet off the ground it seemed to get very wobbly. This may have been my first time in this situation but it was not the pilot’s. As crazy as this all seemed to me I realized that this was just another day at the office for him and the flight paramedic. I now have new respect for what these people do. Wow!

I am reminded of a Navy F-14 Fighter Pilot who told Teresa and I that he would never fly a helicopter, because, he said “they have a million moving parts, all desperately trying to get away from each other.”

The helicopter was sitting on the ground now with the engine still running high. The flight paramedic hopped out and came over to Joe and I. After a brief discussion with Joe he told me that Joe could walk to the helicopter with our help. We had to yell at the top of our voices to communicate above the engine and rotor noise. The paramedic instructed me to assist with Joe and make sure to keep my head down! I found this internally comical because for the last few minutes I had thought of nothing BUT those rotors! Keeping my head down would not be a problem. As we were assisting Joe toward the helicopter there were a couple of rocks in my path. It was funny that normally I would step over these rocks without even thinking about it. This time, those rocks would raise me up a few inches – I avoided them.

The helicopter lifted off with much noise and wind. It seemed to me that he was again very close to the shelter. But hey, his normal day is different than mine.

In a few seconds it was over, the time was 1:45 am, two hours after I arrived at the shelter. I stood there in the quiet and started gathering my gear. I was totally alone on the face of Pikes Peak. I reported in to Kevin and Skee. I thanked them for their support. I told them that I thought their decision to send Flight for Life was a life-saving decision for Joe.

Hiking back down the trail gave me some time to reflect on what had just occurred. There are some hero’s and they are: The flight crew – absolutely amazing. The whole SAR group with Kevin and Skee – my radio would have been a useless weight without them on the other end. And I recalled what I had told Joe while he was at Barr Camp earlier in the day “Pikes Peak can bite!”

Neal Taylor


Brendan Leonard said...

Let's not forget the other hero, Neal Taylor! Joe is pretty lucky Neal couldn't sleep that night.

Anonymous said...

Let's not be too casual about the difficulties of a helicopter rescue. I just returned from the funeral of my cousin who was killed in a helicopter crash this past Thursday. He was simply lifting off from a farmer's field in Delaware. There was fog, it was getting dark, no one knows what really happened, but both he and the professional pilot were killed. Everyone involved in Joe's rescue deserves praise.

Dave Hughes said...

As a native it never ceases to amaze me how many people just think climbing Pikes Peak is a stroll in the park - and get in trouble.

This story of the skill and willingness of FFL pilots to risk all for rescues makes me recall when I was Chief of Staff of Fort Carson in 1970 when we authorized, for the very first time, the use of Army helicopters - Hueys and Chinooks - for Colorado mountain rescues. Its come a long way baby!