On the origins
Wolf Bauer, Founder, Mountain Rescue Association
In the late 1930s there was a climber, Delmer Fadden, who tried to solo Mt. Rainier, but got lost in a storm and died. My friend Omi Daiber found his snowshoes. That event got Omi and me thinking we should know more how to search for people.
After World War II, I was an engineer. I was building a plant in Holland and had a chance to go to Germany and visit relatives in the Bavarian Alps. I was interested in how the Red Cross there handled mountain rescues. I picked up a lot of literature and a film, which I brought back home to Seattle in 1948. I asked the Mountaineers and the Pacific Northwest Ski Patrol if they'd be interested in forming a formal Search and Rescue (SAR) unit. The Mountaineers had done SAR for some years, but only with individuals who happened to be handy. It wasn't organized like it was in Europe, where people spent a vacation in the Alps just for the purpose of doing SARin uniform and everything, being on call. Anyway, I translated the films and literature for everyone and we started the Mountain Rescue Association.
I was anxious to keep our group focused on high altitude rescue and search. I didn't want to get involed with everyone who got chased up a tree by a bear. We brought in the Coast Guard, which had a helicopter, and also brought in the sheriffs office, the Air Force, the Forest Service, and the national parks: Rainier, Olympic, and Glacier. We'd get together once a year for a regular pow wow where we'd demo latest techniques and equipment. We didn't have the money to buy much equipment. But whenever the Air Force would drop us gearwhether sleeping bags or phonesthey'd let us keep it. That's how we accumulated gear.
We needed a vehicle, so I bought an old mail truck. We redesigned it and put a siren on it. But it was still just a green and white box that wouldn't go over 50 mph. People passed us on the highway even when we had the siren going, but at least it got us up to the mountains. One thing I did was paint a big red cross on top of its roof. We were at this one rescue in the cascades where they'd brought in high-powered lights. The next rescue we went on, I told the Coast Guard helicopter to look for the truck with the big red cross, but they never saw us. The lights from the previous rescue had burned off all the paint! The nucleus of that first SAR group was three skiers: Omi Daiber, Dr. Otto Trott, and me. Omi was a carpenter who went to grade school with me in Bavaria; of the 22 in our class, only three lived past World War II. Otto was also the official doctor of ski patrol. He was usually up in the Cascades on weekends anyway. He probably had more experience setting broken legs and dealing with hypothermia than anyone in the country. Ottto could make a joke when death stared us in the face. He could lift our spirits during some of the more gruesome things that happened, like digging crushed people out of an avalanche. Since Otto was head of ski patrol at Mount Baker, he really knew the road there from Seattle. On the way up there, there's a side road on which a big cedar tree had been hollowed out so you could drive a car through it. So whenever we took someone new up there, usually in the cold and rain, he'd aim for the tree, then let go of the wheel and pretend we were crashing. Everyone screamed as we zoomed right through the tree.
Back to Index
On paying for searches and rescues
Charley Shimanski, Executive director of American Alpine Club and Education Director for Mountain Rescue Association
Some county sheriffs discriminate against people seeking adventure away from the picnic tables. They want to charge thrill seekers for search and rescues, but it's unlikely that same sheriff will fine the family whose child wanders away from a campground. These programs that "cover" your SAR costs if you buy a fishing or hunting license or a hiking certificate? "Covered" isn't quite right. All it does is give us the ability, after the fact, to recoup costs we may have incurred. If you have a valid license, then we can go to the division of wildlife to refund SAR's out of pocket expenses. If the victim lacks a card , then the local SAR unit will have to do more bake sales and car washes.
The use of military helicopters really bends people out of shape. But the truth is, involving the armed services in rescues is just the same as a training mission. And real civilian SAR activity is better training for them than pretend stuff, so they appreciate the opportunity to help.
Still, Rescue Cost Recovery has become a buzz term. You'll have a sexy rescue of a climber and it makes the news, especially when cameras are around. The news organizations will keep the story going for a few days, and it finally comes to: Who pays for this? Why should the public pay for people who put themselves in bad situations? Yes, it seems logical that those in trouble should have to pay. But there's an increased risk to both patient and rescuer if lost or hurt patients delay asking for rescue because they're concerned about cost. Not long after the infamous Torp rescue in Aspen, we had a situation in Colorado where the fear of paying for a rescue subjected my SAR team to the worst conditions we'd been in. Basically, this Texan left on a fall morning to hike the traverse between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans, two 14,000-foot peaks. Since you can drive to the top of Mount Evans, he arranged for his wife to pick him up there at 4 P.M. He didn't show. His wife, meanwhile, is convinced it'd cost at least 20 grand to do a rescue. For hours she drives up and down the road to Evans, flashing her lights and honking the horn. At 9 at night, a blizzard comes in and she finally calls for help. So we have to do a late-night search in a raging blizzard, navigating the knife-edge ridge between the peaks when we can't see our feet in front of us. It's steep, and very dangerous. What do you do? You fill your pockets with small stones, throwing them in front of you, and listening to see if they hit the ridge. If you don't hear anything, you don't step there. The visibility was awful. Plus, the wind was howling and the snow muffled everyone's voices. Even if the victim could yell for us, we wouldn't hear him. We didn't find him till two in the morning, hugging some rocks. He had a lower leg injury and some hypothermia. And it could have been a lot worse.
Back to Index
On balancing the victim's safety with the rescue team's
Tim Cochrane, Vail Mountain Rescue Group
In Vail, we often deal with rescues and recoveries in avalanche zones. In those cases, we sometimes ask the Vail resort ski patrol to bomb the slope first. Now if a victim is in the zone, it's a troubling decision. We usually don't make the decision to bomb a slope until a person's been in there for several hours and we know they're probably not alive. I just can't risk an avalanche coming down on the rescuers; my highest responsibility is for the safety of my people. No one wants a rescue to cause anyone else to die.
We had a situation a few years ago on New Years Day. A kid from Tennessee was out in Vail with his girlfriend to snowboard. I guess they'd watched Warren Miller films for three days, and he was bored. He had her drive him to the top of Vail Pass so he could drop down a lower slope. She parked under where he was supposed to come down. A trucker stopped and asked her why she was parked in an avie zone. Anyway, the snowboarder didn't come down, and we were called in. We tracked his footprints, and saw he'd set off three minor slides before he even got to the slope he wanted to surf. Then a big slide had knocked him down and out. My rescuers went in with a 20-foot cornice hanging over them, so we didn't even attempt to resuscitate him. He was probably dead already. We just grabbed him and got him out of there. We took a lot of heat for not trying to resuscitate him, but the kid had been out there six hours, and I wasn't gonna endanger my team. We lost the kid, but we got the body out and no one else got hurt. We think of that as a clean rescue.
Back to Index
On double jeopardy
Butch Farabee, the first National Emergency Services Coordinator for the National Park Service
In Yosemite one summer, we rescued a guy with sunstroke from a big wall. The Navy came in with its helicopter and we pulled the guy off with a 400-foot rope. Six months later, on the other side of Yosemite valley, we pulled the same guy off a mountain. This time he had hypothermia, which killed him. From one end of the valley to the other, from one temperature extreme to the other, this guy underestimated the conditions.
Back to Index
On water rescues
When I was a ranger at Yosemite, I was the guy who went in the river most of the time, because I was a good swimmer. One summer in Yosemite we had 13 drownings and I went in the river 23 times on rescues. In the mid '70s, the state of the art wasn't good. I told another ranger that we need something to get a line across the river. We didn't have the sophistication or the money to use a line gun, which shoots a line a far distance. Ranger Joe Abrell, however, said he had a bow and arrow we could use. We confiscated it and put it in the rescue cache just in case, and darned if we didn't have to use it in the next several days. We tied a light line, like a fishing line, to the arrow. When we shot the arrow across the river, it would pull the line and a parachute cord, which would be tied to a regular rescue rope. With someone on the other bank, we'd set up a Tyrolean and then send a rescuer out on that to pull a victim off a rock.
Once, a man, his wife, and two girls were rowing a rubber raft down the river in June, when it was cold snowmelt and the river was at flood stage. None of them had life jackets. The raft got hung up on a huge log balanced on a buried tree, which bent the boat over double and made cold water pour in. The father swam out to get help. Another ranger and I responded, and went out in wetsuits to retrieve the wife and kids, who were sitting in the tree. We brought them life jackets, but the girls were so numb they couldn't work their muscles. Plus, the tree was broken, and we thought it might give way. The swiftness of the river even knocked me down, and pulled me all the way under. I had to strong-arm my way back. With a Tyrolean, we got the girls out of the tree, and the other ranger and I each took one. We told the mother, when we go, you go, too. Then we paddled to the shore. It was one of the most satisfying rescues because the danger was imminent. These kids were close to dying, and if anything with the rescue had gone wrong, it could have been ugly.
Back to Index
On body recoveries
I took a friend, Walt Dabney, on his first body recovery in '72, in Yosemite. We were told to go up and find a guy named Rick who was missing for a week. We found him, and it was just terrible. His body was quivering with maggots. He was as stiff as a basted turkey, too; we had to break his arm to get him into the body bag. When we lowered the body bag over a cliff, we dropped him. Walt and I had to spend the night out there with the body. I started talking to it, saying, "Hey, Rick, how's it going today? Sorry about dropping you." Walt thought I was either terribly disrespectful or out of my gourd. The fact is you have to deal with these things to the best of your ability. If you don't work with it , it'll get to you. A dead body is not something you get used to.
Back to Index
On the Oregon Episcopal School Accident and emergency locator beacons
Rocky Henderson, Current President of Mountain Rescue Association
My first mountain rescue was the Oregon Episcopal School tragedy, which began Sunday, Mother's Day, 1986. I'd just joined the team. We got the call at one in the morning that 13 people were missing from this school outing on Mount Hood. By five A.M., we were searching during a raging storm with 50 feet of visibility, max. It seemed impossibleyou'd have to stumble right on somebody to find them.
Well, one of the assistant guides and an older student had made it out, and told us they'd left everyone else in a snowcave. They guessed the snowcave was at 7,000 feet. They guessed wrong. It was actually at 8,500 feeta pretty major difference. Of course, we extensively searched the glacier at 7,000 feet in the horrible visibility all day Monday. On Tuesday night the weather cleared a bit, and on Wednesday we found three bodies on the surface of the snow. The highest of the three bodies was within a hundred feet of the snowcave. We eventually brought many rescuers, including one of the first two who got out, to probe the snow with probe poles in a long probe line. At five P.M. on Thursday, we struck the snowcave. Nine people had perished in the snowcave due to exposure, but there were two survivors. One lost his legs below the knee and one survived with only some nerve damage in her hands. What had happened was the leader of the outing became hypothermic, and the first thing that happens with hypothermia is you lose good judgment. So the group kept going for the summit of Mount Hood instead of turning around.
After that tragedy, we said let's make sure this never happens again. We came up with the Mount Hood Locator, a device that's identical to what's used in wildlife tracking. It's a radio beacon, like a collar on a bear, that can be found by a directional antenna. We promote them on Mt. Hood, and teams can rent them for five bucks. But we expect these to be obsolete within a few years, due to the rising technology of PLBs, personal locator beacons. This technology is already found on boats and airplanes, but it's not yet set up to totally work on land. It has to be coordinated with the FCC, FAA, and other government agencies. I expect in five years, though, that you'll be able to buy a PLB device. It'll be the size of a cigarette pack, and when you send a distress call on it, it'll send your GPS coordinates to the local sheriff. It might be capable of two-way communication. For instance, a hunter who breaks his leg can send a signal to a satellite. Two minutes later, the sheriff will have reached the hunter with a message on his PLB screen like, what's the nature of your problem? and you'll be able to answer. I don't see every hunter or hiker having a PLB, but they'll be standard for any backcountry outfitter. From a SAR standpoint, PLBs are a very good idea.
Back to Index
On searches for nonexistent victims
In 1997, we did a search called the rock search. An employee of the Mount Hood Meadows ski area was looking across the White River Glacier toward Timberline ski area when he saw a skier moving down the glacier and disappear into a crevasse. He was a reliable enough witness, so we searched this big drainage between the two ski areas all night and all the next day. We looked at all the cars in the parking lot and traced the license plates. A kid from Pennsylvania didn't return to his car, and we called his mother, who said he was out skiing in Oregon. The urgency of the search went up, and helicopters flew in. Then the Pennsylvania kid showed up the next day, and he was fine. He'd never been on the glacier, though, so we kept looking. We brought the witness right to the spot of the disappearance, with a helicopter hovering above. And we found a big rock. There was never a lost skier, only a rock that tumbled down the glacier. exploring the coordinates provided by the witness. Our SAR team was proud, though, because we did a good job of searching: We found the rock right where it should be. Luckily, we didn't have to rescue it.
Back to Index
On high altitude SAR
Daryl Miller, South District Ranger for Denali National Park
1991 was a landmark year for rescues in Denali. It was the first year of the Llama Helicopter, which holds all the altitude records in the world. That year, we did four separate landings at 19,600 feet, which is a first anywhere. We set the record for shortfalls at 20,320 feet, at the summit of Mount McKinley. We'd tried to do high landings before with Chinook helicopters, but they were always cumbersome. Chinooks don't maneuver well that high up, and their rotor blast is so severe it impairs the SAR team.
We've had 91 deaths on McKinley since 1932and 35 of the bodies are still up there. To combat more fatalities, we now maintain a team of three to six SAR people at the Ranger Camp at 14,200 feet. There's no place else in the world that I'm aware of that keeps mountaineers at such a high altitude to do rescues. But for 75 days each climbing season, we'll keep a patrol there, with one ranger, one or two parajumpers, a climbing doctor, and one or two volunteerstypically highly skilled mountaineers such as Conrad Anker or Alex Lowe. In July 1991, we did the highest technical rope rescue in North America. Polish climber Krzystof Wiecha had left his camp at 17,000 feet for a summit attempt, carrying just a few extra clothes, a chocolate bar, and a liter of juice. The weather changed abruptly when he was near the summit, and he dug into a crevasse with his ice tool at 19,800 feet. He was there three days, in minus 15 weather, without water or a sleeping bag. When the weather finally cleared enough to attempt a rescue, we flew over the crevasse in a plane. We thought he'd be dead, as it's pretty hard to survive for three days at that height without a sleeping bag. But he emerged from the crevasse and waved to the plane. We dropped some food and survival gear within 10 feet of him. But he was too weak and unable to grab the bundle, which eventually tumbled down the icy slope. So ranger Jim Phillips and I were flown by helicopter from the ranger camp to the "football field" at 19,500 feet, and climbed up to Krzystof at 19,800. He was exhausted, dehydrated, hypothermic, and frostbitten. We spent about four hours lowering him down to the football field, using six lowerings. The heli then flew him out. The storm picked up again, and Phillips and I had to make a dangerous descent to 17,000 feet, where we were trapped for three days by hurricane-force winds and four feet of new snow. We got Department of the Interior Valor Awards for the rescue, and Krzystof lived, even though he lost both feet to frostbite.
Back to Index
On searches with dogs
Evan Jones, Assistant Chief Ranger, Yosemite National Park
At Yosemite we have a dog team called the Yo-Dogs, a membership of 20-25 handlers who deal with different breeds, usually mid to large size dogs. Unlike other dog teams in California, these dogs and handlers must meet high standards for mountaineering skills. Because they're likely to patrol cliff bands, the dogs must be trained to be lowered and raised in harnesses. They can't freak every time they don't have four paws on the ground.
We were once searching in the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir area of the park for a woman who got separated from her party while backpacking down a series of switchbacks. The woman crossed over a waterbar and kept going straight instead of turning a switchback. She lost the trail, and decided to cut downslope hoping to intersect the trail again. But she fell maybe 20 feet, with a full backpack, took a nasty roll and tumble, and fractured ribs. She knew she was hurt, and tried to drag herself and her backpack down the slope to a creek. We flew helicopters over the area, but the woman was cloaked in riparian vegetation and the fly-overs didn't locate her.
So we brought Yo-Dogs to her PLS, point last seen, and that's where we started the dogs. They're sniffing for a human scent cone. See, our scent leaves our bodies like smoke, traveling up or down, depending on the time of day and other conditions. The dogs will go to anything emanating a human scent, whether a dropped bandana, discarded Nalgene bottle, or prone injured person.
The dogsa golden retriever, German shepherd, yellow lab, and two border colliesstarted following the dead cells leaving the woman's body. When they got to the switchback she missed, they didn't turn, either. They led us out, off the trail, and worked their way far enough down slope that we could find her, via voice contact. Humans alone may never have found her, neither would helicopters. Unfortunately, the woman died a month later from a respiratory infection she caught in the hospital since her broken ribs punctured her lungs. But the Yo-Dogs still get a save for that one.
Back to Index
On celebrity rescues
Jim Prendergast, San Miguel County (CO) Sheriff's Department and San Miguel Search and Rescue Team
On Good Friday, April Fools Day 1994, we got a call that a Telluride Helitrax [heli-skiing company] helicopter had crashed above Waterfall Canyon, about seven miles southeast of Telluride. The pilot was flying the guide and four skiers up to a ridge for their second run of the day. As the copter prepared to land on a 12,800-foot-high ridge at 11:45 A.M., it began losing altitude fast. It slammed down right on the ridgetop and then tumbled and slid more than 200 feet down a 40-degree inclineejecting passengers as it went. An outcropping of rock and snow stopped the wreckage from sliding into a ravine and dropping another 1,500 feet or so. It was amazing no one was killed.
The party's guide was Mike Friedman, who was also Helitrax's owner. He wasn't badly hurt, and immediately radioed Helitrax basecamp and began tending to the skiers: part-time Telluride resident Ricky Taubman, Sandra Carradine (ex-wife of actor Keith Carradine), Carradine's son Cade, and supermodel/actress Christie Brinkley. Brinkley was among the best off, but her leg was initially snared in a nylon strap attached to the copter, so she was being dragged toward the ravine by the wreckage.
Within an hour, we had a rescue helicopter flying over them to survey the scene and drop blankets. We then launched a two-prong effort, sending a ground team skinning up toward the ridge and flying three or four rescue people to the scene. It was hairy for the pilots, because the weather was deteriorating, with clouds obscuring visibility and winds rising above 20 mph. It was real touch-and-go as to whether we'd be able to extricate the victims before dark.
Our first priority was Taubman, the most seriously injured with fractured ribs, a broken collarbone, and a collapsed lung. He was lapsing in and out of consciousness when a helicopter hauled him away, with a 200-foot long line. Telluride ski patrollers set up ropes so the other skiers could hike up the slope to a better heli LZ on the ridge.
Friedman said Brinkley was "a strong woman" who handled the trauma well, though shaking with fright. She huddled with Sandra and Cade, and sang songs, including Billy Joel's 'Piano Man' and 'Uptown Girl.' She wasn't badly hurtcuts, bruises, and a swollen wristand was willing to walk out if necessary. In fact, she said she'd rather hike than get in another helicopter. She cried a few times. Altogether, five hours elapsed between the crash and the rescue's completion.
I remember pulling Christie out of the first chopper and putting her in the one that flew to the hospital. But I never saw her again until I worked security at her wedding to Ricky Taubman a little later; I guess she divorced Billy Joel soon after the accident. I think she sold the story and photos to People Magazine, and then donated that money to San Miguel Search and Rescue. We got around $4,000certainly a substantial amount to the people who helped her.
Sure, the word spread among the rescuers that the mission was for Christie Brinkley. But her celebrity was never an issue. Because Ricky Taubman was seriously injured and a local figure, we rescuers were more aware of him than her. Also, since Helitrax commonly flew for us on SAR missions, we were concerned for them. It was the difference between rescuing a friend and someone you don't know. Besides, people in Telluride tend to be pretty casual about celebrities. The Sheriff didn't even know who Christie was; he asked if she was the daughter of David Brinkley.
Back to Index
On jury-rigged SAR gear
Bill May, past president and group leader of Rocky Mountain Rescue (Boulder, CO)
The thing about Rocky Mountain Rescue is that it was started by engineering students and professors from the University of Colorado who liked to climb. Science-minded people have always felt comfortable at RMR. Fully 50 percent of our active members are electrical engineers. We're weird. We're not like other MRA teams. We take mountaineering equipment out and test the validity of the the manufacturers' ratings. We actually maintain a 35-foot high test tower at the Boulder County Jail. We lift 1,000-pound loads up the tower and drop them on gear, using high-speed video to record the exact breaking point. It's our nature to test; we need conclusions that meet our hypotheses.
We developed a backpackable antenna that excels at finding downed aircraft. We also devised a super winch: We call it The Winch. Existing winches didn't meet our standards, so a RMR member who'd worked as a helicopter mechanic in the army, Lewis Dahm, used his deep knowledge of hydraulics to build this perfectly safe, easily controlled winch that was much stronger and faster than commercially available winches. It worked by winding an endless cable loop around a capstan. By adding cable links, we could deal with Colorado's biggest escarpments. We once even pulled someone out of a 4,800-foot deep canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Winch consisted of a chro-moly frame, the capstan, and an 8 hp 2 cycle engine powered by bottled gas. It divided into three loads, none heavier than 60 pounds, so we could backpack it to almost anywhere.
In 1981, a BASE jumper leaptillegallyoff the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, snagged his chute on a rock outcropping, and wound up hanging halfway down 2,000-foot high Painted Wall. Even though RMR is based hundreds of miles from Black Canyon, we got the call. Someone in the Park Service at Black Canyon had seen us demo the Winch earlier, and figured it the ideal tool for Painted Wall, which for 500 feet is actually overhanging.
The victim had a seriously crushed leg, and had lost massive amounts of blood. He probably died on impact with the wall. But we didn't know for sure. In fact, since the accident had been seen only by telescope from the opposite rim, there was some speculation the body was just a dummy. I flew by in a helicopter for a visual, and saw expensive boots sticking out from under the chute. Deducing that no one would put nice boots on a dummy, we set up the Winch on the rim. We lowered two litter-bearers 1,100 feet down to pluck and package the victim. They didn't need to touch the rock for support; they could dangle in the air a quarter mile above the Gunnison River, fully suspended from The Winch. Its ability to drop two rescuers down at once made the Winch invaluable for major evacuations, especially in this case, as the body we recovered weighed 230 pounds.
Back to Index
On the notorious Torp SAR near Aspen
Tom McCabe, former president Mountain Rescue-Aspen
The media called it the Miracle in the Mountains. It was a slow news week in February 1993, and suddenly there was a dramatic, multi-day search in glamorous, notorious Aspen. The media milked it intensely for days, up until the the first WTC bombing, anyway. It proved that when the media shines light up your butt, the view is rarely gonna be pretty.
The search subjectsleader Ken Torp, Elliot Brown, Andrea Brett, Brigette Schluger, Richard Rost, and Dee and Rob Dubinall came from Colorado's Front Range. They'd planned for months to ski into the Maroon Bells mountains up to the beautiful Goodwin-Greene Hut, eat a great meal, and drink some wine. They were so focused, they left the trailhead in phenomenally dangerous conditions: in a blizzard during the biggest storm in 100 years, with avalanche hazard rated as extreme for an unprecedented five days in a row.
They had several experienced members, but their experience didn't get them through like it should have. They first got off track when Torp took a compass reading, but didn't trust it. Instead, he struck out for a peak he could still see. Two hours out, they could have spun around and come back down a road that's navigable in a full white-out. But they kept climbing into the unknown. It certainly wasn't the first rescue we did where reasoning went out the window when things went bad.
In a blizzard, you need to anticipate the weather's not getting better. You stop before desperation. Not the Torp party. Only when they got to a point where they were desperately afraid for their lives did they start a snowcave. If you want a snowcave to save your life, it takes two or three hours to build. Their's was something hasty, and it collapsed on them. It was every man for himself. The group dynamics fell apart. The next morning, Schlueger and Brett were verging on hypothermia, and Schlueger illogically abandoned her sleeping bag. Rost, Brown, and Torp started screaming at each other. Torp, who teaches classes in leadership, said "I can't be personally responsible for these people." He and Brown took off, saying if they don't return in 25 minutes, the rest should follow their tracks. Rost was furious: You don't split up a group in hazardous conditions.
With 100 mph gusts knocking the women to the ground, Rost decided to retreat along their trail from the night before. He and Brett took the lead, thinking incorrectly that Schlueger and the Dubins were right behind them. Nine hours later, the two got to Ashcroft, and called for the search.
Fort Carson tried to send in a Chinooka huge, very capable transport helicopterand the winds swatted it around like a fly. So we didn't have the luxury of using air assets. We were on the ground, blind, looking for five needles in a very large haystack. Snowmobiles had no chance in such deep snow, so we had to bash through with snowcats, which was a lot of work. I ordered people from all over the state who were good on skis or snowshoes. At one point, we had more than 80 rescuers in the field searching. We had psychologists and hospitals standing by. The former and current governor called me; the President couldn't get through.
The sheriff, who's legally responsible for the search, disagreed with some of my decisions to put teams out there. Of course, nine out of ten sheriffs in Colorado don't know their butt from a hole in the ground when it comes to winter rescues. When you've been on the sharp end of the rope like the rescue team, though, you assess risk better. We weren't going to wring our hands and let five people freeze to death. This was a long, five-day event, and it wore on us. The whole world was looking over our shoulder. The sheriff and I were close friends before that incident, and our friendship fell apart for a few years.
Torp and Brown ended up skiing 20 miles south, deep in Gunnison County, and broken into Forest Service huts for shelter. I'd asked the Gunnison sheriff to patrol up there on snowmobiles, but he'd refused due to avie danger. The other three skiers eventually followed Torp's tracks, spending the nights in snowpits. Schlueger was frostbitten and in bad shape; the Dubins dragged her along so forcefully she complained they treated her 'like a Roman slave girl.' But she would have died if they'd left her on her own. We fished them out with the Chinook.
Torp flew in a private jet from Gunnison to Aspen, headed toward the Ritz Carlton and some serious partying. He told our local news, "We're going to light up Aspen," which made people kind of sick. He went on Nightline and explained away their bad decisions by saying they were there for the snow! Meanwhile, the rescue cost Pitkin County more than $20,000, not to mention the time and effort of all the volunteers.
Miracle in the Mountains? It was a miracle we didn't murder anybody by the time it was all over.
Back to Index
On less-than-helpful searchees
We had this one search in the valleys below Mount Evans for a girl from a Denver school camp. This girl, who had very little outdoors experience, was told to get firewood before it got too dark. She went into the woods but didn't come back. Our SAR unit was called at 10 P.M. It was a beautiful summer night, and we thought there was no way someone could get hurt. But she was pretty lost. We fanned out quickly, calling out the name of the lost party. At three in the morning, the girl heard us yelling, but she didn't answer: She thought we were yelling another name! Finally, two hours later she answered. We found her, sitting by a tree, and she told us, "I thought you were calling for someone else."
Another time, a guy disappeared on the third day of a hunting trip in Jefferson County, along the Front Range. He and several fellow hunters were at about 7,000 feet on some National Forest land, where deer and elk are easy picking.
The search didn't have a high urgency factor. It was mild, Indian Summer weather. And hunters tend to be self sufficient in the backcountry. Still, we spent two days searching for him, using several volunteers and dogs. It turns out the guy was getting picked on by the other hunters. A combination of good-natured razzing and true personality clashes. He got sensitive about it, which of course made the herd go after him that much harder. The guy finally said "Fuck it, I'm bailing." He split without packing his bags and hitched a ride to Denver International Airport. It was as if he wanted to make the others worry, like kids who run away from home. We finally found out he was OK when we got this call from our dispatcher: "Stand down your search; subject located in Chicago."
On the origins