Custer County Search and Rescue had an extremely busy two weeks in mid-July. Beginning July 9th, a 54 year old Denver woman was reported to be seriously ill above tree-line on Humboldt Peak; suffering from AMS, along with reporting sign and symptoms consistent with a coronary event. Teams deployed at night, to the Humboldt saddle, but later learned from ongoing conversations with the subject via cell phone, that she was somewhere along the East Ridge instead of the standard route.
The first “hasty” team arrived to the patient’s location at 13,300’ at 02:20 on Sunday, July 10th. The patient’s condition was assessed and she was then walked down some 1,200 feet by headlamp, to a landing zone, where she was kept warm, prior to being transferred to Flight for Life at 07:30 and flown to St. Mary Corwin for further evaluation. All teams returned to base and were released at 12:00pm; only to receive a 2nd call-out at approximately 15:30 hours.
The 2nd call-out, was a mutual aid request from Saguache County, after they received a 911 call indicating that a man had fallen some 100 feet on Crestone Needle and could not be located. John Stephen Hunt, 55 of Parker Colorado, fell late Sunday afternoon in the fall, after descending off-route. His climbing partner, who witnessed the fall, notified law enforcement. Mr. Hunt had reportedly climbed all 54 Colorado 14-ers, some more than once and had climbed Crestone Needle at least twice before. A Saguache SAR hasty team was inserted via Flight for Life, located the body and stayed on scene Sunday night.
A 3rd member of the party, who had turned back when he felt the conditions exceeded his ability, became disoriented and also requested assistance, by alerting his family of his situation. They contacted law enforcement and a CCSAR team located that individual and brought him to Westcliffe Sunday night, resulting in a 3rd call in 24 hours.
On Monday, July 11th, a three person Custer County SAR team coordinated with the two person Saguache team to manage lowering operations and transfer the man’s body to the landing zone, completing that operation at 10:45 Monday. Mechanical and logistical issues with Flight for Life prevented completion of the recovery mission and the effort was aborted at 17:30 hours, with both teams hiking out together, via Broken Hand Pass, arriving in Westcliffe at 23:15. During their descent of Broken Hand Pass, CCSAR was called upon to assist another individual off the mountain, belaying the man down Broken Hand Pass. On Tuesday, July 12th, a team of two from Western State Mountain Rescue team, (WSMRT) relieved local rescue teams to complete the recovery mission with Flight for Life.
Friday, July 15th, CCSAR was again called out, this time to assist Pueblo County SAR with a difficult litter carryout of a woman with a leg injury in a popular area below Lake San Isabel.
On Sunday evening, July 17th, a pair of stranded climbers on Crestone Needle who were in need of rescue, contacted 911 for assistance. Like the Hunt party, they had descended off route and were stranded just above where Hunt’s body had been located. The pair confirmed their location using a compass application on their smart phone, providing their coordinates to search base, who plotted both mission’s coordinates.
The 29 year old Denver woman and 34 year old Denver man had adequate resources to stay secure for the night and SAR teams were dispatched at 4am to retrieve the pair after daybreak. They were safely lowered to the ground just before noon and the pair was walked out with SAR teams, arriving back at search base at 17:15.
Despite trail head kiosks warning of the dangers of descending off-route, popular forums such as 14ers.com and modern navigation tools; SAR teams continue to see climbers encounter difficulty and even death, when descending off route, when they choose to continue to descend, rather than regaining safe ground by climbing back up to find the trail, which on the return heads generally east along the ridge back to BHP. Descending Crestone Needle off-route leads to well documented terrain traps or worse.