Local paraplegic man Denis Murray didn’t expect to be watching a meteor shower in the wee hours of Sunday morning from the Taylor Pass area of the Aspen backcountry. He thought the snowmobile he and wife Lisa Wright set out on hours before was in good working order.
But there he was, waiting above treeline at 11,500 feet for help that eventually arrived around 2 a.m., with a team from Mountain Rescue Aspen bringing him to safety. Murray and Wright had left around 11 a.m. Saturday, starting from the base of Aspen Mountain to tour the backcountry on their snowmobile, as they had done countless times before.
The sled broke down around 1:30 p.m. between Gold Hill and Taylor Pass, about 15 miles south of Aspen along the Richmond Ridge Road, Murray said, adding that he suspects a faulty fuel pump. Murray and Wright attempted to repair the sled, but could not. Then, using an air mattress that Murray helped propel with his arms, Wright attempted to pull Murray out by foot. But the soft spring snow, which made travel difficult, and a big hill led them to nix that plan. They decided Wright would have to leave the backcountry on foot to seek help around 5:30 p.m. Using snowshoes the pair had packed along, she left via Express Creek Road, reaching Castle Creek Road around 8 p.m., she said.
“It’s hard,” Murray said of the decision to split up and send Wright down to seek help. “You don’t want to give up” on trying to self-rescue.
For the next six-and-a-half hours, Murray, who was uninjured, said he tried to limit his exposure to the wind. He had a survival kit, including a fleece blanket, food and water. He sat on the air mattress and used a large duffel bag to block the wind. The low in town that night was 34 degrees.
Murray, 52, who has worked in the city of Aspen building department as a plans examiner since 1999, said he took in the sunset and the night’s Lyrid meteor shower.
“It was really nice,” said Murray, who lost the use of his legs in a skiing accident in 1999, but remains an avid sit-skier on the local slopes.
With no watch or cell phone — he gave the phone to his wife when she went for help — Murray had little concept of time.
“It’s interesting how the mind works when time goes by,” Murray said, adding that he’s not sure if he slept or not.
After reaching Castle Creek Road, Wright flagged down a car, which drove her back to town. She called the sheriff’s office at 9:45 p.m., according to a press release, which contacted Mountain Rescue Aspen.
Two Mountain Rescue Aspen members and Wright left from the base of Aspen Mountain on two snowmobiles around 12:15 a.m. Sunday, according to the press release, which was issued by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office Sunday morning.
“Due to the risks to rescuers, nighttime search and rescue operations are rare and are usually only taken on in cases of serious injury or illness,” according to the release. “However, due to the potential risk of frostbite or other cold-related injury to Murray, a night time rescue was deemed acceptable.”
By 2 a.m., Wright was able to guide rescuers to Murray’s location, and they arrived back at the base of Aspen Mountain at 3:20 a.m., according to the release.
Both Wright and Murray praised the efficiency, kindness and professionalism of the Mountain Rescue team. They said it was the first and hopefully the last time they will need to call on the agency’s services.
They acknowledged that some might think them foolish to set out on a backcountry snowmobile trip alone, but they said on that particular day, no one was available to join them. With in-town highs in the upper 60s Saturday, most have given up on winter activities, Murray said. They recognized they were taking a risk but set out anyway, as the weekend’s trip in the stunning backcountry scenery was expected to be the last of the year.
“It’s melting fast up there,” Murray said, noting occasional bare spots on Richmond Ridge Road.