When the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen send out a press release about a rescue mission on the mountain peaks and trails around the Roaring Fork Valley, the message includes a reminder at the bottom tailored to the specifics of the situation at hand.
“It sort of happened organically,” said Alex Burchetta, director of operations for the sheriff’s office. “It is really incident specific. If we have a situation where a mission is based on a voluntary separation and we know that information,” then the press release will include a reminder that it’s always best to stay with your hiking and climbing partner.
The sheriff’s office, which deploys members of the all-volunteer, nonprofit independent Mountain Rescue Aspen organization to execute search and rescue missions, compiled over a year’s worth of search and rescue press releases at the request of Aspen Daily News for a big-picture review of the safety messages. Reading the messages together, oftentimes themes emerge. Prominent ones include sticking to established routes while climbing the dangerous peaks of the Elk Mountains, avoiding voluntary separations and being prepared with enough food and water, as well as knowledge of the terrain.
The following is a compilation, in chronological order, of all the releases about search and rescue missions since June 2017 delivered in response to the Daily News’ request, including a synopsis of the mission. The titles are the original titles of the press releases. The safety message, which appears at the end of each release, is in italics.
Weller Lake incident, June 24, 2017
A 47-year-old Illinois man injured his knee while hiking to Weller Lake. MRA located him and carried him to a waiting ambulance. The release noted that the man was not in possession of a Colorado hunting or fishing license or a CORSAR card. When locals or visitors purchase one of these, some of the proceeds help to defray the cost incurred during a rescue. The cards are available online, at numerous outdoor gear retailers and at the sheriff’s office.
“All members of the public that enjoy the Colorado backcountry are strongly encouraged to purchase a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card.”
Injured hiker carried out on horseback from Snowmass Lake, Aug. 9, 2017
A Forest Service employee reported that a hiker had injured his ankle near Snowmass Lake the day before and was unable to walk out. MRA members hiked in and located the man, who reported that he and his camping partner had adequate food and water and planned to stay an additional night and get out of the backcountry via horseback the following morning. A wrangler and a horse from Snowmass Creek Outfitters delivered the hiker to the trailhead the following morning.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind all backcountry users to always be equipped for varying weather and terrain while in the backcountry.”
Conundrum Creek mission, Aug. 18, 2017
The sheriff’s office received a report of a grievously ill hiker on the Conundrum Creek Trail. MRA deployed into the field in the early hours of the morning on foot and via helicopter. Teams made contact before dawn to find that the patient died overnight. The patient was recovered from the scene via helicopter.
“Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry users to be properly hydrated, acclimated and prepared for any conditions they may encounter.”
Fifth fatality in 2017 reported on Capitol Peak, Aug. 27, 2017
A Front Range man reported that he and his climbing partner became separated the day before after summiting Capitol Peak and that the partner had yet to return to camp as of 8:45 a.m. The man told authorities that, on the way down the mountain, the two got into a dispute about the proper route. The man said his climbing partner turned left in the area near the Knife Edge, plotting a more direct course to Capitol Lake, despite being warned that doing so would place him above a cliff band. An on-foot team and a Flight for Life helicopter set out and located an unconscious, unresponsive man below a 600- 700-foot cliff. It was determined that the 21-year-old man had failed and had died from his injuries.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office cannot stress enough the importance of knowing your route, being prepared for changes in weather conditions and, overall, knowing the risks involved with mountain activities. There is not an alternate route down the north face of Capitol Peak unless you have extensive climbing experience and all the necessary ropes and gear associated with high angle mountain climbing. If there was a safe shortcut, it would be the standard route.”
Hays Creek Falls incident, Sept. 3, 2017
A 35-year-old Denver man reportedly fell 75 feet while hiking in the Hays Creek Falls area off of Highway 133. Responders located the man and carried him to the trailhead, where an ambulance took him to the Redstone Coke Ovens for transfer into a helicopter that took the patient to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
“Members of the community and the visiting public are urged to use extreme caution when in the backcountry. Always be prepared for inclement weather and have enough provisions, clothing and equipment to remain safe and in place while waiting for help, if help has been summoned. Also, prior to entering the backcountry, take a map, know the route and do not deviate from it. The public is also urged to purchase a CORSAR card (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue). The purchase of this card or a Colorado state hunting and fishing license can greatly help defer the costs to the individual and the various organizations involved.”
Dad and son overdue from the Sugar Bowls found safe, Sept. 8, 2017
A 40-year-old man and his 12-year-old son became lost while hiking to the Sugar Bowls area above Buttermilk Ski Area in the evening to drop off camping gear, with an expected 8 p.m. return time. The man called his wife to report that they had gone off trail and then his phone died. The wife reported the situation to the sheriff’s office around midnight, and MRA deployed two ground teams. The missing parties were located at around 3:45 a.m. They were well equipped for the outdoors, had made a fire and hunkered down for the night. Though tired, they were OK physically and able to walk out with MRA volunteers.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind all backcountry users to always be equipped with proper navigation tools when leaving established trails.”
Thomas Lakes rescue, Sept. 17, 2017
A 65-year-old man from Kansas and a friend became lost while searching for their campsite near the base of Mount Sopris and called 911 reporting nausea and dehydration. MRA personnel hiked in and located both men, who had hunkered down in a tent but were dehydrated and weak. The men were escorted out to the trailhead.
“The all-volunteer Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind hikers and climbers to research routes before venturing into the backcountry and to choose routes based on experience and fitness level.”
Conundrum Hike contacted, Oct. 22, 2017
The sheriff’s office received a report of a hiker six miles up the Conundrum Creek Trail with severe altitude sickness. A Careflight helicopter was placed on standby, but a ground team walked up the trail, located the woman and assisted her as she hiked down. She refused medical treatment at the trailhead and left for lower elevation.
“Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry users to be properly hydrated, acclimated, and prepared for any conditions they may encounter.”
Search efforts continue for missing climber, Sept. 27, 2017
Three volunteer teams from Mountain Rescue Aspen, assisted by Colorado Forensic Canines, took up a search for David Cook, a New Mexico climber who went missing in September 2016 while visiting the Maroon Bells area. He told family that he planned to climb the high peaks of Pyramid and the Bells. Efforts to find him in the days and weeks after he went missing were unsuccessful. On this day, a year later, teams searched areas known as the Fravert basin, the Lost Remuda basin and the “Amphitheater” near Pyramid Peak. Searchers were unable to locate any signs of Cook or clues to his whereabouts.
“Volunteers from Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind the public to always be prepared for changing weather conditions when venturing into the backcountry. Additionally, always share route information with people and have a rescue plan in case of emergency.”
Sunnyside hikers rescued, Dec. 18, 2017
Two hikers called 911 at 2:35 p.m. from the intersection of the Sunnyside and Shadyside trails to report they were tired, cold and unsure if they could make it back to the trailhead. MRA deployed a foot team at 4:19 p.m. that made contact with the hikers at 4:37 p.m. and escorted them back to the trailhead. The pair refused medical assessment.
“Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry users to monitor the daylight, their progress and fatigue level, have a travel plan, be properly hydrated, acclimated and prepared for any conditions they may encounter.”
DC woman rescued from Hunter Creek Trail, Dec. 29, 2017
A 57-year-old Washington, D.C., woman’s husband called 911 at 2:35 p.m. reporting that she was hypothermic and incoherent, after speaking with her on a cell phone. The woman walked from Aspen to the Sunnyside trailhead, hoping to complete the Sunnyside-Hunter Creek loop, and continued up the mountain until she lost the trail in deep snow. MRA volunteers deployed into the field and, after speaking with the husband and getting information off the woman’s iPhone compass app, were able to locate her along the Hunter Creek Trail. She was driven back down the trail on a snowmobile.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office wants to remind hikers, climbers and outdoor enthusiasts to be prepared to spend more time outdoors than they initially anticipated. Have enough food, water, clothing and a fully charged cell phone.”
Massachusetts skier rescued from below Walsh’s run on Aspen Mountain, Feb. 16., 2018
A skier called 911 at around 2:30 p.m. to report he had gone past the boundary at the bottom of Walsh’s run and was lost and scared. Two MRA teams set out to search for the skier from the top of the gondola, and at around 5:30 p.m. located him about 800 vertical feet below the boundary line. The skier was uninjured. Rescue teams determined that the least treacherous route to bring the skier to safety would be to continue downhill to the skier’s left, continuing to the Northstar Nature Preserve at the valley floor. Three rescuers from MRA led the skier down a snow-covered mountain side, along 30- to 38-degree slopes, using headlamps for guidance, picking their way through the dark timber, avoiding slide paths, rocks and downed trees. The mission was completed successfully by 7:30 p.m.
“MRA and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office would like to remind skiers and snowboarders that venturing beyond ski area boundaries in unfamiliar terrain can lead to injury or death. According the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, avalanche conditions near and below treeline were “considerable” during the time of Friday’s rescue. Regarding “considerable” avalanche conditions, considerable means that dangerous avalanche conditions are present and cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making is essential.”
Lost hiker rescued from woods near Chapman Campground
A caller reported that a member of her family had gone out for a hike near the Chapman Campground, 29 miles east of Basalt, earlier in the day and failed to return as of 6:20 p.m. The missing hiker, 60, who was unfamiliar with the area and not carrying proper equipment to spend the night outside, was last seen around 2 p.m. MRA volunteers began searching for the hiker and found her around 7:50 p.m.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind hikers and visitors to familiarize themselves with routes, terrain and mountain weather conditions prior to entering the backcountry.”
Overdue climber from North Maroon rescued, July 5, 2018
Two climbers who set out together separated on North Maroon, as one was moving more slowly than the other. The climber who got down first called the sheriff’s office to report his partner was still on the mountain as of 8 p.m., but was not in distress. When the climber still had not come down as of the next afternoon, MRA mobilized, using foot teams and a drone, and located him at around 6:30 p.m. The man had lost the route, had become cliffed out and was unable to move, but was uninjured. He walked out under his owner power with the guidance of MRA foot teams.
“Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry users that many incidents can be prevented by employing proper/effective navigation and route finding, solid backcountry ethics, wise start/turnaround times and by climbing parties staying together.”
Injured hiker rescued from area near Willow Pass, July 9, 2018
Pitkin County 911 dispatchers received a call at around 3 p.m. with third-hand information about a man who had injured his ankle near Willow Pass in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness and was unable to continue. An MRA foot team located the man at around 5:30 p.m. and loaded him into a wheeled litter to carry him out to the trailhead, where he was transferred to an ambulance for transportation to Aspen Valley Hospital.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind hikers and visitors to familiarize themselves with routes, terrain, and mountain weather conditions prior to entering the backcountry.”
Climber rescued from Capitol Peak, July 10, 2018
An Iowa man found himself cold, wet, fatigued and dehydrated and was unable to ascend or descend after splitting up with his climbing partner on the way down Capitol Peak, going off route seeking a more direct way back to Capitol Lake. The man called 911 from his cell phone at around 4:30 p.m., prompting MRA to mobilize a team that boarded a helicopter piloted by members of the military from the Army National Guard High Altitude Aviation Training Site in Gypsum.
The Blackhawk helicopter located the man well off the established route at around 6:40 p.m. and an MRA hoist-rescue specialist was lowered down. The man was fitted with a harness and hoisted back into the hovering helicopter.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry enthusiasts to stay with their climbing and hiking partners when in the backcountry. No matter how enticing a shortcut may appear, those in the backcountry are strongly advised to remain on the established routes, especially on Capitol Peak. Established routes are established for a reason, as they are usually the safest routes for ascent and descent. All those who venture into the backcountry must be prepared for self-rescue, as there is no guarantee of rescue.”
Snowmass Lake incident, July 17, 2018
A 31-year-old Chicago man called 911 at around 2:20 p.m., reporting that he had suffered a leg injury after falling while climbing Snowmass Mountain and was unable to ascend or descend as thunderstorms rolled over the mountain. MRA mobilized a ground and air rescue, aided by a helicopter and pilots from the Army National Guard High Altitude Aviation Training Site in Gypsum. The helicopter team located the man at about 4:45 p.m. and loaded him into the aircraft, transporting him to the Aspen airport where he was loaded into a waiting ambulance.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry enthusiasts to travel with partners and be prepared to self-rescue, as there is no guarantee of rescue.”
Searchers look for 9-year-old boy in Thompson Creek area, July 19, 2018
A caller reported around 10:15 p.m. that a 9-year-old boy who was a member of her hiking party and was fishing along Thompson Creek had failed to meet back at the trailhead at the designated time. Members of the party had been searching for the boy for an hour with no luck. An MRA foot team, aided by citizens who happened to be in the area, organized a search for the boy. After an hour and a half, rescuers learned that the boy had been found by a member of the hiking party and that they had continued hiking down the drainage until reaching Highway 133. By that point, the boy, who had lost his way trying to get back to the trail, had hiked nearly four miles.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry enthusiasts to stay with their climbing and hiking partners when in the backcountry. When parties separate, it can increase the likelihood that one or more members of the party may go missing, especially when one of the party members is a 9-year-old boy.”
Maroon Bells mission, July 19, 2018
At about 6 p.m., 911 dispatchers received a report of three climbers stranded in the Bell Chord couloir, in-between the Maroon Bells peaks. One of the climbers had suffered a fall and sustained no life-threatening injuries. None were equipped to spend the night out and they were unsure of the terrain and how to get up or down the mountain. A helicopter crew from the Army National Guard High Altitude Aviation Training Site was called in and the crew, along with MRA hoist team members, safely hoisted all three climbers into the helicopter. All parties were safely out of the field by 9:45 p.m.
“Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry users to be familiar with their intended routes, properly hydrated, acclimated, and prepared for any conditions they may encounter.”
Mountain Rescue Aspen responds to two incidents in the Maroon Bells Wilderness area, July 24, 2018
As MRA was mobilizing to search for a 73-year-old man and his 12-year-old grandson who were overdue from a trip into the Maroon Bells Wilderness, 911 dispatchers received a report of a 35-year-old man who had broken his wrist on North Maroon Peak and was unable to move. The man had a medical condition requiring him to use special poles to move and was unable to do so due to the wrist injury. An MRA team mobilized with a helicopter crew from the Army National Guard High Altitude Aviation Training Site and located the North Maroon climber, who was delivered to an ambulance and taken to Aspen Valley Hospital.
While a foot team was enroute to the injured North Maroon climber, they located the man and his grandson. Both were in good health and making their way out of the wilderness.
“The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind all citizens venturing into the back country to please let your loved ones know your planned route.”
Hiker airlifted out of wilderness after medical emergency, July 28, 2018
Pitkin County 911 dispatchers received a call around 8:15 a.m. from a hiker suffering an unspecified medical emergency. A Flight for Life helicopter out of Frisco responded and was aided by an MRA team. They reached the hiker and evacuated him out of the field for treatment. All personnel were safely out of the field by 11:15 a.m.
“Mountain Rescue Aspen would like to remind backcountry hikers that definitive medical treatment and care, if needed, may be hours away so consider leaving the backcountry early if you are feeling unwell.”