Rocky Mountain National Park, located northwest of Boulder, Colo., sits astride the continental divide with peaks rising up to 14,000 feet. During a Jan. 30 rescue, Park rescuers demonstrated how they handle difficult and exhausting rescue operations in the backcountry during winter.
Emergency Beacon Activates At 0818 HRS, the SPOT Emergency Response Center in Texas notified the Rocky Mountain National Park dispatch that one of its SPOT emergency beacons had been activated in what appeared to be the Park’s backcountry. Spot LLC is a private emergency messaging service that uses satellite beacon with GPS tracking to relay emergency signals from the ground.
Rangers called the SPOT Emergency Center to confirm the location and get latitude/longitude coordinates. Rangers used Google Earth to pinpoint the location just east of an area known as Chasm Meadow. They immediately expected that this would be a serious situation because there have been numerous accidents in this area in the past. The area, located at about a 12,000′ elevation, requires advanced hiking skills and equipment in the winter.
With information provided by the SPOT center, rangers called the contact number associated with the device, and reached the registered owner’s father. He was able to provide valuable information to the rangers, including the fact that his son was part of a climbing party that had planned an ascent of the 13,191′ Mount Meeker (the peak to the southeast of Longs Peak) via the Iron Gates route. The first part of the party’s trip was to have been along the Chasm Lake Trail, and then along a ridgeline to the summit. The father reported that the climbers were experienced and well-equipped for the trip.
Finding Resources It was critical to dispatch a hasty team to the area to determine the exact nature of the emergency. The Park dispatched its own rescue rangers, but would need more personnel and resources than what it had available. So the park notified the Boulder and Larimer county sheriff’s departments to page out their volunteer search and rescue (SAR) teams for assistance. It took about an hour for the teams to respond to the Park.
The initial overhead management consisted of an incident commander, a logistics section chief and a financial sections chief.
At 0958 HRS, a hasty team of two rangers left the Longs Peak trailhead. At 1010 HRS, they encountered two members of the climbing party who had gone for help. They reported that they were part of a five-person climbing team, and that a 20-year-old woman in their party had been injured.
What Went Wrong The climbing party had left the Chasm Lake trailhead at 0400 HRS. Around 0800 HRS, the team had to leave the trail and cross a snow field that, due to recent weather changes, was now an icy slope of approximately 30 or 40 degrees. They brought out their ice axes and attached crampons (a set of metal spikes that clips onto mountaineering boots to provide purchase for travelling through icy areas).
As the 20-year-old woman began crossing the slope, she suddenly slipped. She quickly tried to flip over and dig her axe into the ice to stop herself (aka “self arrest”), but the pick of the axe only slightly scraped the icy surface before being ripped out of her hands. She began sliding down the slope, reaching a speed estimated at 30 or 40 mph. She then hit a large rock with her side, which caused her to flip over. She continued sliding down the slope until she came to rest in a boulder field about 200 feet below.
Members of the injured woman’s climbing party quickly worked their way down to her. She was still conscious and breathing but complaining of pain in her lower back and hip. She was bleeding from her left thigh area, but the other members of her party were able to control this.
Trying to move her as little as possible, the climbing party dug a pit in the snow, lined it with empty backpacks to protect her from the snow and ice, and further insulated her with sleeping bags and clothing.
Going into Action The two members of the Park’s hasty team now had a better idea of the situation, but they continued to size up the situation and decide on patient needs, equipment and rescue personnel requirements, and whether a helicopter could be used.
Below the patient’s location was a frozen pond where it would be possible to establish a helicopter landing zone (LZ). But that site, along with other potential LZ sites, meant going farther into the backcountry, which would complicate and potentially prolong the evacuation if the helicopter could not be used for some reason.
The two climbing companions were already tired, and having them go back to the site would fatigue them more, so the rangers told the two men to continue out of the area. The rangers radioed a law enforcement ranger to meet and debrief the men.
Additionally, a second hasty team of two as well as a park medic left the trailhead at 1145 HRS.
Reaching the Patient The original hasty team arrived at the patient’s location at 1155 HRS. They removed their snowshoes, brought out their ice axes and attached crampons to their boots. One of the rangers, an EMT, went down to the patient to perform the initial assessment and initiate patient care. The other ranger began to evaluate rescue alternatives and determine the equipment that would be needed.
The winds in the area were erratic and gusting at 20 to 30 mph, firmly ruling out the use of a helicopter.
Gathering Equipment The rescuers were fortunate in that a Park rescue cache was in a cabin only about one-quarter-mile from the accident site. The rescuers had been aware of this in their planning, and it meant they could travel relatively light, carrying only personal support equipment instead of a full complement of rescue equipment.
At the rescue cache, a ranger began gathering his first load of gear, which included a Cascade litter, a full-body vacuum splint, oxygen and other EMS equipment. (The Cascade, similar to those often seen at ski areas, is a versatile litter that can be used for high-angle rescue. It also has a tent system so the patient can be enclosed and protected from exposure.)
In his second trip to the cache, the ranger gathered rope-rescue gear, including 200′ lengths of rope and bags of equipment that contained the Park’s standard equipment.
The raise/lower kit contained a brake-bar rack, cordelettes (lengths of 7-mm line for connecting multi-point anchor systems), Prusik loops, belay devices, pulleys, “bear paw” anchor plates as well as 16 locking and 16 non-locking carabiners. Each raise/lower bag weighs about 20 lbs. There was also the “soft kit” that contained other gear, such as webbing for anchors.
The Park rescue teams can often rig systems using trees for anchors, but they were now above tree line and secure anchor points became harder to find. As he was going to the rescue cache, the ranger made a quick survey of anchor potentials and found some loose rock, but also a rock wall with some narrow cracks. So he also grabbed a rack of pitons, including narrow pistons and small camming devices.
The Rescue Strategy At 1345 HRS, the second hasty team arrived. This team included the Park medic (an EMS classification a bit above an EMT-I). Despite the patient being cold and dehydrated, the Park medic was able to find a viable vein site, begin an IV and administer fluids, including pain meds.
The other team members began setting anchors and rigging a rope-rescue system. This would be a simple 1:1 mechanical advantage (MA) haul system that used a change-of-direction pulley with Prusik safeties, and that was rigged in an approximate 90-degree configuration, so the haul team could move along the side of the slope.
At 1630 HRS, the team began raising with the counterbalance system, with two rescuers hauling and the other two accompanying the littered patient but not attached to the litter.
Once at the top, they still needed to traverse the remainder of the snow field. As a safety precaution, they rigged a rope in a horizontal traverse across the snow field. The litter and rescuers were clipped into the rope with carabiners. In some of the more treacherous areas where there was a cliff line below the litter, they used a more secure, so-called “caterpillar” technique for passing the litter. To do this, the rescuers lined up, kneeling on the down-slope side and facing the litter, with their crampons digging into the slope. They passed the litter down the line with the last rescuer then peeling off and moving to the front.
Although they were now back at trail level, the three miles remaining to the trailhead would prove to be exhausting and frustrating. The problem was that sections of the trail had been blown in and obscured with snow, so it was now hard-packed and icy. Further, they were encountering a so-called “double fall line.” The rescuers wanted to use the normal fall line of the slope to their advantage in maneuvering the litter, but because of the icy patches, gravity kept pulling the litter sideways. It was a frustrating and difficult struggle to keep the litter on the correct track.
At 1700 HRS, when the rescuers reached the Chasm Junction area, a paramedic from Estes Park Medical Center was there to meet them. He had backcountry skills and could provide relief and assistance to the other EMS personnel.
In their planning, the rescuers had identified Chasm Junction as a potential helo LZ, but it was now dark, so even if the weather had been good, air support was no longer an option.
It was still hard going for the rescuers in the mixed terrain. There were a few short sections of trail where they could attach a litter wheel and roll the litter for a bit, and there were areas of firm snow where they could drag the litter. But there were also areas of rocky terrain and areas of deep loose snow where rescuers would sink in waist-deep. Fortunately, outside resources began to arrive.
At 1730 HRS, six members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group arrived to help. Then at 1939 HRS, nine people from the Larimer County Search and Rescue team arrived on scene. In total, 22 people assisted in the field portion of the rescue.
Finally at 2339 HRS, the rescuers reach the trailhead and transferred patient care to the Estes Park ambulance. The patient was then transported by ground to Estes Park Medical Center, where she was found to have a fracture sacrum (a large, triangular bone at the base of the spine and at the upper and back part of the pelvic cavity) along with cuts and abrasions that caused her to lose about a unit of blood.
Sources: Rocky Mountain National Park East District Climbing Ranger Mark Ronca; North Fork Area Ranger Patty Shafer; and Chief Ranger Mark Magnuson provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from a first-person account of the incident written by the patient.
Lessons Learned/Lessons Reinforced: Ranger Mark Ronca notes the following: “During long evacuations, it is often necessary to provide relief to all team members, particularly to those in critical decision-making roles, such as medic, team leader and tech team leader. Over time, they are subjected to both physical and mental exhaustion.
“Due to the difficulty involved with moving the Cascade litter in side slope terrain where a double fall line exists, rescuers devised a new harness system to allow two team members to pull out in front while two other members steer the litter from handle bars located in the front and back.
“It is important to always have the potential for an air evacuation in mind, but to continue the ground evacuation in case air evac becomes unavailable. Patient care during extended evacuations in the backcountry is extremely difficult, and stops for patient re-evaluation must be made at regular intervals while continually providing a comfortable environment. The park has experienced a number of extended evacuations, including one that lasted two days.”
The National Park Service employs the ICS management system for all incidents, whether it’s a vehicle accident or a more complicated rescue like this. In this way, the management set-up can be easily upgraded as needed. The normal procedure in the Park is to automatically use the law enforcement shift lead person as the IC.
When using outside resources, such as local SAR teams, the park assigns a liaison to accompany the team into the field. This helps ensure that the team gets to the correct site and helps connect the team to the operation by making certain the team understands their role in the operation.
In the winter, when seasonal rangers are often not available, the Park will pull rescue support personnel from all park divisions, such as maintenance and trail crew. These personnel have backcountry skills and attend SAR training.
It’s easy to get accustomed to using helicopters in rescue, as they can save lots of time and personnel. But the front range of the Rockies tends to be very windy, with changing weather conditions. Rangers keep helicopters in mind, but they know they can’t always rely on them.