Cottonwood Lake Hiker Rescue

Daring Midnight Rescue: Chaffee County SAR Saves Hypothermic 13er Hiker

NOV 8, 2023 – CHAFFEE COUNTY, COLORADO – In a harrowing late-night rescue operation, the Chaffee County Search and Rescue North (CCSAR-N) team, assisted by their southern counterparts, CCSAR-S, successfully recovered a hiker suffering from severe hypothermia in the rugged terrain east of Cottonwood Lake. The incident, which unfolded on the evening of November 8, 2023, highlights the critical importance of preparedness and safety in backcountry excursions.

The distress call was received around 7:00 pm, concerning a hiker who had earlier in the day bushwacked to summit a 13,000-foot peak. The hiker found themselves in peril as inclement weather set in, lacking adequate provisions, water, and appropriate clothing. With nightfall approaching and the temperature dropping, the individual, clad only in a cotton hoodie, began to experience the onset of hypothermia.

n a risky decision, the hiker attempted to descend via an avalanche chute, hoping to reach a nearby road. However, their situation worsened when CCSAR-N was unable to pinpoint their location through GPS tracking from the hiker’s cell phone. The only information available was that they were in an avalanche chute east of Cottonwood Lake.

Despite challenging conditions, including a severe snowstorm, approximately 25 SAR members initiated a ground search. The operation was complex, involving navigating multiple avalanche chutes and treacherous terrain blanketed in 6-8 inches of fresh snow.

At about 12:42 am, a breakthrough came when a team descending from a ridge spotted what appeared to be footprints. These led them to the hiker, found at 2:00 am, sitting in a fetal position and covered in snow. The hiker was alive but in a critical state of hypothermia.

Rescuers spent the next three hours warming the hiker on-site before commencing a difficult extraction process. The extraction, involving rope-assisted descent through steep and hazardous terrain, began at 5:00 am. Remarkably, by 6:15 am, the hiker regained enough strength to assist in the walkout, reaching an ambulance for medical evaluation by 7:00 am.

Safety Tips for the Public:

Here are some important safety tips to prevent a similar incident in the future and get home safely. Remember: you are responsible for your safety in the backcountry.

  1. Prepare for the Unexpected: Always carry the “10 Essentials” for backcountry travel, regardless of your planned duration or destination.
  2. Weather Awareness: Check the forecast and prepare for changing weather conditions.
  3. Clothing: Avoid cotton in cold environments. Opt for layers of moisture-wicking and insulating materials.
  4. Hydration and Nutrition: Carry sufficient water and high-energy foods.
  5. Route Planning: Choose routes within your skill level and inform someone of your plan.
  6. Navigation Tools: Carry a map, compass, and consider a GPS device with SOS and two-way communication capabilities.
  7. Emergency Shelters: Bring a lightweight emergency bivy or space blanket.
  8. Fire Starting Kit: Carry waterproof matches or a lighter.
  9. First Aid Kit: Customize your kit for the specific trip and know how to use it.
  10. Cell Phones and Communication Devices: Understand the limitations of your cell phone in remote areas and consider carrying a satellite communication device.

Learn more by reading our comprehensive mountain safety guide with more advice and best practices for risk management outdoors.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

Learn more about how we protect public lands and prevent SAR calls through education & advocacy.

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