The Little Bear-Blanca Traverse

Dramatic Mountain Rescue on Little Bear-Blanca Traverse

ALAMOSA, COLORADO – June 18, 2023, saw a heroic rescue operation in the Alamosa region when Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue (AVSAR) leadership received a distress call at noon from State Patrol Dispatch. The alert pertained to two climbers who were undertaking the “grand slam” – a daring climb of Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingwood.

The climbers, who began their journey early in the morning, experienced a significant setback while nearing the summit of Little Bear Peak. One of the climbers fell approximately 40ft before managing to halt their fall using an ice axe. The axe broke free causing the climber to fall another 10ft before managing to self-arrest once again.

Despite sustaining minor knee injuries in the fall, the climber continued their traverse. However, as they were more than halfway through the Little Bear-Blanca traverse, the effects of their fall and the rigorous climb began to take their toll. Showing signs of extreme mental, emotional, and physical fatigue, the injured climber realized they could not continue. Turning back would require descending the dangerous hourglass section they had climbed earlier. The climbers wisely decided to call for help.

AVSAR, already conducting a training exercise in the nearby Lake Como Basin, were able to respond rapidly to the emergency. Realizing that the climber’s location necessitated aerial assistance, AVSAR requested support from REACH Air Medical Services’ Guardian1 and DFPC Cañon Helitack. Wind conditions prevented Guardian1 from closing the gap to the climbers, but soon after, N58HJ was able to deploy an AVSAR STEP technician via a toe-in Hover STEP at the climbers’ location, 13,800ft on the traverse.

Following an initial assessment of the climbers’ situation, the AVSAR technician began the process of rappelling the climbers to a lower Landing Zone (LZ), while a second technician ascended to assist. Both climbers, along with the AVSAR team members, were then airlifted by N58HJ to the Incident Command Post.

This mission marked the inaugural use of AVSAR’s official Helipad at Lake Como Road. The successful operation not only exemplified the vital role of air assets in such missions but also signified the beginning of a new era in mountain rescue capabilities in the region. The entire rescue operation was a collaborative effort involving Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office, Alamosa County, Alamosa County Road and Bridge, BLM, and others who contributed to making the helipad a reality.

Lessons Learned and Safety Tips

This incident underscores the potential risks faced by climbers attempting high-altitude traverses and serves as a timely reminder of the importance of safety precautions in these endeavors.

  1. Recognize the signs of fatigue: Extreme mental, emotional, and physical fatigue can severely impact decision-making abilities and physical performance. It is crucial to pay close attention to any signs of fatigue and make decisions accordingly.

  2. Have appropriate gear: Ensure you have the correct climbing gear for the anticipated conditions. In this case, the climber’s ice axe was vital in self-arresting after the fall.

  3. Know your limits: Do not underestimate the difficulty of your chosen route. If a section of the climb seems beyond your capabilities, it is advisable to reconsider your approach.

  4. Call for help when needed: It’s important to recognize when a situation is beyond your control. In such cases, it’s crucial to seek professional assistance as early as possible.

  5. Climb in a group: When attempting such challenging climbs, it is a good idea to have friends along with experience in case something goes wrong.

Questions or comments? Email
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.

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