DENVER, COLORADO — In the deep, frozen heart of the Colorado wilderness, a dramatic search and rescue operation unfolded in the early hours of Tuesday, February 6th, highlighting the inherent dangers of winter hiking and the relentless dedication of rescue teams. Lake County Search and Rescue (LCSAR) was alerted to a dire situation: a hiker, cold and exhausted, had taken refuge in a makeshift snow cave at the crossroads of the Continental Divide Trail and the North Mount Elbert Trail.
Faced with a formidable challenge, the rescue operation required a three-mile approach on snowmobiles to reach the North Elbert Trailhead. From there, rescuers embarked on a steep ascent through narrow switchbacks, navigating through treacherous avalanche conditions and breaking trail in the dense midwinter snowpack.
A two-man hasty team from LCSAR reached the distressed hiker at approximately 4:30 AM, immediately initiating efforts to warm him up. Given the hiker’s inability to walk, LCSAR called for mutual aid from their counterparts in Chaffee County Search and Rescue North (CCSARN), setting in motion a remarkable display of inter-agency cooperation.
As dawn approached, SAR members from both Lake and Chaffee Counties converged at the Halfmoon Road winter closure, utilizing snowmobiles to shuttle towards the incident site. After a mile and a half trek, the second team rendezvoused with the hasty team, who had already begun the delicate process of transporting the patient.
Employing a Sked — a specialized stretcher for difficult terrain — the combined rescue teams skillfully maneuvered the patient down the mountain to a waiting snowmobile, ensuring his safe return.
The rescue operation sheds light on the hiker’s perilous journey, which began around 7:00 AM the previous day from the South Elbert Trailhead. After summiting in the mid-afternoon, he lost his way while descending to the treeline, eventually veering off course towards an incorrect trailhead. Struggling through four feet of snow, the hiker’s ordeal culminated in his decision to seek shelter and call for help around midnight.
This incident underscores a recurring theme in winter rescues: the critical importance of proper equipment and familiarity with seasonal conditions. LCSAR extends its gratitude to CCSARN for their swift response and invaluable assistance, reinforcing the spirit of collaboration that defines the search and rescue community.
Safety Tips for Winter Hiking
Here are some lessons learned from the incident:
- Prepare Appropriately: Always carry and know how to use snowshoes, gaiters, and have appropriate winter footwear.
- Stay on Trail: Familiarize yourself with your route in advance and use a GPS or a map and compass to navigate in snow conditions.
- Inform Someone: Always let someone know your plan, including where you’re going and when you expect to return.
- Know the Conditions: Check the weather forecast and avalanche risk before you depart.
- Carry Essential Gear: Bring a headlamp, extra food and water, layers for warmth, and a shelter.
- Learn Basic Survival Skills: Know how to make a snow shelter and the signs of hypothermia and frostbite.
Remember, the beauty of the wilderness in winter comes with increased risks. Proper preparation and respect for nature’s power are essential for a safe and enjoyable experience.