Sunday, July 10, 2011

Eolus Catwalk Rescue - La Plata County Search and Rescue

On Saturday evening La Plata County Search and Rescue performed a dramatic rescue of of a man marooned just below the 14,000 ft peak of Mt. Eolus in the the San Juan Mountains above Durango. 

At 9:15 Saturday morning, a climbing party of three sent a message by SPOT device to family that they had summited Mt. Eolus. At 9:43 they again sent a message that they had begun the return decent to the Chicago Basin. At 10:16 another message was sent. This time it was by pushing the emergency button on the SPOT indicating that something was seriously wrong. At 11:00am our Durango 911 Dispatch received information of the SPOT emergency activation. The location we received plotted out to the west side of the catwalk several hundred feet below the peak.

After locating a capable helicopter and paging members of La Plata County Search and Rescue's technical rescue team, a landing zone was set up at Rockwood. Just before 2:00 the first team started the flight up to the peak. When they arrived in the area only one of the three climbing partners was able to be seen from the air, and was on the east side of the catwalk. 

With no signs of the others, the first rescuers were inserted at the opposite end of the catwalk on to a ledge several hundred feet below. After 40 minutes the rescuers had climbed and traversed to the subject. We then learned that on the climbers' decent, two of the members in the party lost footing on a steep snow field and slid 30-50 ft into a rock field. One man sustained a serious lower leg injury. Another was reported to also have been injured. The two men who could still walk had descended to the Chicago Basin to find aid from others. 

Two more pair of rescuers with a host of additional equipment for the long descent were ferried into the insertion point
Rescuers were presented with only very options for extraction. The first was a long descent through the granite rubble and multiple pitches. 
You can take a look at others' pictures of the area HERE

Unfortunately, the risk of falling rock would have made this extremely difficult and dangerous. The next option would include short hauling the patient hanging in a litter from the helicopter and bringing him to a more suitable landing area to be placed into the helicopter. This also had a high level of danger for all. Severe thunderstorms had pummeled the area earlier in the day and were again building from the south and west. A solution was found with the least risk; an experienced decision that proved successful. 

After stabilizing the injuries, the rescuers carried the climber and traversed across the east face of the mountain to a saddle between the 14,000ft peaks Mt. Eolus and North Eolus at the south end of the catwalk. At 5:10 the NewAir helicopter was able to hover onto the 13,700 ft ledge and the injured man was lifted to a waiting ambulance at Rockwood. 

At 5:21 the NewAir helicopter landed at Rockwood and the climber was transferred to a waiting DFRA ambulance. The climber was then transported to Mercy Medical Center for treatment. The helicopter made another trip to the insertion point to retrieve gear and two trips in to Twin Lakes to extract the 4 man, 2 woman rescue crew from that lower elevation in order to lift 3 passengers at a time.

Only by years of experience and training was this rescue made possible. Thanks to all the dedicated volunteers at La Plata County SAR!

This was the second rescue in the Chicago Basin in 7 days. 

Butch Knowlton, La Plata County Director of Emergency Preparedness and Director of Search and Rescue says:
If the aircraft was not able to lift the man from the saddle of the mountain, rescuers would have been forced to lower the man down the near vertical slope some 1200 ft below. Rescuers were fortunate to have favorable weather during the rescue operation. Heavy thunderstorms had been in the area throughout the previous 24 hours. Rescuers were removed from the area just as heavy storms moved in from the south.
Butch Knowlton encourages everyone using the backcountry and trails in Colorado to purchase a CORSAR card or other license (Hunting, fishing, OHV, Snowmobile, boat) that pays into the Colorado SAR fund so that the Sheriffs and Counties can be reimbursed for these extremely expensive rescues. 

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