Search & Rescue Leaps into Summer with Four Missions

Hinsdale County Search and Rescue (HCSAR) rushed into action on four unrelated rescue missions during the past week.

Successful rescues included an overdue hiker June 24 in the Weminuche Wilderness area at 30-Mile Campground, an injured climber June 26 on Wetterhorn Peak, a sick hiker June 27 on Lost Trail Creek Trail, and an overdue camper on June 28 on the upper Lake Fork near Sherman.

Wetterhorn Peak – Noon Sunday, June 26, 12 members of HCSAR plus helicopters from the Colorado Army Reserve National Guard (pictured at right by Wade Wandry) and Flight For Life (FFL) responded to an injured 41-year old female climber, Amy Jo Stackawitz, Denver, on Wetterhorn Peak. The Colorado Army Reserve National Guard (COARNG) crew included two members from the Pitkin County – Aspen Mountain Rescue team trained in helicopter hoist operations. Stackawitz was safely airlifted to Lake City and evaluated at Moseley Health Care Complex.

Stackawitz fell an estimated 50’ near the summit of 14,050’ Wetterhorn Peak, suffering extensive bruising and possible head injury as a result of her helmet becoming dislodged during the fall. Hikers Andre Gele and David Quiroz heard her cries for help and reached her to give aid.

Gele, a former Marine medic, provided initial medical attention and reported the incident to local EMS volunteer Michelle Murphy by cell phone. Murphy in turn contacted HCSAR Director Keith Chambers for the rescue response.
Two HCSAR volunteer ground teams were immediately formed and dispatched with medically-trained personnel and equipment for a ground extraction. Concurrently, due to the remoteness of the location, HCSAR deputy incident commander Dennis Cavit contacted Flight For Life (FFL) for helicopter evacuation assistance. Due to the altitude, estimated at just under 13,000’, it was quickly determined that more powerful air evacuation assets would be required.

Cavit contacted Colorado Search and Rescue Board dispatch and arranged for a COARNG UH-60 “Blackhawk” helicopter and crew from the High Altitude ARNG Aviation Training Site based in Eagle, Colorado. The state search and rescue board coordinates air rescue responses in Colorado with the national Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.
As HCSAR ground teams approached from below, the Blackhawk crew coordinated and performed a hoist extraction of the injured climber. She was transported to the waiting Flight for Life A-Star helicopter, which was staged at a lower landing zone coordinated by Hinsdale Undersheriff Justin Casey. With the transfer to FFL accomplished, the patient was flown to Lake City for further evaluation.
Director Chambers notes, “it is the consensus of those who witnessed the rescue off the face of Wetterhorn that without the high altitude Blackhawk and crew, our ground teams would have been many hours into the night bringing the subject down from the ice and rock field on the side of that mountain. We are truly fortunate to have access to that resource for this type of rescue. We appreciate very much the talented and brave men and women of the National Guard and Pitkin County SAR crews.”
In addition to the responders mentioned earlier, ground teams, EMS, and incident command included Becki Casey, Brant Cunningham, Bruce Curry, Rick Hernandez, Andy Pankratz, Noah Krouse, Bernie Krystyniak, Wade Wandry, and Buffy Witt.

Weminuche Wilderness – In an unrelated incident, on June 23 and 24, HCSAR responded to an overdue hiker report in the Weminuche Wilderness. Mike Conroy, a 49 year-old male hiker from Joplin, Missouri, failed to return to 30 Mile Camp Ground by nightfall while hiking nearby.
Conroy was reported overdue to Hinsdale Sheriff’s Office by other members of his camping group late on June 23. The camping group included 36 other members of a church group from Abundant Life Church in Missouri. HCSAR Director Chambers, Ground Search Coordinator Cavit, Logistics and Planning Coordinator Krystyniak, and Deputy Denim Starnes met during the late evening to plan a response. It was determined based on the hiker’s condition, mild weather in the area, and the danger to search personnel in darkness that a search would be commenced the next morning. FFL was alerted for possible air search support.
The situation began mid-afternoon on the 23rd, as Conroy chose to separate from his hiking companion on Weminuche Pass near the intersection of Weminuche Trail and the Divide Trail. His plan was to return to camp hiking cross-country to Squaw Creek Trail, while the other hiker returned via Weminuche Trail. Conroy spent the night on the mountain after under-estimating the length of time required to go cross-country to Squaw Creek Trail.
The response team met with Abundant Life group members at 30 Mile CG on the morning of June 24 and brought in the FFL A-Star helicopter to begin the search by air. Shortly before launching the initial air search, Conroy walked into camp unharmed but tired. He was evaluated on scene by medical-trained personnel and it was determined no treatment was necessary.

Lost Trail Creek Trail – On June 27, Undersheriff Casey received a report from Wilderness Ranch of a SPOT personal locator distress activation from one of their wilderness youth camping parties. Chambers, Cavit, and Krystyniak activated HCSAR and deployed the command trailer and a ground rescue team to the Lost Trail Creek Trailhead.
The ground team including John Bonner, Annette Anthony, Noah Krouse, and Lucky O’Dubnaigh moved up the trail on ATVs. The team of medically-trained personnel met the 16 year-old patient, Allie Duncan of Westfield, Indiana, and a Wilderness Ranch evacuation team on Trail 822. The patient was evaluated and extracted via ATV for transport to the Rio Grande Hospital in Monte Vista for further evaluation.

Sherman/Lake City Overdue Camper – Late afternoon on June 27, simultaneous with the Lost Trail Creek Trail response, a report of an overdue camper was taken by Cavit at the Hinsdale Sheriff’s Office. Mark Pennington, 71 year-old male from Prescott, Arizona, was reported by his son as overdue for his prearranged check-in.

Pennington was expected to be camping in the Sherman area. An initial search of the area by Undersheriff Casey failed to find his vehicle. A wider search was planned for the next morning. Cavit arranged for a cell phone trace by the AFRCC. Pennington was located in Lake City by the AFRCC trace the morning of June 28 when he came in for supplies and returned to cell phone coverage.

Sheriff Ron Bruce notes, “the ability of the Sheriff’s Office, and Search and Rescue in particular, to provide this service to the community and perform at a high level is directly related to the support we get from grants and donations by the Pioneer Jubilee Women’s Club, Lake Fork Foundation, and private donors. We rely on these funds for purchasing communications, off-road vehicles, medical equipment, and other critical gear to be able to respond in a safe and timely manner. We appreciate all our supporters and hard-working and brave volunteers.”

HCSAR is an all-volunteer organization with an extensive list of trained specialists and dedicated local people. It operates under the direction of the Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Office. Operating funding for equipment, training, and other expenses is from donations and grants.