In 2017, reporter Chris Walker's feature article about the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group celebrated those Colorado originals who risk life and limb to help individuals trapped in perilous parts of the mountains. But few rescues are as tricky and treacherous as the one accomplished last week near Vail, where a group of firefighters, deputies and volunteers traversed a canyon covered with ice and snow over a four-hour period to save a suicidal woman clinging to a cliff.
Chief Mark Novak of Vail Fire and Emergency Services (VFES) offers a step-by-dangerous-step account of the November 11 mission.
"We received a call just before 1 p.m.," Novak recalls. "It was described as a suicidal party who had become trapped above some rocks" approximately a mile and a half up Red Sandstone Road, a route also referred to by locals as Piney Road.
Eight members of the fire department responded to the report, as did two deputies from the Eagle County Sheriff's Office, and the latter pair "were actually the ones who located this person," he reveals. "It was pretty difficult to see where she was at and spot her from a distance in the cliff band she was on."
It soon became clear that "this would classify as a technical rescue — that it would require ropes and rigging and things of that nature," Novak confirms. "We probably do two or three technical rescues a year. There's also an additional six to ten times or so when we're involved in what we would call frontcountry or backcountry rescues where, say, there's a hiker with a broken ankle or a medical condition. We'll hike to them and put them in a Stokes basket" — a style of litter or stretcher used in such scenarios. "We'll usually carry them out, but if you're familiar with fat-tire bikes, we also have a special wheel attachment that goes on the Stokes where we can wheel them along. That kind of thing is a lot more frequent than a true technical rescue."
Still, Novak points out, Vail Fire and Emergency Services makes a point of being prepared for these rarer scenarios. "All of our members are trained at a baseline level of competency on technical rescues, and on every shift, we have a member with a higher level of competency. Typically, they're the ones who would do vertical work, like rappelling. The rest would set up the rope system and things like that. And almost always in a technical rescue, we'll work with Vail Mountain Rescue Group. They're independent, but they work with the sheriff's office. They're all volunteers, and they give up their time and talent to be trained to handle this type of event. They handle a wide variety of these types of incidents. If someone is lost, they would usually be the ones to perform the search activities — or if a backcountry skier is trapped in an avalanche."
Once the woman was located, the Vail Mountain Rescue Group was "activated," in Novak's words. "Since they're all volunteers, they have day jobs, and sometimes it takes them a little while to respond." Outreach was also made to Eagle County Paramedic Services.
For the fire department personnel, simply getting to the scene was a time-consuming process, he notes. "It probably took 45 minutes or so, because you had to go down into a very steep canyon and cross a creek that was kind of half frozen. There wasn't really a good way to cross it; there was ice on it, but it wasn't solid enough to walk across. And then there was a steep slope that had a combination of snow and ice on the rocks."
The deputies arrived about fifteen or twenty minutes ahead of the VFES crew and had worked their way "within shouting distance" of the woman. "But they were still probably 100 feet away from her."
To protect the woman's privacy, Novak declines to discuss her state of mind at the time rescuers first made verbal contact with her. But the clock was ticking for another reason. Thanks to daylight saving time, which went into effect the previous weekend, everyone involved knew the sun would set early — but "because it was a canyon, it went down even more quickly," he points out. "By roughly three o'clock, there was no more sun."
Before darkness set in, the various personnel "descended down into the canyon and then started ascending the other side," he goes on. "They also started setting up the technical rescue system. We used trees as anchors for the ropes and put together a series of pulleys and other mechanical devices."
In any technical rescue, "one of our primary objectives is not to become part of the problem," Novak emphasizes. "We don't want to turn rescuers into victims. So we're pretty methodical — and there were a couple of factors we had to look out for. One was falling rock. And it would have been pretty easy to take a long tumble with all the ice and snow even when the sun was still up. When it goes down, it's harder to work."
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Another consideration he cites is "if your victim becomes hypothermic. That requires a different approach to the entire rescue and becomes more complicated."
In this case, a rescuer was able to rappel down the cliff and reach the woman in between ninety minutes and two hours, and she was capable of putting on a harness with a rope attached — after which she was gradually lowered off the cliff face. Then, Novak continues, "we used a different set of ropes to assist her down to the bottom of the canyon, where the creek was. From there, she was able to climb out with the assistance of the rescuers back up the road," from where she was transported to Vail Health Hospital.
The four hours it took to accomplish this task was grueling for all concerned, but Novak feels the crew worked with great efficiency. After all, he says, "I would rate this on the more difficult end of the rescues we go on."