The piercing tone of a cell phone text message woke me from a dead sleep. I peered at the clock; 3:15 am. That could only be a rescue call.
I picked up my phone and read the text alert: “All available search and rescue members, report to the Mayflower Gulch trailhead for a search at 0800 hours.” I groaned. Why wake us up at 3:00 for a search at 8:00? I rolled over and fell back asleep.
I got up at 6:00, thinking it would give me an hour to check email before I needed to leave. It was a Monday, and I hadn’t planned to play hooky from work all day. But I made the mistake of checking the rescue group’s Facebook in-box first, and there was a message from someone named Aaron.
Is anyone available to chat?
It had come in at 11:00 the previous night. I responded right away.
Hi Aaron, what’s up?
You may be already tracking. I am on my way to Mayflower Gulch trail for a possible missing person.
We are on our way too, I responded. Must be the RP, I thought. You’re probably already aware, but when you arrive you should find the mission coordinator, Jim Koegel.
Roger, I have his number. Thank you all for coming to look for our soldier.
Soldier, I thought. This could be interesting. I threw on some hiking clothes and jumped in my car, earlier than I had planned. Work emails be dammed.
When I pulled into the parking lot no one was there yet. Thinking perhaps Koegel had driven up the 4×4 road to the old Boston mine cabin ruins, I tried to do the same. The road was too rough, and I turned around a few minutes later and went back to the parking lot.
My teammates began pulling in shortly after, one by one, including Koegel. He gathered us for a briefing.
“OK, here’s the situation,” he told us. “I got a call last night around 10:15 from an Army sergeant at Fort Carson. She said a private named Juan went for a hike yesterday afternoon and hasn’t been heard from since. He left his hotel at 11:00 am and told her he was heading for Pacific Tarn. We originally thought he was going up from McCullough Gulch, but some of his fellow soldiers found his car here last night.”
He nodded toward a car on the far side of the parking lot. Apparently, Juan’s friends had been worried enough to drive all the way up here from Colorado Springs in the middle of the night. Their car battery had died and they were still sleeping in the car.
Aaron, the solider I’d been messaging with, arrived shortly after with the RP, Amanda. The two soldiers sleeping in their car came out, and several of us began to mill around the parking lot interviewing them. Gradually I pieced together more of the story. Juan was completely inexperienced in the mountains but young and very fit. He had recently lost a friend to a reservoir drowning and his friends and commanding officers were worried about his state of mind, although they didn’t consider him suicidal.
The route to Pacific Tarn from Mayflower Gulch was much more technical than the route from McCullough Gulch, so it was everyone’s opinion that he probably hadn’t made it very far and might be hurt or cliffed out.
Koegel began organizing field teams, starting with an ATV team to clear the 4×4 road up to the ridge below Pacific Peak. He appointed Matt Hage to run operations and radioed for Flight For Life’s availability to do an aerial search. CSAR, the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, had already been contacted for cell phone forensics and helicopter resources from the National Guard before Koegel left home.
With no field team assignment yet, I went out to the road to direct incoming hikers to park elsewhere. “We may be landing helicopters here and your car windows won’t be safe,” I told them, apologetically. Most of the hikers turned around without complaint. Some asked questions, some said thank you, but no one argued with me.
Cell phone communication was spotty at best, and Koegel began to get frustrated that he couldn’t reach the CSAR state coordinator.
“I’ve got a couple bars,” I told him, handing over my phone. Koegel called the CSAR coordinator to follow up on helicopter availability.
“You can reach me at this number for a while,” I heard him say, “but at some point I’m sure the owner of the phone is going to want to go into the field.”
“I’m OK to stay here,” I told him, a little reluctantly. I never wanted to stay at command, but the route leading up to Pacific Tarn was long, grueling and technical. Lately I had been forced to confront my changing role on the team. I wasn’t very fit anymore, and our incoming groups of new members were getting younger every year. I had to admit that sometimes – maybe often — I was holding a field team back.
Koegel was surprised, but he said I might as well be the scribe if I was going to stick around. I took the clipboard from Matt and resolved to be happy about learning a new role.
The Flights chopper was in the air at this point and doing an aerial search over Pacific and Atlantic Peaks. The CSAR coordinator called back and said that HAATS, the National Guard’s High Altitude Training Center, also had a Blackhawk available with both hoist and rescuer insertion capability.
Just then, as it seemed we had plenty of air resources, our radios sounded rescue tones.
Rescue 10, contact ES for a report of an injured hiker on the Ten Mile Traverse between Peaks 2 and 3.
Koegel groaned. That was terrain every bit as remote and technical as the current mission, if not more so. We heard Charles radio to dispatch that he would take the call, since Koegel was already occupied.
We finally stopped milling around the parking lot and set up some chairs in Rescue 3, the command vehicle. Koegel and Matt began to strategize about the sharing of resources between the two missions, and what else we should clear in the immediate search area.
“I want to give the soldiers something to do,” Matt told Warren. Warren was a reservist who had recently returned from Afghanistan. “Can you drive them up the road to start clearing the area along the creek?”
Warren agreed and headed out to round up the group of soldiers in the parking lot. There were now five of them, including the unit’s commanding officer.
Drew, a teammate with extensive experience hiking in the Pacific Peak area, brought a map into Rescue 3 and showed us a cabin nearby he thought we ought to clear. Matt sent another team out on foot. I tried not to fidget.
Lifeguard 2, the Flights chopper, had finished flying over our mission by now and Koegel diverted them to the Peak 3 mission. We heard radio transmissions from Charles and it sounded like they would be picking up two of our people at the hospital and dropping them below Peak 3, as close as they could get to the patient. They would climb up to her and get her packaged to be hoisted out by a Vail Mountain Rescue Group technician.
Koegel radioed to Charles that we would soon have Talon 14, the Blackhawk from HAATS, in the air and wanted it to do a flyover of our mission before hoisting the Peak 3 patient.
“No, this mission needs to be a priority!” a voice shouted over the radio. It was Glen, another mission coordinator working the Peak 3 mission. We exchanged bemused glances; Glen usually sounded stressed and pissed off, even when he wasn’t.
“Copy,” Koegel responded. “We’ll see if HAATS can be diverted from our mission immediately.”
“Should I call CSAR?” I asked him. I had never really been a scribe before and wasn’t sure how much initiative I should take. Koegel nodded, and I dialed John Wells, the CSAR coordinator.
“We need Talon 14 to go straight to Peak 3,” I told him, and he told me he would re-direct HAATS immediately.
My phone, which had become the official mission coordinator phone by now, rang from an unfamiliar number. It was a Commander Springer from Fort Carson, who said he could also supply air resources but needed an official request from us. Brian, our sheriff’s deputy, texted him the request, and shortly after we received word that two Blackhawks were fueling up to head our way.
This was getting crazy, we realized. We were about to have four helicopters in the air at once. Had we ever done that before? And where were we going to put them?
A group of rescuers – Devon, Drew and Doug – began brainstorming possible landing zones
“We could call Climax Mine and ask for some space,” someone suggested.
“I could call Andrew,” I offered. Andrew was a new member who worked for Climax as an electrical engineer.
“What about using the area up around the Boston mining cabins?” Devon suggested. “That’s a big space, we could probably put two choppers up there. And then we still have this parking lot if we need to land a third one.” We had assigned Heath to move our cars out of the parking lot earlier and had been mostly successful in turning any would-be hikers away.
Everyone agreed this was a good plan. Koegel assigned Devon to run air operations, now that it was getting complicated, and Devon set himself up at Rescue 1 with several radios so he could communicate on multiple channels at once. Devon sent Doug up to the cabins to start outlining two landing zones.
My phone rang again and it was John Wells.
“I have a Lakota out of Buckley fueling up now,” he said. “It doesn’t have hoist capability but it can do a flyover or an insertion, now that you lost Talon 14.”
Devon, Matt and Koegel looked at each other with a mixture of amusement and alarm. That was a fifth helicopter.
Lifeguard 2’s pilot, finished with the insertion for the Peak 3 mission, radioed that he was available again and asked what we wanted him to do.
“I’d like you to land here at Mayflower Gulch if possible,” Koegel told him, “so we can do a face-to-face debrief on your aerial search.” The pilot agreed, and we began battening down the hatches. I had seen a helo land in the Mayflower Gulch parking lot once, years ago, and blow out the windshield of a sheriff deputy’s truck.
Field teams were reporting in. Team 1 had gotten as far as they could on ATVs and were now hiking the ridge below Pacific Peak. Teams 2 and 3, which were clearing the creek and the cabin near Clinton Reservoir, had nothing to report. A fourth team was dispatched to check out the Humbug drainage. Juan had told his sergeant in their last phone call that he was “going to the water,” so we had begun thinking about what bodies of water he could have meant other than Pacific Tarn, or that perhaps he might have mistaken for Pacific Tarn.
Lifeguard 2 swept down from Pacific Peak and over our heads, blinding us with tornedos of dust as it set down in the parking lot. When the rotors finally stopped and the air cleared, everyone rushed toward the middle of the lot to talk to the crew. I scribbled notes furiously while Mark Burrows, the pilot, covered what they had done in their earlier search, before they were diverted to the Peak 3 mission.
“We searched the Pacific Tarn and Atlantic Peak areas thoroughly,” he said, “and along Pacific creek also. But there were a few rock crevices we couldn’t see into. Hard to say whether we can consider those areas cleared or not.”
Koegel and Matt were debating whether we should try to get more ground teams in, given the additional air resources we had coming. It was now close to 1:00 pm, and we only had one team that had gone very far into the backcountry.
Just then Doug Lesch, whom we had sent up to the cabins to designate landing zones, came over the radio. “Subject has been found,” he said.
We were incredulous. Found?
“He just walked into the mining cabins area. I’ll be transporting him down to command in my truck,” Doug said.
I could barely stand to wait for a full report as I helped Koegel and Matt stand down all the air resources and pull teams out of the field. At that point only the Lakota from Buckley had to be turned around. The two Carson Blackhawks had not yet launched, Talon 14 was still doing the hoist from Peak 3, and Flights was still in the trailhead parking lot with us. We told all field teams to report back in and anxiously awaited Doug’s arrival with our subject. They came down the dirt road from the Boston mining cabins about 15 minutes later.
We tried not to gape when Juan got out of Doug’s truck. He was wearing denim shorts and was bare-chested, a t-shirt wrapped around his head as a sweat rag, and he was carrying nothing but a Rambo-style buck knife slung on one wrist. He was uninjured and didn’t even seem to be tired. I hung back as the command team approached him, unsure whether I was part of the subject debrief team, but Koegel motioned for me to follow him.
Juan’s story was incredible. He had scrambled to the tarn via the Pacific Peak ridge, then descended to the Wheeler trail via the Mohawk Lakes trail, then hiked to McCullough Gulch Road. This alone would have been a burly expedition for anyone on our team. Then he hiked to the Quandary Peak trailhead and spent the night at the upper lake. I couldn’t imagine how cold that must have been, lying on the ground with no gear or extra clothing whatsoever. The next day he scrambled up the northeast couloir of Fletcher Mountain to the ridge and descended the Black and Tan Couloir to the Boston Mine, where Doug was setting up the landing zones. He said he had seen helicopters overhead but he didn’t signal because he had no idea anyone was looking for him.
“But why didn’t you let your commanding officer know what you were doing?” Koegel asked.
“I lost my cell phone about 7:00 pm last night,” Juan replied.
“You’re not carrying a backpack,” I said, still struggling to understand this mystifying survival story. “Did you have any food or water?” Juan had now been out for 26 hours.
“Sure,” Juan shrugged. “I had a bottle of water and a sandwich, and I finished it last night.”
We shook our heads and gasped, some of us laughing and others just staring at Juan in awe.
“Want to join our team?” someone joked.
Juan’s teammates crowded around him, hugging him and pounding his back. They were obviously feeling relief at his safe return, but I wondered if there would be consequences for him later.
That was not my business, however, nor anyone else’s on my team. We gathered the group together for a photo, including Juan and his unit, and then began to pack up our equipment and mobilize the trucks. Time to go home and get back to work, I thought.
But instead…I headed for the Peak 3 mission to see what was happening there.
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