It was only 10:00 am when I heard the first coordinator page go out.
“Rescue 10, search and rescue incident, no injuries involved,” the automated voice toned. “Hoosier Pass trailhead.”
It was a Sunday and I was prepared for a mission today, but “no injuries involved” meant it was somewhat unlikely. Of the 217 calls we’d had in the past year, most of those that had gone to an all-call involved injuries. I settled back into answering emails and working on projects.
But at noon, the all-call came. “All available Summit County Rescue Group members, respond to Hoosier Pass for a search for two missing snowshoers,” it said. It sounded like one of the boring calls that our more skilled members often didn’t respond to. It was tailor-made for me, however. A search for missing snowshoers meant I could get some exercise at my own, slow pace. I loaded up my gear and my dog and jumped in the car.
Hoosier Pass is at the most southern end of the county, a good 45-minute drive and probably longer on a ski-season Sunday afternoon. I often get stood down when I’m almost there in those circumstances, so I didn’t hurry.
It was nearly 1:00 pm when I arrived, having navigated the busy weekend traffic through Breckenridge. The trailhead was located at a small pull-off parking lot on the summit of Hoosier Pass. There were few parking spots left but my teammate Tim was out on the side of the road, directing traffic, and he waved me to a spot on the side of the lot. Our on-call mission coordinator, Matt, headed toward me from Rescue 2, the on-call response vehicle, as soon as he saw me pull in.
Matt stopped to speak to a man in the parking lot I’d noticed as I pulled in. The man was standing in front of his car, staring at us.
“Sir, if you’re not doing anything we’d appreciate it if you’d leave!” Matt shouted tensely. “We don’t need any spectators right now.”
Suddenly the tone of this mission had changed. It didn’t sound like it was just a search for missing snowshoers.
Matt waved me to the side of my car and got close so he could speak quietly.
“Gear up to go in, but you may be staying here as PIO,” he said. Besides being a grunt field rescuer with no skills, I was one of the team’s public information officers.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“We have two people who apparently left this trailhead yesterday morning and were reported missing when they didn’t show up to meet friends in Colorado Springs this morning,” Matt explained. “Flight For Life already did a flyover and spotted avalanche debris on the trail up to Crystal Lake. So, what we probably have is a couple of avalanche fatalities. A dog team is in the air.”
I nodded and began to grab ski gear out of my car. I knew for a mission like this it was unlikely that I would be needed in the field, but I buckled into my alpine touring boots and pulled on ski pants just in case. A few minutes later Matt came back and asked if I would scribe for him, which meant taking notes recording radio transmissions and field activities for the mission report. If there was going to be a public information component to the mission, it was the perfect job for me because I would be fully in the loop on the details.
Another mission coordinator, Dan, was sitting in the driver’s seat of Rescue 2 handling radio communications and told me to get into the passenger seat. He handed me Matt’s notepad and I began trying to catch up.
“I know you want to get out and run around,” he said, “but don’t. Stay here where you can hear and see everything.” I had scribed a few times before and knew he was right. Besides, Dan was our most veteran member, with 40 years of service on the team and extensive experience as a dog handler and avalanche rescue tech. He knew what he was talking about.
Three skilled snowmobilers on our team were gearing up to go in, unloading their snowmobiles from their own trucks or from Rescue 5, another team vehicle that had arrived with a snowmobile trailer. Their job was to go in and begin packing the trail for ground teams. In the meantime, a dog team consisting of a snow tech, dog handler and validated avalanche dog was flying in on Lifeguard 2, the Flight For Life chopper based here in Summit County. Another dog team was to follow on the next flight.
I read through Matt’s notes. Our subjects were a young couple from Colorado Springs who went out for a hike with their dog. She was a 25-year-old exercise physiologist, he was a 34-year-old dentist. Hannah and Drake, and the dog’s name was Valerie. They were not typical winter backcountry users and I surmised they probably had no avalanche awareness or training. They were just a couple of outdoor lovers who went for a hike on a trail, likely having no idea it might be dangerous. Their friends had reported them missing when they didn’t show up for a ski date on Sunday morning; some of the friends were here in the parking lot, having driven up to find their car. They said the pair were very reliable people and wouldn’t have no-showed without calling.
Teams were beginning to deploy, starting with the snowmobile team and followed by the two dog teams landing, one after another. I began scribbling notes, trying to follow the radio traffic and in-person conversations through the windows of the truck at the same time. New members arriving on scene came up to my window periodically for me to check them in.
“Command, dog team 1,” I heard as Hunter, the snow tech on our first dog team, landed near the site of the avalanche. “We are 500 feet from the debris and will start hiking in. Any ground teams approaching should stay in the trees and avoid the south side of the slide. We’ll also need an avalanche guard posted on the ridge when they get in.”
I heard Matt on the radio, directing the snowmobilers to a safe route and asking our teammate Nick to climb to the ridge for avy guard duty. That would be a long, cold, hard duty, I knew.
Becky came to my window. “We’ve got three mission coordinators sitting in Rescue 1,” she laughed, “me, Glen and Charles. Let us know if Matt needs anything.” That meant we had five of our ten mission coordinators here at command, plus another one in the air on the second dog team. Becky was laughing because it meant a lot of chiefs, and we hoped we still had enough Indians.
The second dog team was on the ground and reporting in, and we began to hear a lot of action from the first dog team. “Keena has a hit!” Hunter radioed. Keena was an experienced dog on the team, trained and validated by Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment and handled by our teammate Doug.
Only a minute later, “We have a second hit,” Hunter radioed. “We’re digging.”
There was tense silence for a while. Matt mobilized ground evacuation teams. Many more members had arrived and we had at least 20 now. Dan got out of the truck to be part of an evacuation team and Glen got in briefly to handle comms.
Radio transmissions came in, first from Hunter and then from Ben, on the second dog team, to confirm that the bodies had been found. The last transmission confirmed that even the dog, Valerie, had been found, still attached to Drake by a leash.
Glen had gone back to Rescue 1 and Matt was back in the driver’s seat of Rescue 2. He held his head in his hands.
“Are you OK?” I asked him. Matt was an airline pilot and it took a lot to stress him out.
Matt took a deep breath. “I’m OK, but you know? You always question whether you’ve thought of everything, whether you’ve done everything you can. Should we have responded earlier this morning? The friends reported this as a missing persons case to the Colorado Springs police department and they blew it off. And at first, we just assumed it was a case of miscommunication between friends.”
I thought I understood, although a part of me knew I couldn’t really. Unless you were a mission coordinator, you couldn’t know what it was like to have the weight of that kind of decision on you.
Dan radioed from the first ground team. “We need more people,” he said. “We have an uphaul to get the bodies out and this mission is going to go into night hours.” Matt radioed dispatch to put out a second all-call, and more members arrived over the next hour. We had 35 people, half of the team. It began to get dark and very cold; the dashboard of Rescue 2 said it was 8 degrees. I’d wished I could get out of the truck earlier but now I was happy to be in it, enjoying the heat.
Becky came back to my window. “We asked the friends to call the parents and notify them, but they asked us to do it,” she said. “Glen and Charles and I split up the calls between us and it’s done.”
I saw her eyes. I couldn’t imagine. Usually, the coroner’s office made those calls. If we made them, it was because we were already talking to the family and had established a relationship. What must have it been like to call parents, out of the blue, who didn’t even know their children were missing, let alone that we had found them cold and dead?
“Command, this is Nick,” I heard over the radio. “Permission to come down from avy guard?”
Poor Nick. He was still on the ridge, posted by himself in sub-zero temperatures and high winds, and most likely everyone had forgotten about him. It had been about five hours.
Ground teams began to report their progress, and the coroner arrived, parking her van in the parking lot closest to the trail. Two of our skiers had found an alternate route that avoided the laborious uphaul and they made better time than expected, towing the two bodies behind toboggans called akjas. I finally braved the temperatures to get out of the truck and watch from a distance as the bodies were delivered to the coroner’s van.
SJ, one of the sheriff’s office deputies who supported our team, came back up to the pass with pizzas. Some of the field team members coming back in were exhausted with the cold. We grabbed slices and huddled in a circle.
“We’re not going to do a full debrief here,” Matt told us. “It’s too cold and you guys need to get warmed up and get home. You all did an amazing job. We’ll have a debrief on Monday.”
Despite our recent training sessions being virtual due to Covid, we held an in-person debrief the following night. After several back-and-forth discussions between mission coordinators and board members it was decided that the benefits of debriefing in person outweighed the public health concerns. Team members who had recovered the bodies and mission coordinators who had made the calls to family members were all in need of support.
Dan was the first to speak, after Matt went through the basics of the mission anatomy.
But Dan couldn’t finish a sentence, his voice breaking as he tried to describe the contributions of team leader John Reller. I saw others tearing up and felt grateful that I didn’t need to speak, since I probably couldn’t have kept my voice steady either.
Part of it was the tragic loss of two people who likely had no idea of the risks and didn’t deserve what happened to them. But it was also pride in our team and loyalty to each other that made us emotional. We knew we had done the best job we could, once the situation became clear. We can only do two things in the wake of a tragedy; we can bring the bodies home and get closure for the families, and we can educate the public. We had done the first thing well, and we knew we would work on the second thing in the coming weeks.
A few days later, Dan texted some of us a video that had been found on Drake’s phone. It had probably been taken minutes, perhaps seconds, before a wall of snow hit them like concrete and ended their young lives in a split second. Hannah is snowshoeing in front of Drake, carefree, laughing, long blond hair swinging as she turns back to Drake. “We’re not going that way!” she says to him, pointing to a steep track ascending above the Forest Service road they are following. Valerie, the dog, is trotting happily out in front of Drake on her leash. It’s only a few seconds of footage but it’s enough for the full impact of the tragedy to hit me. I wish I could unsee it. I wish my entire team could unsee it.