Since 1982, I have been involved to some degree in almost every facet of search and rescue in Southwest Colorado: searches and rescues in the field; working as a K-9 handler; coordinating missions; reporting events to the media. I thought I had pretty much seen it all. I was wrong.
Recently, I was on the other side. Early Tuesday morning, my wife, Joni, went hiking with friends. It seemed like it would be a routine outing. She walks at least a couple miles daily and had recently hiked places around 10,000 feet high. She called me on her cellphone later that morning to describe the view of Electra Lake as she stood at the base of Engineer Mountain at an altitude around 12,000 feet. She described the dazzling array of wildflowers in the alpine meadow. We agreed to meet later that afternoon in town.
A few minutes later, I received another call from her phone. On the other end was a hiking partner who said my wife was not well. She could not walk. She had passed out twice. They could not find a pulse on her wrist, and she would “gurgle” when she breathed. Instantly, my world turned upside down.
I feared the worst. I wondered if the upbeat words from Joni just a few minutes earlier would be the last I would hear from her. How would I tell my daughters? After 44 years of marriage, how would I live without her? No pulse? Gurgling breathing? Was she already gone with no hope of life-saving rescue teams reaching her location for an hour or more? Was it hopeless? I was far away and could not help her. I suddenly realized how helpless other search-and-rescue victims and their families have felt.
But I had an advantage over others who were in similar frightening situations. I knew who to call first: Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management. He has a long list of resources at his disposal. I knew everything that could be done, would be done to come to my wife’s aid, regardless if she was someone they knew or a complete stranger.
Whether they know it or not, local residents and visitors to La Plata County have guardian angels. Most of them are members of the all-volunteer La Plata County Search and Rescue. They are ready night or day to respond to backcountry emergencies.
As my wife lay in an alpine meadow unable to sit up without blacking out, and as I called family members to update them, the concert, directed by Knowlton and Search and Rescue President Ron Corkish, began. In Colorado, all search-and-rescue missions are conducted under the authority of the county sheriff. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office was notified. Text messages went out, asking for “minute men and women” to respond to Engineer Mountain. Engineer is in San Juan County, so search-and-rescue members were summoned from San Juan and La Plata counties. An air ambulance helicopter from Flight For Life was sent out. Because of the high altitude and reduced lift capabilities of helicopters in thinner air, ground teams would either carry my wife to the helicopter if it could land or, if not, carry her down the mountain. In search-and-rescue missions, there are always backup plans. A second helicopter from Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was put on standby. While it does not have the medical equipment and team like the Flight For Life helicopter, it can operate at higher altitudes and can pick up people who are able to walk. It can also transport search-and-rescue teams and equipment as needed. Other rescuers went to various locations to relay radio communication from Durango to the staging area, between teams deployed in the field and between aircraft and people on the ground. Radio communication and mountains don’t go together very well.
A key factor in any rescue mission is weather. On this day, a storm cell was rapidly building over the rescue site, requiring contingency plans to deal with conditions on the ground and in the air. Despite many moving parts, this was a relatively routine rescue mission, and only one of several similar missions teams faced in just the past several days.
I remained in the unfamiliar role of a distraught family member, waiting to hear if my loved one was safe or alive. It seemed to take an eternity to resolve itself. In reality, this mission took only about 90 minutes from the time the first call was placed until Flight For Life delivered my wife safely to Mercy Regional Medical Center and to me. It was a happy ending.
Several health factors that would have been minor by themselves resulted in a medical emergency when they all came together at once in the high country of the San Juan Mountains. Joni had more medical tests and treatment. But, thanks to the wealth of talented people among us, both volunteer and full-time medical and rescue personnel, who are willing to drop what they are doing and put themselves at risk to save others, we had a successful conclusion. For my wife and many like her who find themselves between a rock and a hard place, help is a phone call away. For that, I and many others are eternally grateful. They are so well-trained and experienced at what they do, they make it all look easy. It is not.
There is a footnote. As my wife was preparing her backpack for her hike, she realized her Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card had expired. The card is not insurance; rather, it creates a fund that allows search-and-rescue organizations and other entities involved to request reimbursement at the end of each year for costs they incur. In most cases, these volunteer groups are already using their own equipment and spending their own money for gasoline and supplies during rescue operations. My wife asked me where she could get a new one. It was 6:30 a.m. – when sporting and outdoor stores were closed. But we were able to buy a new one online. Only a few hours later, her new card would help her rescuers seek reimbursement for their costs.