Rescue at 12,500 Feet

05/01/14 | By | More

SAN MIGUEL COUNTY – San Juan Hut Systems founder Joe Ryan was successfully evacuated from Wilson Peak Thursday, April 24, after falling approximately 1,800 ft. and sliding another 700 ft. or so before grinding to a halt on a 28-degree slope, at approximately 12:15 p.m. The fall was witnessed by two skiers at the summit who promptly called 911 and by Ryan’s companions, Eric Ming and Brad Johnson.

“We were fortunate to have phone communications,” said Ming, who had skied an alternate route to Ryan within ten minutes after the crash. Johnson worked his way down through technical terrain while Ming dug out a snow platform for Ryan until help could arrive.

“We did a full body assessment and took his vitals,” Ming said, “and he came to, saying, ‘What happened? What happened?’” and then drifted in and out of consciousness.

“We were grateful that he was talking, because it proved he had good respirations, and his pulse was a consistent 70 to 80 beats a minute throughout. We monitored Ryan’s mental and neurological status, at times finding he could not see a hand in front of his face,” Ming said, as Johnson made calls.

At the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, Operations Commander Erik Berg worked to assemble roughly two-dozen rescuers, while at the same time scrambling to find a medical helicopter to evacuate and transport Ryan from Wilson Peak to St. Mary’s Hospital, in Grand Junction.

With St. Mary’s Hospital’s General Careflight helicopter down for repairs, and helicopters in Farmington, Montrose and Durango already pressed into service, Berg turned to Classic LifeGuard Air Medical Transport, near Moab. LifeGuard picked up off-duty SMSO Deputy Todd Rector. En route to the Telluride Regional Airport, Berg said, “the Moab ship did a reconnaissance flight” over Wilson Peak so Rector could “evaluate the scene for hangfire danger” of launched-from-above snowslides – “and start to look for landing zones in an area potentially impacted by severe winds aloft as well as wet slide activity in the area.”

Conducting wilderness rescues “is always a danger in springtime,” Berg said this week, in part because “with the snowpack warming up, we get these sloughs of snow that can loosen as the day wears on.

“The bottom line is you can get into trouble in these mountains that you can’t get out of,” he said of the San Juan Mountains’ notoriously unstable snowpack. “We take our chances when we go into the backcountry.

“It’s very easy,” he emphasized, for backcountry visitors and rescuers alike, “to get into a situation from which you cannot be saved.

“The fact that we got it done as quickly as possible is a miracle,” he said, of rescuing Ryan, who was delivered to St. Mary’s Hospital, in Grand Junction, not quite four hours after his fall.

As the Moab ship headed to TEX, where it would pick up two rescuers with evacuation and stabilization equipment, Olathe Spray Service, whose owner Devon Felix works closely with SMSO in wildfire season, readied a bright yellow Bell 47 Soloy.

Because Felix was sick, his father helmed the Bell 47, which, powered by a jet engine, “does very well at altitude,” Berg said. The Bell 47 picked up two additional rescuers from TEX, ferrying them to where Ryan lay, with a basal skull fracture that caused intracranial bleeding and a serious concussion, and left a lightning-strike-shaped fracture in the back of what remained of his helmet.

The four flown-in rescuers moved Ryan down two- or three-hundred feet from where Ming and Johnson had stabilized him, and got him onto the LifeGuard, with a nurse in attendance, for transport to St Mary’s Hospital.

Ryan, who went home Saturday, sustained a fractured scapula (suggesting he hit the ground with tremendous force) and four fractured ribs in addition to his head injuries.

“They got here quicker than anything else could have,” Berg said of LifeGuard.

In Grand Junction, Thursday, April 24 , was proving to be a rough day.

“We had six [patients flown into] our Level 2 trauma center,” a St. Mary’s Careflight paramedic said Tuesday, describing the April 24 E.R. scene as “boiling,” as helicopters and fixed-wing transport brought in six patients – two (in separate flights, from Farmington), one from Montrose, one from Durango and one from Craig, in addition to 64-year-old Ryan.

“Amazing, huh?” Berg said Tuesday, of the April 24 SMSO/SAR/EMT rescue and transport of Ryan, and then his release from the hospital, a scant two days later.

“It’s always a miracle,” Berg said, of a dangerous wilderness rescue, and in this one, “everybody worked really well together.”

As for the four rescuers deposited on Mt. Wilson, one came out with Ryan, and the other three with the Bell 47, which made two final trips to ensure so they wouldn’t have to “spend the night, or ski out.”

As to the whereabouts of Ryan’s helmet, Berg said, “I would guess it’s going to be a wall-hanger.”

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