WESTERN SAN JUANS – A Front Range rock climber is lucky to be alive after a large rock fell on his head while he was ascending Coxcomb Peak in the Cimarron Range last weekend. The climber owes his survival to an evacuation effort implemented by his climbing partners and members of the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team.
The accident happened around 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, June 24. The victim, in his early 30s, was part of a group of seven experienced climbers associated with a climbing club from the Front Range, said Ouray Mountain Rescue Team captain Mike MacLeod.
They were climbing an exposed, technical route on the northern side of Coxcomb Peak that required ropes and gear, when “a good sized boulder came popping off, and the gentleman belaying got clipped,” MacLeod said. “He sustained a head injury. It was not a good situation at all, but it could have been worse; he lived to tell about it.”
The huge, rectangle-shaped Coxcomb Peak (13,565 feet) is at the head of the West Fork valley of the Cimarron RIver. Most people climb the peak from its southwestern-facing side, but its north wall offers bigger challenges for technical climbers.
The group was high enough on the mountain when the accident occurred to have cell phone service, so they made a 911 call, which in turn generated a page to the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team.
While waiting for help to arrive, the group initiated its own rescue effort, lowering the injured climber off the technical portion of the mountain while staying in constant communication with OMRT incident commanders.
“Meanwhile we mobilized the cavalry and headed to Wetterhorn Basin Trail, in the West Fork of the Cimarron,” MacLeod said.
Here, OMRT set up a command post, went in with a full ground assault and got the injured climber the rest of the way down to safety through a series of rope rescue lowers.
“They were on very rocky technical terrain with lots of exposure,” MacLeod noted.
Once off the mountain, OMRT members transferred the victim to a wheeled litter and moved him to a waiting life flight helicopter. He was flown to Grand Junction at 2 p.m. and maintained consciousness throughout the ordeal.
“It went as well as it could,” MacLeod said of the rescue. “We were pleased with the turnout for the team – 14 in all – and it was a great effort. It was a heck of a hike in there with all of our gear. The last mile or two was pretty engaging.”
MacLeod was equally impressed with the efforts of the victim’s climbing partners to get their friend to safety. “It saved a lot of time, and time is of the essence with head injuries,” he noted. “They definitely took an active part in their own rescue, and made a big difference in the outcome. There’s not a whole heck of a lot you can do about rock fall. They didn’t do anything wrong. They were properly equipped. Rock fall is an objective hazard with climbing.”
The Coxcomb rescue was OMRT’s first big backcountry incident of the summer season. “And hopefully our last too,” MacLeod said. “That would be okay with us.”