OURAY – A Blackhawk military helicopter crew from Gypsum, Colo. coordinated with the Ouray Mountain Rescue team to pluck an injured climber from the upper reaches of Oak Creek Canyon high above Ouray last Sunday night, Sept. 16.
The victim, a 39-year old man from the Front Range, had fallen in a rugged, nearly inaccessible area at 11,200 feet just below White House Mountain while canyoning with two friends.
OMRT Incident Commander Tim Pasek said the victim dropped 50 feet when his anchor point malfunctioned as he was being lowered into the canyon. His climbing partners called for help at 3:45 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
“Because of the distance of the fall and the initial information we received about the patient, we were concerned that he might have pretty bad injuries,” Pasek said.
The victim’s partners conveyed to OMRT that they thought there was an area nearby the scene of the accident where a rescue helicopter might be able to land. Pasek was able to locate a helicopter out of Montrose, whose crew was willing to give the mission a shot. The helicopter arrived in Ouray at 4:40 p.m. and flew up Oak Creek Canyon but found that the terrain was too steep to land on.
The pilot was however able to verify the position of the party of distress before aborting the mission. Pasek then turned to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center for help. This is the division that is in charge of inland Search and Rescue (SAR) for the U.S. “It’s someplace we go when we have exhausted other resources,” Pasek explained.
The Air Force in turn contacted the Colorado Army National Guard, which has a facility in Gypsum (near Vail) called the High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Sight (HAATS).
“Their primary job is to teach high altitude flying to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines,” Pasek said. “The mission was given to them and they accepted it.”
The HAATS crew quickly mobilized and was on its way with a giant UH-60 Blackhawk chopper. The plan was to lower a winch and pull the injured person into the helicopter and fly him to Montrose or Grand Junction. The mission would take place after dark, and thus required night vision equipment.
OMRT, meanwhile, had already mobilized a ground team to reach the site of the accident. “We had a total of 12 people heading up in three different waves,” Pasek said.
At 7:40 p.m., just as dusk was sliding into darkness, OMRT personnel Jeff Skoloda and Kevin Koprek were the first to reach the injured party. They had ascended almost 4,000 feet of difficult terrain in about three hours.
“It’s one of the worst places in the county to try to effectuate a rescue,” said Koprek afterwards. “The canyon itself is fairly typical, but it’s located in high alpine terrain with huge gullies and washed out sections which made it challenging to access.”
Koprek and Skoloda quickly evaluated the condition of the patient. “He was doing okay,” Koprek said. “He was very, very cold; they had a fire built for him. One buddy was an EMT and they were taking really good care of him which was fortunate for us; he was in better shape than we thought.”
Koprek and Skoloda determined that it would be safe to put the victim in a sling and hoist him into the helicopter, which was by this time well on its way up the canyon.
The UH-60 Blackhawk is a huge, powerful aircraft – 70 feet long and weighing in at 22,000 to 26,000 pounds. Its two engines are rated at 2,000 horse power each. It is designed to carry a squad of troops but is also commonly used by HAATS personnel for rescue missions in the Eagle area, Pasek said.
“But most of their missions are daytime searches,” he added. “A nighttime hoist using night vision goggles at 11,000 feet is probably the riskiest mission they’ve ever done.”
By 8 p.m. the operation was complete.
“It was really remarkable,” Koprek said. “Our team works hard and trains hard, but this seemed like almost an exceptional effort. Things were really clicking. We had excellent communication; things that are generally a challenge went really well.”
The chopper was too big to land on top of Montrose Memorial Hospital, so it was diverted to Montrose Regional Airport, where an ambulance was standing by. The patient had injuries including a punctured lung, and was transferred to Grand Junction where he could receive a higher level of care, and where he is currently recovering.
OMRT personnel, meanwhile, walked out of the field by about 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning. Among them was Ouray County Emergency Medical Services paramedic Kim Mitchell, who according to Pasek was prepared to do “battlefield surgery” to relieve the pressure in the victim’s chest, should the helicopter rescue fail.
“It was a very remote area that was very hard to get to. Without the helicopter the mission could have taken days to complete,” Pasek said. “We got lucky.”