Published by Summit Daily News, 2006
I looked at my watch for the third time in fifteen minutes. Four o’clock. My toes hurt from gripping the narrow ledge I stood on. Zak and I had told each other every rescue story we could think of, and now we were singing silly songs about our teammates.
“Schlouby, dooby do!” I sang, in an elevator-music tone. We could see Tim Schlough below us, a tiny ant at the bottom of the scree field, and wondered if he could hear us singing his name.
The radio crackled back to life, after what seemed like hours of silence. “Command, we have the subject harnessed up and ready to rappel.” Chad’s voice. That meant we were finally on the move. Above us on another ledge, we heard Aaron and Glen cheering.
From where Zak and I stood, we could see Chad and Koegel maneuvering a young man in a red fleece toward a 200-foot rappel they had set up to bring him down the vertical face he was stuck on. Chad rappelled first, landing in a snow field below. Then, tentatively, the young man followed, losing his balance and falling on his butt in the snow at the bottom, where Glen and Aaron were. For someone who had spent all night on that cliff, he was actually looking pretty stable. Clearly, he’d been smart enough to take some warm clothing, food and water with him on his hike yesterday. I watched Aaron help him up, while Glen rigged an attachment point from his own belay station to get the man safely down the scree field below.
“Looks like they won’t need our station,” Zak said as Aaron and the red fleece’d man slid past us on the snow field. “Glen’s rope is gonna reach all the way down to Charles and Matt’s station, so we can de-rig this thing.” We began pulling our anchor station apart. I didn’t care whether we were needed or not; I couldn’t wait to get down to the bottom, where Subway sandwiches awaited us and a person could stand without painfully gripping one’s toes.
As we descended, I asked Zak, “What’s your bet on how soon we’re back up on Quandary?” A reasonable question, given that it was our third rescue on the mountain in the past two weeks.
“Oh, we’ll be back up here by Fourth of July weekend, don’t you think?” Zak asked. I nodded.
The man in red fleece was actually pretty lucky; he spent a cold night on a cliff face, but he was uninjured, unlike the young woman with a broken bone we brought down the south side of Quandary the previous week. The two of them were rescued from opposite sides of the mountain, but they had one thing in common: they were both day hikers who ascended the non-technical trail up the east ridge of the mountain, and then, for some reason, decided to take a “short-cut” back down. In both cases, the short-cut landed them on a cliff from which they could neither ascend back up nor descend further. We call that being “cliffed-out.”
It happens a lot in Summit County. In fact, a week after the third Quandary rescue, we were up on the ridge between Mount Royal and Victoria, evacuating a group of five hikers who had cliffed-out on the northwest side of the ridge above the highway. Like the Quandary evacuations, it took us seven or eight hours to get them down, working until 3:00 am.
The lesson is to stay on the trail and hike down the way you came up. The view from the top of a mountain is often deceptive; you see the lights of civilization below, and a more direct route looks inviting, but you don’t always see some of the cliff faces and steep scree fields that must be negotiated to get there. If you don’t have the climbing gear and the knowledge of the mountain needed to descend a technical route, best to stay on the trail, even if it means getting down after dark.
Sometimes getting cliffed-out happens by accident. On the top of Mount Royal, for example, there are many little game trails and climber’s trails that stray off the backside of the mountain and then fade away into nothing. Follow one of them, and you may find yourself in trouble in a hurry. Last summer, a group of three wandered off on one of those trails and soon became disoriented. Instead of stopping and calling for help, as the five hikers last week did, they kept going. The result was that one of them came down the cliff in a litter, many hours later, and was loaded into an ambulance. She fell about 30 feet and was lucky that she didn’t suffer worse injuries. In a Summit Daily interview, the injured woman was quoted as saying, “It was scary. It took forever for them to find us.” In fact, it didn’t take us long to find them; we could see the hikers from the bike path shortly after the call. What took a long time was finding a safe route to get to them, and then rigging a safe system to get the patient down. The lesson here is that if you do get off the trail by accident, don’t make matters worse by continuing; turn around and go back up, or if you can’t, stay where you are and call for help.
While most incidents of cliffed-out hikers end with a successful–although long and exhausting–evacuation, occasionally there are tragic endings. Back in 2002, we did a body recovery on Quandary after someone tried to hike down the treacherous west side and lost her footing, falling about 1000 feet. Be safe this holiday weekend and stay on the trail!