Wednesday, July 20, 2011

News Article on El Diente Rescue

Climber rescued from El Diente

Arizona man suffered a broken leg after 20-foot fall

By Kathrine Warren
Staff Reporter
Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 9:35 PM CDT
San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office and Search and Rescue personnel rescued an Arizona man Sunday morning after he fell while descending the lofty El Diente Peak the night before.

Joe Yearm, 28, of Mesa, Ariz., was climbing by himself down the 14,159-foot peak at dusk Saturday night when he fell off a 20-foot cliff into a snowfield and suffered an open leg fracture — a broken bone and laceration.

He lay in the snowfield all night and Sunday morning crawled down to a scree field where he was discovered by two climbers who performed first aid and bandaged Yearm’s leg.

One of the climbers, Kenneth Nolan, of Buena Vista, activated his personal locator beacon, a small device backcountry users can employ in an emergency to send a signal with the beacon’s GPS location. The location pinpointed them about half a mile southwest of El Diente’s summit, perched at 12,200 feet.

At about 7:40 a.m. Sunday, San Miguel dispatch received a call from the International Emergency Response Coordination Center after it received Nolan’s beacon signal, and Dolores and San Miguel county officials organized a search and rescue mission.

El Diente lies in Dolores County, but Dolores County officials turned the rescue efforts over to San Miguel County because crews were better trained for high-altitude rescues.

Eric Berg, operations commander for the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, said overall it was a smooth rescue mission. They contacted Great Western Construction Company, a contractor for the power line project on Wilson Mesa, which released pilot P.J. Hunt, of Talkeetna, Alaska, from his contract to fly Berg to the injured climber.

Berg and Hunt took off at roughly 9 a.m. on Sunday and followed the coordinates provided by Nolan’s beacon. Storm clouds were looming above El Diente and the pilot couldn’t see the tops of the peaks surrounding him.

“El Diente is a formidable peak, even with the coordinates of where that beacon was going off, we didn’t immediately see them,” Berg said.

Hunt eventually spotted the three climbers and made a “toe-in” landing — a hazardous maneuver in which the helicopter skid barely touches the ground and the rotors are very close to the mountainside. Berg was able to exit and traverse the scree slope to the party.

“We had a highly skilled pilot and altitude helicopter,” Berg said. “It can be pretty treacherous.”

Berg used the rescuing couple’s hiking poles and duct tape to splint Yearm’s leg. They then dug a short ledge in the rocks so the helicopter could get more stable for another landing to evacuate Yearm.

At 10:12 a.m. Berg radioed that they were en route to the Telluride Regional Airport. Yearm was then transferred to an ambulance, which took him to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.

“It was a good, smooth mission,” Berg said.

This is the first rescue mission San Miguel County has operated on El Diente this summer. Last year, El Diente took two lives and injured others. The peak, which means “the tooth” in Spanish, is notorious for its difficulty and rockfall.

Berg said there are a few key ingredients to help rescue missions go smoothly. First and foremost, have a Colorado Outdoors Search and Rescue hiking card. CORSAR cards cost just $3 for one year and $12 for five years and can be purchased from the sheriff’s office or outdoor shops around town.

A CORSAR card helps cover the costs of rescue missions on behalf of the rescuing agency. “The card allows us to bill a state fund to pay the rescue,” Berg said. “Now Dolores County is faced with a formidable helicopter bill.”

Berg was unsure if Dolores County would bill the injured climber or absorb the costs.

“To be a responsible user of the backcountry, you should have one,” he said.

Berg also recommended hiking with another person. But solo hikers should tell a friend or family member exactly where they’re hiking and when they should be back.

Berg also recommended an emergency communication device other than a cell phone because service is so spotty in the mountains. “That personal locator beacon was the only technology that was working there,” he said.

This is the first time the Sheriff’s office has received a beacon signal, and Berg admits he was initially skeptical of the technology.

“We simply would not have known there was a problem. This guy wasn’t going to get down on his own,” Berg said.

Arizona climber rescued from El Diente

On Sunday morning (July 17th) I was flying to work near Norwood Colorado when I received a call on the radio from an unidentified person.

I answered up and he said he was with the San Miguel County Sheriffs Office. I thought, "great, who's complaining about me making too much noise or flying too close to their house now"?

He then explained he was the Operations Commander and they had a Search and Rescue operation on El Diente peak at approximately 12,300 feet, and asked if I was available to assist. I told him I'd check with my boss on the power line project, Ken Clinger of Great Southwestern Construction and call him back in 10 minutes. Ken made no hesitation in saying to go and do what ever I could to help out.

I called the Operations Commander, Eric Berg, back and made arraignments to pick him up in the helicopter at his house north of Norwood.

Eric was completely ready with pack, helmet, radio and full rescue gear. I gave him a brief safety orientation specific to my helicopter and away we went. While enroute he gave me the Sheriffs Office frequencies and the GPS coordinates of a PLB (Personal Locater Beacon) that was emitting a signal just south and slightly below El Diente Peak at about the 12,300 foot level.

As we approached El Diente the winds were significant and clouds were billowing over the surrounding peaks and dropping down in to the valley where the signal was coming from.

Due to the winds, weather and unfamiliarity with the terrain, I made my first pass high at 12,500 feet at approximately 60 knots. As we passed over the area where I thought they should have been, I didn't see anything below me. I then planned to follow the contour of the ridge and make a tear drop turn away and back along the ridge losing approximately 200 to 300 feet.

As I turned back to head the direction I had just came from, and descending, I immediately saw something that didn't fit in with the rest of the terrain on the steep talus slope ahead of and below us. I told Eric, "There they are".

As we got closer, continuing our decent down to about 12,300 feet, it became obvious they were people and were waving their arms. I made a low pass over them to both, observe their situation, and to let them know we saw them. We saw two people standing waving and one person laying down on the steep rock scree waving one arm. That was a good sight and a great feeling.

Climbers on rock scree. (Photo Ken Nolan)

We then climbed up and out of the valley to contact the Sheriffs Office dispatch and advise them of our find. Once finished we returned to the victim.

The plan was a toe in landing equal in elevation but approx 100 feet off the side of the victim where Eric could exit the helicopter, traverse and assess the situation, while I flew away to give him space to work.

Toe-in Landing on El Diente where Eric gets out. (Photo Ken Nolan, Buena Vista, CO.)

Eric found the victim Joe Yearm in good spirits and discovered that the other two climbers had seen Joe and came to help. They were the ones who had the PLB and activated it, allowing us to virtually fly right to them. Good job Jean and Kenneth!!!

Joe and Jean trying to keep warm at 12,300 feet on El Diente. (Photo Ken Nolan, Buena Vista, CO.)

Eric, in addition to being the SMSO Operations Commander is also a paramedic. Joe had a compound fracture at his knee which had happened the previous afternoon, causing him to spend the night on the mountain.

Eric splinted the leg with ski poles and duct tape. He and the others then stomped out a smallish ledge where I could put one skid for a one-skid pickup.

I flew in and placed my left skid right under Joe and Eric's feet, they loaded Joe up and away we flew to Telluride where Joe was taking to the hospital by Ambulance.

On approach to pick up Joe. (Photo Ken Nolan, Buena Vista, CO.)

One skid landing, picking up Joe and Eric. (Photo Ken Nolan, Buena Vista, CO.)

Departing pickup zone for Telluride. (Photo Ken Nolan, Buena Vista, CO.)


It's Been Too Long

I know I've been bad. But sometimes between a hectic work schedule and poor to no internet access, it's difficult to keep my blog updated.

I finished the ski season in Valdez and had a short time off. Then back up to Wassilla to pick up 350SB and fly it back down to Colorado again to support a large power line project.

Photo of me and 350SB working in Colorado.