Search and Rescue of David Worthington
After requests and permission from the family of David Worthington I have re-posted the following report.
I received the page for SARTECH II certified team members at 6pm Sunday May 6th 2007 to go help extract a subject that had fallen on Humbolt Peak. I got a brief rundown of the story and they said his girlfriend had hiked out to get help. For some reason I briefly wondered if it was TalusMonkey and USAKeller. Mike and I responded to the call and went down together to the Search and Rescue office in Westcliffe. An unforcasted blizzard had begun though, which significantly delayed us. Higway 96 through the Wet Mountains was so bad we could only safely drive 15 to 20 mph all the way to Westcliffe. The snow was so heavy and wet that we saw several transformers short out (or whatever it is that they are doing when you see the huge blue flash of light) as we drove through Silver Cliff and Westcliffe. By the time we got to Westcliffe there was a foot of fresh snow on the ground. Not a good sign for our missing subject. We were told that no teams were being sent out until 6 the next morning, so we began to set up our beds for the night. About that time I overheard the reporting party talking to one of the Custer County SAR members and realized that it was USAKeller. We talked a bit about what had happened and how we all sort of knew each other from the 14ers forum. She did a great job of leaving him in the best condition she could and delivering vital information back to the SAR office. At this point a few guys from El Paso county arrived and we all started talking to Custer County about what the current situation was. They told us that the weather had driven one team off the mountain already and that avalanches were occuring. We also got a report that the weather wasn't really going to improve much. We decided that if the weather wasn't going to improve there was no point waiting until morning. So at around midnight we set out.
The snow was still falling in huge wet flakes.
Visibility was horrendous as we followed El Paso's suburban up the South Colony Lakes Road. Due to the snow we were not able to make it far. Even with tire chains on their suburban got stuck a mile short of the Rainbow trail trailhead. This left us about 4 miles short of the trailhead.
We followed the trail left buy the team that had been forced back down earlier that night. Fortunately about halfway to the trailhead the snow stopped falling. This improved our spirits a bit. We reached the trailhead at about 4am. At this point El Paso county decided that we should wait for first light before continueing so we could keep an eye on avalanche risk. Apparently they had been planning on this even though we had only discussed a fast and light approach to find him. They pulled out their sleeping pads and sleeping bags and settled in to sleep for a bit. Mike and I who had been given the impression that we were just going to push on until we found him were not prepared for sleeping. So we donned any extra clothes we had with sat against a tree and waited for first light. Obviously we got no sleep. It was so easy to start thinking about how cold and uncomfortable I was, but then I would remember what TalusMonkey must have been going through. It's kind of hard to complain with that sort of perspective.
When light broke around 6am we picked up all the gear the previous team had left at this point (as far as they made it the night before) and began working our way up the South slopes of Humboldt. The gear significantly slowed us down, but was essential. We carried 600 feet of rope, a SKED stretcher, Spine Splint, and anchor setting equipment in addition to our personal gear and standard rescue gear.
Progress was very slow due to breaking trail through fresh deep wet snow.
We only had 3/4 of a mile to go horizontally, but had over 2,000 vertical feet to go.
The scenery was spectacular as we continued to ascend, but hard to enjoy with the task at hand. At this point we were still search as if he was alive but few of us really believed it to be possible.
It took us nearly 2 hours to gain 1000 feet just to reach treeline. Quite disheartening.
The rest step is a brutal pace to take when all we wanted to do was run up and find him. We did decide though to have the other four in the group take over all of the equipment and one should go on ahead at a faster pace to find him. I was still feeling well so I went on ahead. We had been told that he was at 12,600 feet in one of the two couloirs that were in this area. I got up to 12,700 and hadn't found anything yet. Other teams that had waited to begin their search in the morning as initially planned began to arrive at the trailhead. Then the weather really turned on me at a time I didn't need it. A cloud rolled in and began dropping more snow. Visibility dropped to less than 20 feet. Since I was seperated from my group that had been directing me from below I tried to contact them via radio and found the rocks I was in were blocking my transmissions. I felt completely helpless. I had no idea where to go and couldn't see well enough to really search. For about half an hour I tried searching in the fog and snow but covered almost no ground. I saw a good rock on a ridge between the two couloirs just above me that looked like a good spot to stop and rest for a minute. I sat down and did the only thing I had left to do. I prayed. It was a short simple prayer that I remember well. "God, I can't do it. I can't find him. I need you." Seconds later, my radio came to life telling me to search the Western couloir and seconds later (I swear I'm not making this up) the clouds broke just enough that when I looked up the Western couloir 50 feet above me I could see the purple sleeping bag of TalusMonkey. Immediately I yelled down that I had visual contact. Apparently TalusMonkey heard me because after yelling, a hand raised up out of the sleeping bag and waved. I cannot convey the feelings I had at that moment. I immediately yelled that he was alive. The team radioed that back to base in Westcliffe, but I think they heard my yell. At this point I was well ahead of the rest of my team so I began to try to assess his situation. I'm not sure what sort of trouble I can get into here with HIPAA laws so I will stay fairly vague on any medical descriptions. He had fallen 200 feet through rocky terrain and he looked like it. He had slept all night at 13,000 feet in a blizzard in down sleeping bags that he'd worked himself out of, and he looked like it. When I first got there I introduced my self and then asked if he knew who he was (a standard question to assess level of consciousness). He responded Talus Monkey. Can you imagine what someone unfamiliar with 14ers.com would have thought?! That gave me a pretty good laugh. He then told me that Caroline had gone to get him help. It took a while to explain that I was the help she had gone to get. So I spent the next 40 minutes insulating him better, getting warm liquids into him (he repeatedly said that he really wanted a warm Mountain Dew the "Nectar of the Gods"), and tracking his vitals while the rest of the team brought up all the gear. It's hard to describe the effort it takes to haul 70 to 90 pounds of gear each up a 40 degree slope, with no trail, 16 inches of fresh snow, and do it up to 13,000 feet; but these guys did it. I'm blown away by the effort everyone put in, but Mike and the three guys from El Paso put in a huge effort to make this rescue happen. Thanks guys.
I obviously was busy with David during this time so I don't have many pictures, but one guy did take a few shots for me while we were packaging David for the descent.
The process of packaging David went perfectly.
El Paso was a fantastic team to work alongside. We had to function perfectly as a team, because the slope we were on left no room for error.
David complained a little in the transfer process into the litter but once in was glad to be off the snow and wrapped up and warm.
Our spirits were high with everything going well and David's condition improving.
Once package and all anchors established we prepared for the long descent to the valley floor. A helicopter can only land on a maximum slope of 10 degrees. The end of the avalanche runout in this photo was the nearest possible location.
Once we had David on the line with two attendants he was on his way. He was quite glad to be getting off of the mountain.
We were quite fortunate that the snow in the couloir was absolutely perferct for building solid snow anchors.
600 feet of rope may sound like a lot, but we still had to set up 4 belay stations to get him all the way off the steep slopes.
The weather fluctuated all day long from warm with sunny skies, to cold windy cloudy with snow.
This picture was taken from the spot I found Talus Monkey looking up to the cliff bands and rocks that he fell through.
By this time I had a bit of a break (the first in a long time), and once again paused to notice the beauty of this place.
I now also had time to pause and realise the risks we were all taking. I had seen 4 avalanches occur (not results, actually occur) during the day. As I looked around I noticed far more had occured than what I had seen.
Not long after he had reached the end of the 600 feet from our belay station and been transfered to the next team at a second belay station the Flight for Life helicopter came in.
It was very exciting to see help so close.
I took this shot to show the slope actually was 40 degrees since most people over estimate a slope angle.
The three of us that were left at the top broke down the anchors and began our trek down.
We passed Team 2's belay station, looked like they had a pretty steep grade to work with as well.
There were three cliff bands to deal with on the descent, but the guys on the litter dealt with them well.
This is a broad shot of the entire descent route.
I zoomed in and got a shot of the area we found David. The spot where the tracks all converge is where we found him. The two guys leaving were the guys running the second belay station. After looking at this picture at home I noticed something odd about the top section in the photo.
This is a zoom in of the upper portion of the photo above on a small avalanche that occured above us while we were on this slope. Praise the Lord it didn't go any farther than it did. It would have taken out a lot of people.
Due to a repackaging of David and hooking up O2 mid slope I was down to the helicopter before him.
Not long after I reached the bottom we started to get reports that he was crashing. The litter stopped a couple of times to work on him, but then they made a mad dash to the chopper. I'm amazed the guys with him weren't injured in that run.
At the helicopter the efforts became intense. The tech from the chopper and the EMTs did an amazing amount of work right there. Things looked pretty bleak though.
They did a quick load onto the helicopter and were off minutes after his arrival at the pad.
We were all pretty depressed with the sudden change in David and feared the worst. Mike and I were able to catch a ride with a snowcat out to our vehicle which was a blessing as we were too exhausted to walk any more. We later received the news that David had passed. The 16 inches that had fallen the day before had almost all melted, and a new snow was starting to fall. All of our tracks in the snow were gone and being covered by a fresh layer. Almost symbolic of how something that seems so big and important to us is erased and forgotten by the mountain almost as quickly as it happened.
Click here to see a map with my GPS track to the search area and a waypoint of the location Talus Monkey was found. The blue waypoint was his location. The yellow dot is meaningless.
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