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Rescue from below: Part 2 in a 3-part search-and-rescue series

By 2nd Lt. Cheresa D. Clark | Colorado National Guard | Nov. 30, 2015

Gypsum, Colorado —

GYPSUM, Colo. – The climb started like many others for Jennifer Tatnall Staufer and her climbing partner, Adam Vonnahme, July 11.

Their ascent of Crestone Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range in southern Colorado, her forty-first 14er, required use of ice axes and microspikes to navigate late-season snow and ice.

"We found challenging conditions on the ascent to Broken Hand Pass and again in the Red Gully standard route, as both were still holding quite a bit of late-season snow," Tatnall Staufer explained.

After a successful summit of the peak near noon, the pair started down the gully, deciding to descend via class 4 rock on climbers' left instead of the snow, as the snow conditions were quickly deteriorating in the afternoon sun.

"Despite mostly sticking to the rock, there was one short snowfield we still needed to cross," Tatnall Staufer said. "There was a set of footprints through the snow, though old, that we were trying to follow. On initial crossing the snow was soft and easily gave way for us to walk across."

However, about two-thirds of the way across their path, the snow was covered with a coating of frozen water, and the old footprints were solidly iced over.

"I was using my ice axe and foot to kick steps for us to walk in when I slipped and fell," Tatnall Staufer said.

Immediately out of control, she attempted to self-arrest several times as she bounced down the snow- and ice-littered rock. Eventually, she maneuvered her feet downward and came to an abrupt stop when she caught a rock with her right foot.

Her rapid, 150-foot descent ended with her lying, helmeted head first, in a waterfall created by the melting snow.

At first, Tatnall Staufer said she wasn't afraid, but in shock.

"I spent the first couple of minutes trying to assess my situation and pull myself from the waterfall without luck," she said. "I realized I would have to wait for my climbing partner to pull me from the water because of the injuries I sustained."

The team was prepared with an emergency GPS tracking device, and Vonnahme pushed the SOS button to alert authorities of the emergency. He also had limited cell service, and called 911 to directly alert the Saguache County Sheriff's Office.

The longest wait

"Once he got to me and pulled me out and we knew rescue was on the way, that's when it start to set in," Tatnall Staufer said. "The longer we were out there awaiting rescue, the more the reality sets in. You have a lot of time to think, a lot of time to recall your mistakes, to think about the folks at home and the possibility of not coming home. … Not being able to help yourself creates some fear of its own."

As they waited, breathing at 13,000 feet became more challenging for Tatnall Staufer. Not only was she unable to move, but during her fall, she'd suffered a collapsed lung.

"I was scared of falling asleep," Tatnall Staufer said. "I was most afraid of sending my climbing partner home alone and of what he'd have to face if I didn't make it out of there OK. I was also afraid of putting the lives of others on the line to save mine, as I knew the area I was in was dangerous and not ideal for a rescue. I was worried for my husband, who knew I was 10 weeks pregnant, and what would happen to him if I didn't come home."

Because of her elevation and location on the mountain, and the severity of her injuries, which also included broken ribs, a fractured patella, shattered right foot and hypothermia, it was deemed too risky for a ground search-and-rescue team to attempt to carry her off the mountain. Instead, at 6:01 p.m., Talon 39, a Black Hawk helicopter and crew of four Soldiers from the High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS) in Gypsum, Colorado, was called to duty for its second mission that day.

After refueling at Alamosa Airport following the rescue of two women near Blanca Peak in Huerfano County less than two hours prior, the Guardsmen picked up volunteer SAR team members at Silver West Airfield near Westcliffe, and made their way toward Crestone Peak.

"Sitting out there on the mountain for hours awaiting rescue, knowing a helicopter is on the way, you actually start to hear it in your head – confusing the sounds of the rushing water next to you with that of what could be a helicopter," Tatnall Staufer said. "You scan for it and are constantly looking for it. …"

It was late afternoon when Talon 39 dropped off the first two SAR teams, Custer County Search & Rescue and Saguache County Search & Rescue, about 1,000 meters below Tatnall Staufer and Vonnahme, said Colorado Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4 David Gates, one of the two Black Hawk pilots.

"The survivors were on the leeward side of the mountain, in a steep drainage on an island of sorts made of one large rock and running water on both sides from the melting snowpack above," said Army National Guard Lt. Col. Tony Somogyi, HAATS commander. "There was no place to land near the injured party, so the team was inserted as close as possible to them and would have to traverse the couloir to make contact."

The mission of these civilian volunteers: make their way up that thousand meters – 500 of them being 30- to 65-degree rocky snow-and ice-covered mountainside – begin medical treatment, and package Tatnall Staufer to be hoisted off the mountain via helicopter.

A waning crescent moon a canopy of stars began their show in a darkening sky when they reached Tatnall Staufer and Vonnahme.

In the meantime, the HAATS crew departed to pick up members of the Western Mountain Rescue Team, with whom the aviators trained for hoist operations earlier in the year, at Poncha Springs Airfield.

"HAATS and Lt. Col. Somogyi put a good deal of time and money into the hoist training and developing procedures, and as a result we were prepared, and communicated well with the aircrew," said Chris Mackie, Western Mountain Rescue Team leader.

Decision point

"Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, like so many mountains in the Aspen area, are nasty places to work and one of the few places that make me cringe when we have to send aircrews there," Somogyi said. "The Black Hawk is a powerful machine, but at 14,000 feet, even it has limits."

When the aircraft and rescuers returned to the mountain, they spent 30 minutes trying to find a good spot to perform a hoist operation, but on the leeward side of the mountain, the downdraft and turbulence were so strong, that maintaining a stabilized hover was impossible, Gates said.

"Hanging on the hoist in the door of the Black Hawk while they tried to hover in the downdrafts was the most intense moment – very long moment – of my SAR career," Mackie said.

Ultimately, the turbulence proved too strong for the aircraft and rescuers to safely perform a hoist operation.

The next-best option, a one-wheel landing, was also impossible, because in such turbulence, it wouldn't be stable enough to load the survivor over the rugged terrain.

Two wheels would be marginally better, but there wasn't a place for it to be executed, Somogyi said.

"The safety of the survivors and SAR teams had to be balanced along with the capabilities of the aircraft and crew," Somogyi said. "… It was also one of the hardest decisions for both the ground teams and the survivor to hear."

"With winds too high to safely use a hoist, no suitable landing zone nearby, and fuel running low, we dropped the Western State team off about 1,000 meters below the survivors, then returned to Alamosa Airport for refueling and further coordination with our command," Gates said.

Just 30 minutes later, SAR team members reached Tatnall Staufer atop the massive rock, began medical treatment, and prepared her for transport back down the mountain – that is, belayed 1,500 vertical feet down, at night, without illumination, to a landing zone big enough for the helicopter to get all three wheels on the ground.

While the SAR teams worked arduously on the mountain, Talon 39 flew to Alamosa for fuel and planned on returning at 1 a.m. for a status check and possible pick up.

"The decision became complicated because there was a serious concern as whether the survivor would make it through the night given limited medical support by the SAR teams," Somogyi said. "This was a tough decision to make given the circumstances, but the right call from a safety standpoint."

6 hours later

With moonlight and stars to guide their way back to the patient, who by now had been stabilized, moved off the rugged mountain, and was ready for transport, the crew of Talon 39 maneuvered their way back through the darkness painted inky green by night-vision goggles.

"Relief, hope, elation, thankfulness might be the best words," Tatnall Staufer said as she described the seeing her rescuers arrive. "It's a mix of all kinds of emotions really. I had read about and studied up on enough of these types of rescues to know that once helps arrives, it still can be a long time until your actual rescue, but just seeing the helicopter come in, and the search-and-rescue folks being dropped off and starting up the gully – there is no more greater feeling of hope, just knowing people are coming to help you."

And by help, she means being lowered 1,500 feet down a sometimes-vertical rock face by people she'd never met until that day.

"There were volunteers introducing themselves for the first time and then working hand-in-hand to rappel my litter down steep rock, snow and ice to get me to a safe spot where the helicopter could pick me up," Tatnall Staufer said.

At 1 a.m. July 12, Tatnall Staufer was lifted onto the Colorado National Guard Black Hawk, while Vonnahme, and two SAR team members also boarded aircraft. All were transported to a soccer field in the town of Crestone, where an air ambulance was waiting to take Tatnall Staufer to a local medical facility.

"While I was being rescued I got to listen in and hear all the radio communications between the search-and-rescue folks and the crew of Talon 39, and it's just amazing how all these different agencies (three SAR agencies and the Colorado National Guard in coordination with EagleMed Salida) came together to save me."

"As an avid lover of Colorado's outdoors, I've always been amazed at the folks who pull off these rescues," Tatnall Staufer said. "However, you don't really understand the magnitude of what they do until you've lived it firsthand. The cooperation between the various search-and-rescue units and the National Guard was amazing to witness."

Now 31 weeks pregnant with her son, her foot has healed and she's back to doing the normal things like walking and driving – everyday affairs that might not have been possible without her mountaineering skills, experience and preparations – along with those of her rescuers.

"Grateful and blessed," is how Tatnall Staufer describes her feelings now. "It's amazing to think that there are folks out there who will so selflessly put themselves out there and put their lives at risk to save yours. … I'm incredibly lucky not to have sustained worse injuries and to have been able to be rescued in such an efficient manner. I can't thank my first responder and climbing partner, Adam, the crew of Talon 39, Custer County Search and Rescue, Western Mountain Rescue Team, and Saguache County enough."

This story is Part 2 in a 3-part series.