CONEJOS COUNTY — Earlier this week, the Conejos County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) in partnership with Flight for Life completed three search and rescue missions within a 24-hour period, all in the same general area and two of which were separate events that happened within just minutes of each other.
On Tuesday, June 8, CCSO received an emergency call for help via an InReach GPS Responder from two people stranded on a cliff in a snowfield near Gunsight Pass in the San Juan Wilderness area, approximately seven miles west of the town of Platoro.
Sheriff Garth Crowther and CCSO personnel responded along with a Flight for Life helicopter team out of Durango.
Crowther, CCSO deputies and the helicopter team were able to successfully reach the stranded hikers and assist them to safety. Undeterred, the two hikers continued on their trek.
The next day, CCSO received another emergency call for help from the same area near Gunsight Pass. A husband and wife from the Los Angeles area had been attempting to descend a very steep avalanche chute when a rock broke loose and rolled down the mountainside, striking the woman in the left leg and rendering her unable to walk.
Again, CCSO personnel and Flight for Life from Durango responded to the call and were airlifted into the area. Once on the ground, they climbed up the avalanche chute to the injured woman where flight nurses attended to her injuries.
As the flight nurses were attending to the woman, another hiker – unrelated to the couple from Los Angeles – fell in the snow-covered chute and tumbled several hundred feet down the mountainside.
The nurses stabilized the woman and then, along with responders, immediately hiked to the fallen man who had come to rest in a small patch of shrubs.
According to a statement from CCSO, “The male victim was stabilized, carried off the mountain by responders and loaded in the first Flight for Life Helicopter. A second Flight for Life helicopter was dispatched out of Pueblo for the injured female. Both of the injured hikers were taken to Pagosa Springs for further medical attention.”
The rescued hikers were trekking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), a trail that starts in New Mexico at the U.S. border with Chihuahua, Mexico and covers 3,100 miles through five states, ending in Montana at the Canadian border. Listed as one of the three trails that make up the “Triple Crown” – those that are the longest and most challenging – the CDT is only completed by 100-200 hikers a year, despite being started by many more times that number.
The CDT takes about 150 days to complete (hiking an average of 24 miles a day), gains and loses a total of about 457,000 feet in elevation, is pretty much guaranteed to eat through four or five pairs of shoes over the course of the journey and takes hikers through extraordinary, remote and occasionally frightening terrain.
And if that’s not enough information, there’s a collection of websites to fill in the gaps, featuring stories such as “The Heartbreak and Horror of the Continental Divide Trail”, videos like “Just how dangerous is the Continental Divide Trail?” or blogs listing the “Top five things that scared the s*** out of me while hiking the CDT”.
Interesting to note, comments from those who have finished the trek frequently mention the “San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado” as a beautiful part of the trail with stretches that require hikers to be “crazy brave.”
None of this comes as a surprise to Sheriff Crowther whose office gets numerous emergency calls each year for lost, injured and sick hikers attempting the CDT. Between “peak season in the spring and summer months” and “calls to rescue snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers in the winter,” CCSO responded to 40 calls last year alone.
“Some of the rescues are very complex,” Crowther says, “and then some are people just making a wrong turn who need help finding where to go.”
CCSO is responsible for all search and rescue calls in Conejos County, which, in addition to the regular duties of law enforcement in a rural area, makes the office a very busy place. Luckily, they’re helped by a team of volunteers, but Crowther’s first choice is to cover the call with deputies. “If it’s too big, then we reach out to the volunteers. But we hate to take them away from making their living, so if we can cover it, we do.”
Teaming up with Flight for Life was Crowther’s idea, implemented after being elected sheriff in 2018, and he describes the crews out of Durango and Pueblo as an “invaluable, professional and irreplaceable asset to the sheriff’s office.”
Looking to expand those assets, Crowther is also meeting with Reach in Alamosa to hopefully work with them, as well.
As far as this past week is concerned, Crowther expresses his gratitude to the Flight for Life Crews out of Durango and Pueblo “for their professional response and assistance in these emergencies.”
As far as his experiences this week are concerned, Crowther says what one would expect of a man willing to get out of a helicopter and climb down a snow-covered avalanche chute to help a hiker who literally fell into some trouble. “It makes you feel good when you can help people in their time of need.”
The Conejos County Sheriff Office is seeking donations to buy a snowcat to use in the winter. Anyone interested in contributing should contact the sheriff’s office at (719) 376-2196.