Another Lesson on High Altitude Health and Safety
Wild animals, storms, avalanches, cold, high altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema, falls, fires and injuries are the most common dangers in the mountains. I’ve climbed 19 different mountains in Colorado over 14,000′, and some of them more than once, making for 28 successful ascents. But I called Summit County Search and Rescue Saturday for something I was not expecting: deep wet snow that trapped me less than 2 miles from the trailhead.
It was a bright, warm day — I had even left my hand warmers at home. My plan was to hike from Miners Creek trailhead in Frisco to Gold Hill Trailhead north of Breckenridge which is about a 6- or 7-mile trip one way. I had hiked from both ends in previous weeks and saw the turn-off had snow and no tracks. I attached my snowshoes to my backpack with plans to turn up towards Gold Hill if there were tracks, and there were.
After 4 miles I was out of the forest on top with gorgeous 360˚ views of mountains. I no longer saw the trail markers or tracks so set out across the open space with my snowshoes sinking into the snow every 10 to 20 feet. The trail maps and GPS on my phone were sketchy, only showing I was very near the Colorado Trail. I turned down a logging road to get out of the wind thinking the snow would be packed. I could see several open areas that I thought would take me to the familiar trails to Gold Hill.
After an hour sinking into deep snow I noticed I had only one snowshoe. I backtracked 100 feet following the tracks to find it, dug at several spots where I had sunk the deepest but never found it. I went back towards the Colorado Trail but could not progress, having to dig my boot out of deep snow several times. I tried to backtrack in my footsteps but couldn’t get far. I had now covered a mile in an hour and a half, my phone showing I was only 48 minutes from the Gold Hill trailhead.
So I called 911, thinking they could drive a snowmobile up to get me. Bad news: the vehicle would just sink the same way I was. The 911 operator knew me and the Summit County Search & Rescue mission coordinator Mark Svenson was in touch several times as I waited from 3:17 until about 6 pm when the crew arrived with skis and extra snowshoes. My Blue Heeler Isa and I stayed within one foot of a small pine tree where we found firm footing after rolling through the deep, soft snow. Luckily the sun kept us warm until 5 pm, and I had food and water. My gloves and boots were soaked so my feet were very cold and I tried to keep Isa lying over my legs or feet. I had a plastic rain shield extension that I could pull out and sit on in a pocket of the backpack that one of my students had gifted me.
The rescuers had water, snacks, dry socks, dry gloves, gators and snowshoes. They had packed down the trail but there were still times we post-holed on the way down. We arrived at the rescue vehicle as darkness fell. Special Operations Sheriff SJ Hamit waited with Mark and other SCSR staff to welcome us. One of the rescuers told me how happy he was that I was still smiling when they arrived!
What did I learn? Stay out of deep, wet snow even if it means going back the long way. Bring extra socks and gloves. Buy gators.
I was not afraid because I knew they were coming before dark. I do feel exhilarated that I was able to do such a challenging hike without any pain or blisters, that my knees were strong enough to extract my feet from the deep snow so many times, and that Isa was with me to warn if any animals were near and announce when the rescuers arrived.
Christine Ebert-Santos, MD, MPS is the founding physician and president of Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, Colorado, where she leads high altitude research in addition to running a full-time family practice. Isa is a two-year-old blue heeler and Dr. Chris’s familiar and guardian angel.