The worst storm of the season was on its way. Lightning flickered amid the darkening clouds. Soon, rain and hail would fall hard enough to send mudslides careening down the slopes around the tiny town of Ouray, Colorado. Up in the neighboring mountains, a handful of hikers hustled to descend 14,157-foot Mt. Sneffels ahead of the gathering storm.
Mt. Sneffels is one of the jewels of the San Juan Range. It’s a popular hike, but not for the faint of heart: The summit is guarded by a narrow, V-shaped notch. Getting up or down requires several moves of tricky vertical climbing. It’s a stopping point for plenty of hikers, even in good weather. But now, in the deepening cold, the notch had become coated with verglass—a sheen of thin, transparent ice. One of the climbers slipped, cartwheeling past his hiking partner and falling 40 feet to the rocks below.
The partner scrambled down to check on him–and immediately called for rescue.
It was early in the afternoon when emergency dispatch passed the S.O.S. to the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team (OMRT). “Confirmed fatality,” the message read. “Send help.” The team jumped into action. But just 25 minutes later, they got a second message: “Cancel.” Not sure what to expect, they loaded all the gear they could into rescue vehicles and made a beeline for the trailhead.
By the time they got there, the fallen climber’s partner and a few others had already made it back to the base of the mountain. The hikers were wet, cold, and deeply worried about the man they’d been forced to leave behind; he was still alive, they said, but badly injured. The storm had hit the peak while they waited, and between the flashing lighting, sheeting rain, and the serious risk of hypothermia in sub-20°F temperatures, it hadn’t been safe for them to stay. But now, it wasn’t safe for rescuers to go up, either.
Stormy weather—including deadly lightning and two inches of hail—plagued the San Juan Mountains all night. Photo courtesy of Ouray Mountain Rescue.
OMRT volunteers thanked the hikers, and made sure the victim’s partner got the proper care. Then, they waited, pinned to their vehicles by sky-splitting forks of lightning–but poised to shoot up the mountain the minute they got a weather window. After a few hours, the situation started to look grim.
At this point, Grant Kleeves—a longtime OMRT volunteer and an accomplished mountaineer himself—knew the patient was in bad shape and probably had a serious head injury. His hiking partner had told the rescuers that when she’d left him, he was unresponsive. Now the man had been laying up there in the rocks, drenched and freezing, for at least six hours. His odds weren’t good.
Ultimately the storm cell sputtered out. The rescuers knew there were more cells on the way, but forecasts said the bulk of the lighting had passed. That’s all the cue they needed.
Grant, OMRT Lieutenant Patrick Brighton, and two other rescuers jumped out of the vehicles and into the rain. Grant grabbed his first aid gear but he was pretty confident he wouldn’t be using it. His job, he imagined, would be to hike up, confirm the fatality, and hike down to plan the body recovery.
Steep scree and icy conditions make rescues on Mt. Sneffels complicated—and dangerous. Photo courtesy of Ouray Mountain Rescue.
But when the rescuers finished climbing the talus field beneath the summit and made their way to the narrow bench where the patient lay, they didn’t find what they expected.
The patient had entered the late stages of hypothermia. When that happens, the body sends out a final burst of heat as a last-ditch effort to save itself from the cold. Though he was literally freezing to death, the patient had shrugged out of his jacket and started to remove his shirt. It’s a phenomenon rescuers call “paradoxical undressing.”
Grant was one of the first rescuers to reach the patient. He called out to the man on the ground—and saw his eyelids flicker. Shocked, Grant turned around.
“Get on the radio—he’s still alive!”
At that moment, everything changed. The rescuers ran over and started assessing the patient, wrapping him in sleeping bags and giving him oxygen. They soon found he’d fractured his skull—and that there was no way he could be safely carried down the mountain without doing further damage.
Patrick listened to the man’s breathing. It was erratic, sometimes stopping altogether for seconds at a time. It wasn’t a good sign. He radioed down to basecamp:
“We don’t think he’s going to survive the night.”
Back on the ground, OMRT Captain Ruth Stewart had called up everyone she could think of to request helicopter support. The operators were quick to respond, all with the same answer: Flying in these conditions, Ruth was told, wouldn’t be possible. By now the storm was slowing down, but it was pitch-black and there was still more weather coming. Ruth would keep putting in requests throughout the night, but in the meantime, Patrick’s team would have to stay put.
So, the four volunteers on the mountain unpacked the one sleeping bag they had between them, and huddled against the rock. It was going to be a long night.
Shortly after they’d settled in, the patient took another turn. His muscles had begun to warm up. As he became more alert, he grew combative. He started rolling, clawing at his oxygen, and trying to walk off the narrow platform.
The rescuers leapt to their feet, talking to the man and trying to calm him, but nothing worked. He was disoriented from his head injury, delirious—and still unresponsive. So they grabbed the patient, dodging flailing limbs, and held him down. Ultimately, they had to clip him to an anchor they’d built in the rock, effectively tying him to the mountain.
Volunteers Patrick Brighton, Grant Kleeves, Jeff Skoloda, Xander Bianci, and Tim Pasek took turns huddling around the patient to keep him warm. Photo courtesy of Ouray Mountain Rescue.
Still, for the first four hours of the night, it was a full-on wrestling match. The rescuers took turns sitting with their legs draped over the patient, both to keep him warm and to keep him from throwing himself off the ledge. Grant wasn’t sure which was worse—the grappling, or the times when the man would pass out into sleep. Each time, the rescuers feared they were losing him.
“You still with us?” Grant would ask. There was never a response. So Grant or Patrick, a professional surgeon, would check the man’s pulse, reassured by the beating of his heart.
Around midnight, the patient fell into a deeper sleep. His condition seemed to be stabilizing, but the rescuers were still worried. They had Patrick’s expertise and were in radio contact with doctors at the local hospital, but there on the side of the mountain, there was only so much they could do. The only option was to keep him warm, and wait.
Meanwhile, below Mt. Sneffels, the rain and hail had swelled a mass of mud into a landslide. Tons of rock and debris surged down the slope, taking out the road. At the time, Patrick’s team was waiting on a resupply from mission command, and the landslide effectively cut them off from medicine the patient desperately needed. Without that resupply, they could lose him.
Tensions were high as Ruth and the other OMRT volunteers put their heads together. But just as they were discussing options, a local miner named Bumper Williams called.
Ouray is a small town, and Bumper had heard about the ongoing rescue. So, he volunteered to take a bulldozer from the mine and cleared the road himself. He moved quickly, shoveling debris in the darkness and the rain. Within minutes, the operation was back on track.
Rescuers watch a long-awaited dawn from near the summit of Mt. Sneffels. Photo courtesy of Ouray Mountain Rescue.
Up on the mountain, with his medications and oxygen finally topped off, the patient’s breathing started to even out. The rescuers switched out heat packs constantly, working through exhaustion to keep him warm. Then, around 4:00 AM, as just a hint of light peered above the horizon, Grant heard mumbling. He turned.
“Why are you sitting on me?” the patient asked. The rescuers exchanged glances, all thinking the same thing: Did he just talk?
“I’m going to go to the bathroom,” the patient muttered. “Let me stand up.”
“Hold on,” Grant asked. “Do you know where you are?”
“Yeah, I’m on Mt. Sneffels somewhere,” he said. The rescuers exchanged another glance, not yet daring to hope.
“Do you remember falling?”
“No. I was hiking, and now you’re sitting on me.” Grant couldn’t help but smile.
In every rescue, the volunteers and professionals involved do everything they can to stabilize a patient—all amid conditions that are about as far from a hospital operating room as you can get. It’s thankless work. Even with the best care possible, some patients are too far gone to be saved.
But this time, looking down at the man they’d had to fight with all night, Grant felt a wave of gratitude. Against all the odds—the lightning, the weather, the long wait, the landslide—they might still be able to save him.
A National Guard helicopter arrived just after dawn. Photo courtesy of Ouray Mountain Rescue.
At some point in the night, another resupply crew showed up with oxygen for the patient and pizza for the rescuers. Around dawn, not long before a helicopter would finally arrive, Tim, another volunteer, made a particularly horrific batch of cowboy coffee—providing some much-needed levity.
“So we were sitting around eating mashed pizza and the world’s worst coffee,” Grant laughs. But with such a tight-knit crew and hope on the horizon, there’s nowhere else he would have rather been. A few hours later, just as the sun peeked over the saddle, the patient was airlifted to safety.
“It couldn’t have happened without everyone who was there that night,” Patrick says. “Ruth is an amazing captain. She excels at everything she does. And everyone else—these are all volunteers. The dedication and talent they have just blows me away. It makes me cry sometimes. Really, it does.”