Travis’ Mountaineering Accident On Mt. Sneffles Part 1

Filed Under: Travel

Travis was involved in a serious mountaineering accident back in September.  Although not particularly travel related, it’s a chilling and captivating story of an adventure gone wrong.  I was captivated when he told me the story, and invited him to share it here.  He’s posting it in two parts with Part 2 scheduled for tomorrow. 

“I’m breathing. I can move my hands. I can wiggle my toes. Oh $hit, that leg is definitely not pointing in the right direction. How am I going to get off this mountain?”

Those were my first thoughts as I came to rest face down on a steep rocky slope at 13,900 feet on the side of Mt. Sneffels. I had just tumbled about 30 feet after having misstepped on a rock. My climbing partner and I had been within sight of the summit, but that was of little consequence now. All that mattered was that I was alive but unable to move under my own power.

Mt. Sneffels Summit
Mt. Sneffels Summit

Depending on who is doing the counting, Colorado has between 54 and 58 peaks above 14,000 feet, more than any other state, and collectively they are known as the Colorado 14ers. They range in difficulty from easy walk-ups to challenging scrambles with significant exposure, but none of them are ‘technical’ by their easiest routes, meaning that ropes are not required. Many have undertaken the quest to summit them all.

I don’t think I ever actually set out to climb the 14ers. It just sort of happened. You do one, have some fun, do another, and then suddenly wake up one day and think ‘wow, maybe I should do them all.’

Planned or otherwise, my quest began in the summer of 2000 when my buddy Terry and I first climbed Mt. Elbert. Despite it being the highest of the Colorado 14ers, it’s also one of the easiest – it’s not uncommon to hike the 4 miles and 4000 feet of vertical to the top on a summer weekend only to share the summit with 100 or so others. I’m not sure how we picked Elbert, but I guess every quest has to start somewhere, so why not start at the top? By the end of that first summer, Terry and I had checked off many of the easiest 14ers.

The next summer was much of the same. But now one of my childhood friends, Steve, had moved to Colorado and was getting into the sport. As our skills improved, we began tackling harder and harder 14ers. Work all week, climb mountains all weekend was pretty much our mantra.   By the end of that second summer, my quest was nearly halfway complete.

And then my progress slowed. I went to graduate school. I got a real job. Summers of climbing every weekend were replaced with the occasional summer climbing trip. Then I met my future wife and, for a while, my climbing actually increased as she loved the mountains as much as I did. We focused on bagging 13ers so we could do peaks that were new to both of us. But we also discovered that we loved to travel, and for the next several years that became our focus – mountains were secondary. Not to mention, Steve, Terry, and I also found ourselves with growing young families to attend to.

With three new 14ers in the past seven years, my quest had crawled to a snail’s pace. Then this summer, Steve had suggested we head to the hills like the good ol’ days. We mapped out an aggressive schedule that would give us a chance to summit four 14ers in four days if the weather and our luck cooperated. And if it didn’t, we figured we could scale back as necessary.

Steve quickly scrambled down to where I lay. He was concerned about a neck or spine injury, but fortunately that didn’t seem to be the case. I pointed to my awkwardly positioned leg – no explanation required – and we discussed the possibilities: re-blown ACL, dislocated hip, or broken leg. Steve commented that it takes a lot of force such as a car accident to break a femur. Somewhat to my surprise, I wasn’t in excruciating pain. I’m not saying everything felt fine, but it was manageable.

Since evening was coming and I obviously wasn’t going anywhere, Steve helped me into my Windstopper fleece, puffy summit jacket, gloves and two hats underneath my climbing helmet to stay warm.  He then unfurled his emergency blanket over me which was surprisingly effective. I popped two acetometephen and three Ibuprofen from my basic medical kit. Although I didn’t really expect them to help much, I figured they couldn’t hurt.

With my condition seemingly stable including my position on the slope, the next order of business was to figure out how we were going to get help. We each had fully-charged iPhones, but no signal. Steve would have to go for help. If we were lucky, he would be able to get a call out from the summit above us, but if that failed, he would have to descend 1500’ to the trailhead and then drive out to Ouray on the 4×4 road to get help. That would not be a fast process.

Yankee Boy Basin
Yankee Boy Basin

Prior to leaving, Steve positioned my pack containing food, water, whistle and everything else within reach. I started my stopwatch to keep track of time. Not knowing how this was going to play out, and fearing I could go into shock or lose consciousness at some point, I scribbled a note to my wife on the back of our route description.   And then there was not much left to do but wait.

About 45 minutes or so later, I heard Steve holler that he was on his way back. His 911 call had been successful!   Hallelujah. He had been connected with the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team (OMRT), a volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR) organization.  They had taken a report of the situation including our GPS coordinates and then had instructed Steve to go back and stay with me while they mustered a rescue party and started up the mountain. Things were looking up. There was hope. I now had a singular focus – hang on until SAR arrived.  And Steve would be there with me to help me through it.

It was now closing in on 7 PM and the late summer sun was starting to set. The weather had been fantastic, which was really what had allowed us to start the climb so late in the day in the first place. There wasn’t much for us to do but settle in and watch the alpenglow light up the neighboring ridge lines. It was beautiful.

In the fading dusk we heard the sound of a helicopter. It circled around the basin a few times shining its searchlight in all the wrong places.  But then they flew over in our direction, lit us up, and then flew off. Another milestone had been met – SAR now had a visual on our position.

We really had no idea how long it would take SAR to reach us. We had made it to this point in just over two hours, so we held out hope that they could be at least as fast as we were. The sun set. The moon rose.   We could see all the way down to the trailhead in Yankee Boy basin, 1,500 vertical feet below us. Eventually we saw the headlights of vehicles at the trailhead. It appeared that SAR was assembling. Meanwhile, all Steve and I could do was wait.

It certainly wasn’t a leisurely sit and wait for either of us. The slope upon which I had come to rest was steep, perhaps 35 degrees, and loose. Every rock, every pebble, every grain of sand seemed to want to roll all the way to the bottom at any moment. Even the slightest shift of position would cause me to slide just a bit further down the mountain. To anchor me in place, Steve fashioned himself into a post for me to rest against. Fortunately for me, he’s been doing CrossFit – sorry, I mean working out at a CrossFit gym — and had recently added 15 lbs. of muscle to his 125 lb. frame. It seemed to take every ounce he had to keep my 175 lbs. from wanting to slide down the slope just like everything else.  Little did he know he was going to need to hold that position for the next six hours.  Steve was my first guardian angel. 

The stars were amazing, including the Milky Way. Then came the most impressive shooting stars I’ve ever seen. Some would seem to have a little twirl as they flamed out. I would make the same wish on every one of them and would remind Steve to not tell me what he was wishing for because then it wouldn’t come true.

We both have families, and we talked some about our kids to pass the time. At one point, I told Steve that I wanted a million dollar book deal just like that guy who was trapped by a boulder in Canyonlands for a week.  Steve told me that I’d probably have to cut my leg off for that to happen….

I also kept telling Steve that he was “a rock star” and “a machine” to keep him strong. I asked him once if any of that helped and his response was classic Steve: “Whatever you say isn’t really going to change anything for me. I pretty much know what I need to do.”

We could occasionally see headlamps making their way up the mountain. At times this was a huge morale boost as we knew they were coming and we just needed to keep holding on. But it was also discouraging because, perhaps illusory, they didn’t seem to make much progress.

Twice I recorded an iPhone video for my wife, mostly telling her how I was doing, and how much I loved her. I remember telling her that I wasn’t in that much pain, and then saying “oh let’s not kid ourselves, it hurts like a mo-fo.”  Just talking to her made me feel better even if she couldn’t answer.

“We’re coming.”  

Those were the first words we heard from the OMRT SAR party and they almost made me cry for joy. We looked up and saw the light from headlamps dancing on the slope above us. Just as we had been doing all evening, we flashed our headlamps around and blew our whistles to help guide them to us.

The advance SAR guy reached us first and explained that he was alone but that the paramedic and the bigger group was close behind. Sure enough, Ruth the paramedic arrived and began going through her checklists to assess my condition. More importantly, she informed me that she had the good stuff in her pack – Morphine. It was now about half past 11, six hours since the accident. I had made it through the next gate — SAR arrived.

Although I was conscience and lucid the entire time, I don’t particularly remember much about the next few hours, possibly because I was now happily drugged. Steve would later write about how “God’s army of angels descended upon us”, referring to the entire 10+ person SAR crew that eventually converged on the scene. While Ruth remained by my side, most of them set to work building anchors and rigging ropes so that they could get me onto a stable litter attached to the mountain. As Ruth said, ‘it’s going to feel like the Marriott compared to what you’ve been through.’ (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I’m a Hyatt Diamond, and that Marriott has a crappy loyalty program.)

At some point in the wee hours of the morning, the SAR crew determined that they weren’t going to get me down the mountain that night. With me now resting comfortably on the anchored litter, they decided that there wasn’t much more they could do at the moment and that they should retreat and regroup in the morning. Ruth and two former SAR team captains would stay the night with me on the side of the mountain, while the rest of the crew and Steve would retreat down the mountain. It was unclear what the next day would hold – OMRT had been in contact with the Colorado Army National Guard about getting a helicopter evacuation—the helicopter that had been used to spot us wasn’t capable of getting me out– but there was also the possibility that they would need to perform a manual extraction.  I was praying for the former. So was OMRT.

Although I was nervous about falling asleep, Ruth told me I should try to get some rest. Thanks to my fleece and summit jacket, I had stayed sufficiently warm in my core the entire time with only my fingers and toes feeling cold. Once I was safely resting on the anchored litter, SAR unfurled a chemical heating blanket over me and put heating pads on my feet. By now it was about 2 AM and the SAR team was no doubt getting tired. Ruth clipped in to the same ropes that were anchoring me in place and tried to get comfortable on the rocks next to me, never straying more than a few feet from my side. She became my second guardian angel.

Reports the next morning were that I actually snored a bit throughout the night. It might not have been my Westin bed, but the litter felt heavenly. The SAR crew was excited to see the sun and was wishing for some coffee. I was happy to have cleared the next hurdle: surviving the night.

But I still had no idea how I was going to get off the mountain…..

Continued in part 2:   “Travis’ Accident Part 2:  Flight in the Black Hawk”

  1. What a story!

    There are other, driveable summits in CO…Mt Evans made for a fun drive from Denver one day 14 years ago! Some of us like the easy way to bag a 14er!

  2. Glad you’re okay, Travis! I’m a big OMAAT fan, and I actually live in Ridgway. I remember hearing about this rescue back when it happened!

  3. Oh wow. This was seriously heart pounding! I’m so glad you lived to tell the tale. I am looking forward to the next installment!

  4. Travis – simply glad to hear you’re okay. It’s always amazing what you’re mind thinks of when in trauma situations. You’re comment on the Hyatt Diamond status was priceless. But, I would have told her anyway along the lines of: “Well, I prefer Hyatts, but get your point.”

    Glad to hear you’re okay, but imagine your wife is far happier.

  5. He actually did say the thing about Hyatt out loud. I don’t blame him, he was pretty hopped up on drugs by that point. 🙂

  6. Denise — Great point about using a DSU. Which reminds me, I have a couple left for this year!

    Tim: Nope, part II is coming tomorrow!

    Thanks everyone for the support!

  7. I know it’s “off topic” for OMAAT, but this is pure gold. Great writing. Can’t wait to read the rest tomorrow.

  8. @whatthe: Well, technically I would file this under travel. Unless you’ve encountered 14,000 foot mountains in your backyard?

  9. Glad you are ok. I was climbing Mt. Sneffels that next morning and saw the Heli pick you up. I have been wondering what happened. We saw the SAR people climbing up to get their things that morning. They are a great bunch of people. It was amazing watching them run up that mountain and make it look so easy. I have to say Mt. Sneffels is a tough one. I am so glad Ouray has such a skilled group to help people that have misfortune.

  10. Priscilla — wow, it’s a small world. If you have any pics from that day that you wouldn’t mind sharing, I’d love to have them. Thanks!

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