What Happens When You Need a Rescue During a Pandemic
A harrowing backcountry rescue at 11,000 feet exposes the precarious situation first responders are in thanks to the coronavirus pandemic
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On Tuesday, March 24, Sonja and Bill Allen’s home radio crackles to life at 1:10 p.m. There is no cell service in Ophir, Colorado, an 1880s mining town 20 minutes south of Telluride encircled by 13,000-foot peaks. But its 180 residents and virtually all the skiers who seek out the world-class backcountry above town know about the two-way radio frequency that fills the void. Many locals keep their radios tuned to the “Ophir channel” when they’re at home, if only to monitor the chatter among fellow powder seekers.
The Allens listen as someone skiing in East Waterfall Canyon reports an avalanche with a critically injured victim. The situation sounds dire: potentially two broken femurs and a fractured pelvis.
Sonja, a longtime guide and avalanche forecaster for Telluride Helitrax, alerts Dan Hehir two houses away. Hehir, 49, is the chief of medical staff at the Telluride Regional Medical Center and an emergency physician. He has just finished eating lunch with his wife, a teacher, and children, who are out of school due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has been a stressful three weeks for Hehir, treating sick patients in full protective gear and worrying about the virus spreading. His hospital has already recorded one positive case of COVID-19; other tests are waiting to be returned.
But today is his day off—a family day. He skied this morning above town, as did Bill Allen, an Everest guide and the owner of the international outfitter Mountain Trip. Heeding the call for help, both men gear up again and prepare to respond. Hehir assembles a first-aid kit based on the preliminary details relayed to him by Sonja, while Allen straps a foldable sled to his back. Along with Dylan Sloan, another Ophir resident and standout backcountry skier, they begin the 45-minute climb to the accident site.
Around the same time, Todd Rector, a search-and-rescue specialist with the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, receives a call from his dispatch center alerting him of the accident. He gets in touch with the reporting party and asks if the victim can get out on their own. No chance, he is told. Rector promptly sends out a call to nearly 60 volunteer SAR members, requesting a full response. They are to stage in Ophir and proceed into the field from there.
The accident is exactly what everyone has feared since the coronavirus pandemic began. Local, state, and provincial governments across North America have warned backcountry recreationists to rein in their risk and not burden the already stressed healthcare system or put first responders in danger of infection by requiring a rescue. It is no secret that thousands in Colorado have been flaunting those warnings, including plenty of skiers and snowboarders in the San Juan Range. But no one has exposed the fragile system, until now.
High above the canyon floor, a local man in his thirties has come to rest halfway down a run called Sugar Shack, a steep, northwest-facing chute through sparse trees where avalanches have buried people before and which requires about a 90-minute climb from Ophir. He and a friend were taking their second run of the day in perfect spring powder when a slab about two feet deep and 150 feet wide broke off at 11,500 feet, carrying him like a twig in whitewater. He struck multiple trees, suffering severe physical trauma. The force ripped his bindings out of his snowboard, leaving them strapped to his feet as pain coursed through him like an electric current. Luckily he is not buried, so his partner, 45-year-old Ophir resident Nathan Schroepfer, who’d watched the slide start less than a foot below his snowboard, descends and finds him relatively quickly.
Two other groups in the immediate vicinity—a trio that witnessed the slide and a pair that had just finished skiing a similar run—start to respond. They include a local mountain guide as well as an EMT. The guide checks for hang fire next to the gaping avalanche crown, while another skier posts up at the top of the run to make sure no one else descends on top of the responding party. The other four team up with Schroepfer to begin the complicated rescue.
One of those four, a local who spoke on condition of anonymity and who we’ll call Jamie, briefly thinks about COVID-19, which, by the 24th of March has killed some 20,000 people worldwide and caused everyone to stay two yards apart during their recent adventures. San Miguel County, home to five small towns including Telluride and Ophir, had made national headlines just days earlier for committing to test every one of its 8,000 residents in an attempt to isolate the virus and prevent it from spreading through their remote community.
Jamie has a few pairs of rubber gloves in a first-aid kit, but not enough for everyone and too little time to deploy them. No one mentions the virus as they package the victim and begin sliding him downhill on a space blanket and jacket, one foot at a time over rugged, 35-degree avalanche debris, toward a bench 300 feet below. “I figured if he had the virus, we’d get it any other number of ways anyway,” Jamie says of the decision to proceed without rubber gloves.
It has been a touchy time in the backcountry around Telluride. The Sugar Shack slide was one of seven human-triggered avalanches in eight days to catch a skier or snowboarder, the spookiest stretch in decades.
“The area’s had full burials, people getting banged up, lost gear, people having to run for their lives from an avalanche coming down at them,” says Matt Steen, a local forecaster and Helitrax’s snow-safety director. Four days prior to Tuesday’s accident—which occurred at a time of “moderate” danger, or level 2 on a scale of 1 to 5—someone triggered a deep slab more than a football field wide in a dangerous path called Magnolia. Word spread through the valley each time a local narrowly escaped. Yet with many people newly unemployed as the economy grinds to a halt and two feet of fresh powder sitting idle after a dry winter, dozens convened atop peaks and chutes to take advantage. “Half the town of Telluride and half the town of Ophir was out skiing those hills the day of the accident,” Jamie told me.
The victim’s line choice will attract scrutiny due to the consequences, but Steen says it was hardly egregious. “As we all know, this is not the time to be charging, but these guys weren’t getting rad,” Steen says. Helitrax director Joe Shults, however, stopped short of calling it conservative. “It’s a notorious area,” he says. “I’ve lived in Ophir for 30 years and I’ve never even skied that run. It facets and gets a lot of wind and sun; it’s just a weird snowpack.”
Steen was so concerned by the recent spate of close calls that he set up morning Zoom meetings, open to the public, to talk through the avalanche problems that seemed to be catching people again and again. He posted the link on Instagram. “I think the most common sociological thing that most people are going through right now is distraction, just kind of being in this limbo land where every day feels like a weekend,” he says. “So people aren’t following their routines like they usually would. There’s a slab over weak facets. It’s a slope-angle game. But people are guessing.”
As the first responders slowly slide the victim downslope, civilian and county rescuers converge on the scene. Hehir, Allen, and Sloan arrive from Ophir and immediately dig out a platform where they transition the victim to Allen’s sled. They wrap him in a sleeping bag and puffy jackets to keep him warm, then continue downhill. Though the victim remains conscious and coherent, the urgency is clear to everyone present. “He had several injuries that I thought were potentially life threatening,” Hehir says.
Shortly after taking the initial call from dispatch, Rector had called Shults to see about getting a helicopter to evacuate the victim by air. Helitrax was closed due to the pandemic, but one of the helicopters it uses, owned by Mountain Blade Runner, was still at the Telluride airport. Shults knows that if he can find a pilot, the victim’s survival odds will be substantially better. He calls one in Nucla, an hour and 15 minutes away, and the pilot says he’ll leave immediately. Rector, meanwhile, meets three dozen SAR members in Ophir. As the volunteers stand six feet apart awaiting orders, he dispatches a hasty team to the accident site with prescription painkillers. Others set out on snowmobiles and skis, carrying toboggans and other gear for a possible overland extraction if the helicopter falls through.
Throughout the response, COVID-19 remains the elephant in the room. Rector and his fellow deputies were issued hygiene kits to carry during the pandemic, including a mask and draping garments, and he says the plan was to send in a kit for the victim so that the rescuers would be protected. But the kit never gets opened. “I’ll be honest with you,” Rector says later. “That guy was dealing with some serious, multisystems trauma that was more pressing than our concerns for the virus—for better or worse. I’m not saying that’s the best approach. But we were focused on getting him out of there and ensuring that he didn’t bleed out on our watch, more so than we were worried about germs at that point.”
As the crowd of rescuers on scene grows, everyone works with their ski gloves on, in close proximity. Someone half-jokingly brings up social distancing, knowing it’s impossible right now. No one, according to the rescuers interviewed for this story, asks the patient if he has been sick recently. (Schroepfer told me his partner has remained healthy during the pandemic, though some carriers of the virus have been asymptomatic.)
As the rescuers move the victim toward a makeshift landing zone, he begins to fade. “You could see the life draining out of him,” Allen says. The victim tells Hehir that he’s having a hard time breathing, prompting Hehir to lean in and and place a stethoscope on the victim’s chest. The doctor listens; it doesn’t sound great. Hehir’s biggest concern all along has been the victim developing a tension pneumothorax, which results from a breached lung and can prove fatal relatively quickly. Air escapes from the lung into the chest cavity, and if enough air builds up it can compress the lung and create so much pressure that it prevents blood from flowing to the heart. The only way to treat it is by opening a hole in the side of the chest with a needle or scalpel, which is why Hehir grabbed both of those tools on his way out of his house.
Just as the victim’s breathing nears a dangerous state, the helicopter arrives. Rescuers lift and strap him into a seat with his legs hanging out of the open door. Hehir hops in the front. The chopper lifts off around 3:35 p.m. for the seven-minute flight to the Telluride airport.
While en route, the victim tries to talk to Hehir over the whirring rotors. “What’s wrong?” Hehir shouts. “It’s getting harder to breathe,” the victim says. The sleeping bag starts flapping at his feet and Hehir has to lean out of the ship and secure it from flying up into the rotors. At the airport, a flight crew transfers the victim to a waiting medevac chopper which transports him 90 miles north to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, the closest ICU.
Back at the accident scene, everyone mills around talking. Someone mentions social distancing again. People chuckle nervously and back away from each other. Only after they depart does the potential cost of their actions sink in. More than 50 people were involved with the rescue, from civilian first responders to professional air-medical crews, and many on scene worked close enough to breathe on each other. “It was a holy-shit moment when I realized the number of people, not only search-and-rescue but the bystanders and Ophirites, who were interacting closely, touching each other,” Schroepfer says. “That showed me the potential for danger in these situations more than just putting the stress on our emergency services. We’re all really healthy people in these mountain communities, and the strong and the mighty were the ones who showed up during the rescue. So they’re the ones who could have it and not know it.”
Jamie was similarly concerned: “The virus was definitely on my mind when I got home. I immediately stripped off all my clothes, threw them in the laundry, and took a shower. I scrubbed the hell out of my body.”
The impact this accident could have on public-land access, at a time when residents are clamoring for it, is not lost on anyone involved. Sheriff Bill Masters, who has been the top cop in Telluride for 40 years, is quoted in a Tuesday evening news release admonishing the backcountry community: “People need to use their friggin’ heads.” Still, he stopped short of saying the backcountry should be closed to avoid another rescue. “Frankly, we’ve talked to the Forest Service about closing certain sections,” he says, “but I don’t want to take that step. I think that would be a mistake. People should be able to get outside still.”
Nevertheless, later on Wednesday, San Miguel County posted no-parking signs on Ophir Road and sent out a text to residents that read, in part, “PLEASE DO YOUR PART AND DO NOT PROCEED INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY.” Masters says that the message still hinges on public cooperation. “To say we’re going to enforce that is incredible. We don’t have any staff to do that. We’re already down two deputies because they’re sick and can’t come to work”—a precautionary measure while he waits for their COVID-19 tests to be returned.
Jamie said the rescue felt like a tipping point, at least personally: “I’ve decided not to do any more backcountry skiing after this. Looking back, it’s hard to justify why I was even out there. I started feeling guilty standing around watching all the search and rescue members who’d responded.”
Schroepfer was similarly contrite. “I feel responsible,” he said by phone Friday. “Until that day I didn’t realize how many different ways the result of our actions could put people at risk in regard to the virus.” He stopped by Hehir’s house Wednesday evening to thank him and pick up his partner’s snowboard and backpack. The victim was in surgery Friday, Schroepfer said, but in good spirits considering his injuries—which turned out to be one broken femur along with numerous other fractures and internal trauma.
Neither Hehir nor Rector feels any malice toward the victim or his partner for the position they ended up in. Both rely on spending time in big mountains to balance their lives, even more during the pandemic. “I don’t think closing the backcountry is the best answer,” Rector says. As for future rescue calls, he adds, “We’re going to respond until I’m ordered not to.”
Hehir, meanwhile, had mixed emotions after two days of reflection. He views the response as an uplifting show of compassion and talent from a community rich with both, at a time when such reminders go far. Still, he recognizes the broader danger in what happened. “[The victim is] going to be in an ICU for probably a few days,” Hehir said from Telluride’s hospital Thursday morning. “So he’s running this risk of picking up the virus from another patient or another healthcare provider there. It hammers home how serious it is, and how getting this hurt could be really rough on a system.” As of Wednesday afternoon, St. Mary’s was treating 12 patients who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or were showing symptoms and awaiting tests.
“Everyone involved, absolutely, saved this guy’s life,” Hehir said. “He would not have lived if we hadn't gotten him out of there so fast.”
Just then Hehir was interrupted. Someone informed him that a 19-month-old patient was being rushed to the hospital with severe respiratory distress, one of the primary symptoms of COVID-19. He said goodbye, donned an N95 mask, gown, gloves, and faceshield and went back to work.