It took eight hours, 30 rescue workers and every inch of a 213-foot-long rope to pull a man to safety who plunged 212 feet off the side of a cliff while riding an all-terrain vehicle in the La Plata Mountains.
The crash was reported about 4:30 p.m. Saturday in an area known as the Notch, which is an old mining road that cuts through a ridgeline atop Kennebec Pass. The Notch, which is visible from Durango, has a sharp right turn as vehicles travel from west (La Plata Canyon) to east (Junction Creek drainage).
If drivers aren’t familiar with the road, are dealing with slick conditions or have low visibility, “you might miss that corner and get a surprise and end up where he ended up, which is through the notch as if he was not aware there was a right-hand turn,” said Ron Corkish, president of La Plata County Search and Rescue.
The 22-year-old man was also traveling in snowy conditions.
“It's tough in the summer, let alone with an inch or 3 (inches) of snow,” Corkish said.
Another person who was with the ATV rider immediately called 911, but the reception didn’t last long.
“The details were just super sketchy,” Corkish said. “All we started out with was, ‘I'm in La Plata Canyon with my friend and …’ and then nothing,” Corkish said.
Even though they didn’t have much to go on, search and rescue members began coordinating a rescue effort.
“We said, ‘Well, we know something's going on in the canyon or they wouldn't have called 911, so let's go find out what's going on in the canyon,’” Corkish said. “ … We don’t wait.”
After losing cellphone reception, the person who was with the ATV rider alerted other travelers of the accident. The good Samaritans headed down the mountain to find better cellphone reception and were able to better inform dispatchers of what had happened.
Remarkably, the man who drove off the edge of the road was also able to reach for his cellphone and place a 911 call, Corkish said. He ended up on the east side of the canyon, which has a more direct line of sight with a cellphone tower.
Adding to the complexity, the man was a Spanish speaker. Dispatchers had to rely on voice translation software to communicate with him, Corkish said. On the plus side, the man had 89% battery life, which meant dispatchers could keep in touch with him.
Many times, rescue workers are dealing with people who have low phone battery life, Corkish said. He said part of being prepared when recreating outdoors means having mostly charged devices.
“Kudos to the kid for having a cellphone charge,” he said.
The man, who was wearing a helmet, was alert and well-oriented while speaking with dispatchers. He suffered numerous injuries, including to his ribs, legs and back, but he fared fairly well given the nature of the accident.
“When you think of a guy going off a cliff 212 feet, I think he was doing pretty good,” Corkish said.
He described the mountainside as a 70-degree slope with two vertical sections that were 10-15 feet in height. Search and rescue members had several ropes about 197 feet long and one 213-foot rope – “and that was the difference,” Corkish said.
The crash occurred just before nightfall, so crews worked mostly in the dark. They set up high-powered lights to help them see over the edge. The ridge, at 12,000 feet in elevation, was largely socked in by clouds – called a cloud bank – and with temperatures dipping to 20 degrees, it created a fine mist of snow.
Occasionally, command crews stationed in Durango could see the lights through the cloud bank.
In addition to search and rescue, members from Durango Fire Protection District and Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District helped with the rescue.
The man was pulled to safety shortly after midnight – about eight hours after the crash.
“It took every bit of 30 folks to pull that off,” Corkish said.