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Missing Durango man found dead on Blanca Peak

Vaughn Fetzer was a nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center and an experienced mountain climber
Vaughn Fetzer was last seen Sept. 18 while on Mount Blanca. His phone was last pinged by search and rescue teams that evening. Fetzer’s body was recovered Monday morning after a weeklong search, which was suspended after an accident Wednesday, conducted by search and rescue crews based in Alamosa, Costilla and Huerfano counties. (Courtesy of Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office)

A Durango man who had been missing for about a week near Blanca Peak in Alamosa County was found dead Monday on a treacherous portion of Colorado’s fourth highest peak.

The body of Vaughn Fetzer was recovered Monday by search and rescue teams from Alamosa, Costilla and Huerfano counties, said Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson. Fetzer was officially reported missing Sept. 20.

During the first four days of the search, rescue teams endured sub-freezing temperatures on the 14,351-foot Blanca Peak and traversed treacherous terrain containing large, loose boulders and near-vertical cliff faces, Jackson said.

Fetzer, 57, was a nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center who worked on the medical surgical floor, according to work colleague Tawny Borkowski.

“Vaughn is a loving, happy, energetic man with lots of love for the outdoors along with his passion in nursing,” Borkowski said in an email last week to The Durango Herald.

The sub-freezing elements led teams to believe the rescue mission was likely becoming a recovery operation, Jackson said.

Fetzer’s body was found in an area that was “very dangerous,” Jackson said.

“The rocks moved there all the time,” he said.

Early Monday, Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue members were taken into the area by a state Department of Fire Prevention and Control Helitack chopper. The crew scaled up to Fetzer’s body, placed it into a body bag and extracted it with the helicopter. From there, the body was turned over to the Costilla County deputy coroner.

It was a risky operation that resulted in one injury. On Wednesday, the Gunnison search and rescue team was moving over a scree field – a landscape covered in broken rock fragments – when multiple large boulders slipped loose and pinned a crew member’s leg.

To Jackson’s knowledge, the man did not suffer any broken or fractured bones. Other crew members were able to remove the boulders and rappel the injured man down several more scree fields to the area of Winchell Lakes, where an ambulance was waiting.

After the incident with the Gunnison crewman, the search and rescue teams and sheriff’s offices made a joint decision to suspend the search, Jackson said.

“Thursday, I talked to his sister,” Jackson said. “They (Fetzer and his sister) were estranged, but I talked to her in South Carolina, and she agreed with the decision they made.”

Jackson said Fetzer’s sister told him that Fetzer “died doing what he loved” and that she did not want anyone else’s life jeopardized by trying to rescue Fetzer’s body.

“Evidently just a great guy, a mountain climbing guy, and that’s what he lived for,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the incident involving the Gunnison crewman demonstrates how dangerous high-mountain search and rescue missions can be.

“Remember, some of this is almost vertical stuff, almost straight up and down,” he said. “... All these big, fancy search and rescue teams from the metro areas, they don’t understand how precipitous and vast this is. You can’t drive through any of this, you know? You’ve gotta be able to climb and be inserted by chopper.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

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